NORRISTOWN — A Philadelphia man who tampered with utility meters to reduce some account holders’ monthly PECO electrical bills, to the tune of nearly $350,000, could generate some jail time in connection with the five-county theft scheme.
Marcelino Cuadra Jr., 46, of Aramingo Avenue, pleaded guilty in Montgomery County Court on Monday to charges of corrupt organizations, theft of services and conspiracy to commit theft of services in connection with the meter tampering incidents that occurred in Montgomery, Chester, Bucks, Delaware and Philadelphia counties between December 2009 and October 2012.
Judge Garrett D. Page deferred sentencing so that court officials can complete a background investigative report about Cuadra, who remains free on bail pending sentencing. The open plea means Cuadra has no deals with prosecutors regarding a possible sentence. Cuadra faces a possible maximum sentence of 17 to 34 years in prison on the charges.
“Basically, the defendant was going to several businesses and homes and manipulating the meters and tampering with the meters so that the meters would read less, or at times nothing at all, and in return the homeowners and business owners would pay him to do so,” alleged Assistant District Attorney Sophia Polites, explaining the nature of Cuadra’s guilty plea.
Account holders who participated in the scheme with Cuadra also were charged and are awaiting court action on similar theft-related charges.
“This is a serious loss to PECO. It’s a significant amount of money and it happened over a significant period of time,” Polites said.
Court papers do not indicate how much Cuadra was paid by account holders to manipulate the meters.
An investigation began in July 2010 when PECO, an Exelon Company and the primary provider of electricity in the Philadelphia region, reported to state police that company fraud investigators “discovered suspicious irregular electricity usage patterns on numerous business and residential PECO accounts located in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties,” according to an arrest affidavit.
“Based on their experience, these irregular electricity usage patterns are indicative of meter tampering,” state police Trooper Kelly Pearson alleged in the criminal complaint. “The apparent purpose of meter tampering is to cause the meter to stop or reduce the registering of electric usage on the account, thus reducing the account holder’s monthly PECO electric bill.”
PECO officials told police that tampering with electrical service is “extremely dangerous” and creates a hazardous condition to include fire or explosion, according to court papers.
Investigators, who conducted field investigations of the suspected accounts, subsequently identified 25 separate PECO accounts in the five-county area that showed evidence of tampering, according to court papers. The electric thefts totaled $346,750, according to the criminal complaint.
During the investigation, authorities developed Cuadra as a suspect.
“The defendant stated he was paid money by each specific account holder to ‘fix’ their electric meter so that their monthly PECO electric usage bill would be reduced,” Pearson alleged. “The defendant stated both he and the account holder knew what they were doing was illegal and causing a theft of services to PECO.”
Authorities said Cuadra was not a PECO employee, nor was he a licensed electrician, and he had no training to conduct any type of maintenance on utility meters. Cuadra allegedly admitted to buying the specialized tools that allowed him to tamper with the meters, according to court documents.
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