Sept. 4 2018 12:13 AM

Judge says man was running “basically a pyramid scheme.”

Unlicensed scammers who pose as landscape professionals put honest, licensed contractors in an unfairly bad light. At least one of these criminals is going to prison.

Paul Kauranen, 59, of Walpole, Massachusetts, was sentenced to at least 5 ½ years in state prison after pleading guilty to 30 counts, including a charge of being “a common and notorious thief,” according to a story on the Salem News website.

Salem Superior Court Judge Thomas Drechsler ordered him to serve between 5 ½ and 6 ½ years, followed by five years of probation. He’s also required to pay $633,000 in restitution to 18 homeowners who’d hired him for projects all over eastern Massachusetts.

“While we sought a longer sentence, this is a serious state prison sentence that reflects the fact that this repeat offender has had no hesitation in stealing tens of thousands (of dollars) from families across the commonwealth,” District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett said in a press release.

“Leniency over the last 30 years returned this career criminal to the street time and again, putting him in a position to continue to steal, this time taking over $600,000 from hardworking people who wanted to improve their homes.”

Kauranen admitted to a long list of offenses, including money laundering, felony larceny, identity fraud, forgery, uttering a forged instrument and falsely claiming to be a licensed landscape architect and engineer.

His business, Allure Design, had what one of his victims called a “slick” website. It featured photos and bios of actual licensed landscape architects and engineers whom the prosecutors said had no connection to the business whatsoever. He also bragged of awards and credentials he didn’t have.

When people hired Kauranen, he’d frequently demand as much as 40 percent of the project costs up front. But after digging up yards and demolishing stairs and driveways, he pulled a disappearing act. Some of his victims were families with young children who, left with torn-up yards full of dirt, had to get home equity loans to fund repairs.

Other victims described how Kauranen would accompany them to a nursery to pick out shrubbery and trees and take their cash to pay for the items. After the homeowner left, Kauranen would simply pocket the money.

In a victim-impact statement, one couple reported that when they told him they were thinking of suing him, he responded with threats of violence.

Four of Kauranen’s victims were present for his sentencing, including a Belmont couple who’d saved for years to have their front steps replaced so their elderly parents could safely visit them again.

During earlier proceedings, many of the victims complained they’d been unable to get help from local police or the state Attorney General’s office, and were told repeatedly that the problem was a matter for the civil courts.

However, as more victims were identified, Shrewsbury police officer Kevin Warwick began putting the pieces of the scheme together. Working alongside Sgt. Robert LaBarge of the state police and police in Newburyport and Middleton, he discovered more victims all over the eastern end of the state.

Prosecutor Philip Mallard persuaded a grand jury last fall that Kauranen was acting with criminal intent when he convinced homeowners to hire him.

Kauranen’s attorney Brendan Kelley urged Drechsler for a shorter sentence, blaming a substance abuse problem for the defendant’s crimes. The judge said that he took into account both Kauranen’s early acceptance of responsibility but also his long criminal record and past jail terms, none of which stopped him from reoffending.