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I-Team: Why are Maine crime victims not getting money they're owed?

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STATEWIDE (WGME) -- The I-Team investigates and discovers thousands of crime victims in Maine are owed millions of dollars but aren't getting it.

Court-ordered restitution is a key pillar of the justice system; someone commits a crime and the judge says he or she has to pay you back for what was broken or stolen.

We found thousands of crime victims in Maine are owed millions of dollars and records reveal it can take months or years for you to get your money if you ever even get it at all.

Two years ago 30-year-old Gary Choate was caught stealing copper tubing from his neighbor's home in Jay.

"I have a heating business so over the years I saved up all my copper behind my garage on my property. He stole a lot of copper -- 12 or 13 years worth," said victim Mike Bibeau.

According to a police report, Choate admitted he stole the copper from Bibeau and sold it to a metal shop.

Choate was found guilty of theft last January.

"Thing went to court. I got awarded $8,000 restitution. I think I've seen $675 or a little over that," Bibeau said.

Records in Franklin County court show Choate is supposed to pay $100 a month, but he stopped making payments 6 months ago.

"He's out running around and owes me a bunch of money. $100 dollars a month, that's $25 a week. Anyone can make $25 in a day by mowing a lawn," Bibeau said.

Choate didn't respond when the I-Team left a message on his cell phone and no one came to the door at his last known address in Farmington.

According to court records, police are also looking for him because he's violated the terms of his probation by not paying restitution.

"It's a really long road for many victims," said Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, who also heads the Maine Prosecutors' Association.

Offices like hers across the state are responsible for collecting restitution and then sending it to victims.

It's hard to know exactly how much is owed in Maine because there's no report or database adding it all up.

Maloney estimates the amount owned to victims in just Kennebec County alone could be as much as $10 million.

"It bothers me that it's the victims that are the ones who are really victimized all over again," Maloney said.

One open restitution case in her office goes back to 2002.

It's a theft case where the defendant was ordered to pay $363,483 dollars back to 32 victims.

Fifteen years later the file shows each victim has received an average of just $39.

"The problem is there's no pool of money to make the victim whole immediately so victims have to wait sometimes years, sometimes decades," Maloney said.

Maloney would like to change that by funding an account that could be used to pay victims back as soon as the judge orders restitution.

The account would be replenished as defendants make payments.

"That's really what victims need. They need to be paid right away, having them wait for the defendant to pay is a very unfair system," Maloney said.

Maloney wants to work with the legislature to explore funding options to pay victims back more quickly.

She envisions something like the state's victim compensation fund, which provides some financial help for victims and family members of violent crimes.

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