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May 30. 2013 10:08PM

Former Salem teacher convicted in thefts

Stephen Pierce, 47, of Salem talks to his lawyer on Thursday in Rockingham County Superior Court during his plea and sentencing hearing on receiving stolen property charges. (JAMES A. KIMBLE/Union Leader Correspondent)

BRENTWOOD — A former Salem eighth-grade teacher convicted on Thursday of pawning more than $36,000 worth of jewelry he had stolen from the homes of friends and strangers told police he carried out the thefts to support his cocaine addiction.

Stephen Pierce, 47, pleaded guilty to two counts of receiving stolen property and began serving a 12-month sentence at the Rockingham County jail after apologizing in court for his actions.

Pierce, who fought back tears while addressing the court, publicly admitted to his drug addiction for the first time on Thursday, saying it was the motive behind roughly two years worth of stealing and pawning items beginning in January 2010.

"I think about how I affected so many people, especially (my) victims," Pierce said, adding, "I'm disgusted."

One victim said the total that Pierce had stolen from her home was $18,000, bringing the total theft closer to $51,000 in jewelry between the two victims.

Patricia Tierney of North Andover, Mass., said more than 25 pieces of jewelry, including family heirlooms and jewelry given to her on her wedding day, were taken while Pierce worked as a handyman at her home.

"Our landlord hired Mr. Pierce to do work outside our home," she said. "He called us on several occasions asking us if we would be home."

Pierce told her that he needed to do some work at the home, but Tierney said she now believes Pierce used a key to loot a bedroom safe of its jewelry.

Only $3,300 worth of Tierney's jewelry was found at a Salem pawn shop. Pierce was only prosecuted for what was found by Salem police.

Tierney wanted Pierce to serve the maximum punishment, a 7½- to 15-year state prison sentence.

Pierce was an eighth-grade teacher at Woodbury School when he was charged by Salem police last April 30 with stealing a Nikon D60 camera from a school yearbook program and selling it to a pawn shop in Salem.

Pierce pleaded guilty to the camera theft in district court and received a suspended jail sentence.

News of that theft prompted an Atkinson couple, who were Pierce's longtime friends, to check on their valuables, leading them to discover $33,225 in jewelry was missing.

Salem police found 42 pawn slips related to those thefts. The couple, Paul and Abigail Pandelena, told prosecutors that they had been friends with Pierce for more than a decade and gave him a key to their home.

At times, they too would get phone calls from Pierce, asking "Where are you? What are you doing?" Assistant County Attorney Brad Bolton said.

Judge Marguerite Wageling said she had no doubt Pierce had stolen other missing jewelry belonging to Tierney and that it was likely pawned outside of the state.

She chastised Pierce for his deception and said: "You did it to people who trusted you. These were not strangers. These were people you took advantage of. As you have already very appropriately commented, you lied every day about your addiction."

Wageling rejected the defense argument to only jail Pierce for three months.

"What I am doing is similar to what a teacher has to do," she said. "I have to try to bring F students up to an A student."

Public defender Christine List said that once Pierce was arrested, he was completely forthcoming about his nearly two-year history of thefts and the cocaine addiction that motivated it.

"Overall, he is hopeful these 18 months are not going to define him for life," List said.

She said his client lost his job and is now divorced from his wife as a result of the charges.

Pierce checked himself into Hampstead Hospital and has remained sober since the day of his arrest last year. List said her client hopes he will be able to move on with his life and continue with his rehabilitation, despite losing so much, including his job.

"It's difficult for him because it's a job he loved and cared about," she said.

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