Home improvement fraud victim left hanging | Local News


LONDONDERRY — After waiting years for justice in a home improvement fraud case, Ron Gillespie is reluctant about those he gets into business with now. 

His advice is to work only with well-established contractors. But he acknowledged this approach can hurt new contractors trying to get a foothold in the field. 

“Certainly getting a recommendation is always helpful,” he said. “However, in this case, this guy has a Facebook page with good reviews. This guy was also a recommendation from Angie’s List. This was short lived and his name has been removed.”

Currently, Gillespie is trying to get a garage built at his Londonderry home where he lives part time. He said he’s having a difficult time finding Vermont contractors willing to provide timely quotes or realistic pricing. 

For the job, he plans to bring in “vetted” contractors from outside the state. 

“This hurts Vermont’s labor force and economy,” he said. 

He’s recommended to others that they wait for the COVID and post-COVID demands to subside and establish deposits so they have enough leverage on the contractors. He said it would be helpful if the state would get involved, perhaps by requiring contractors to get a license and have a way for customers to file complaints in a way that’s visible to the public. 

The Attorney General’s Office publishes a list of contractors convicted of home improvement fraud at ago.vermont.gov/cap/home-improvement-fraud-registry. Documenting requests and the status of projects is important for building a case, the AG’s office said. Complaints can be made to the Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) via ago.vermont.gov/home-improvements. 

Gillespie said that if his case is “a measure of how ineffective the Vermont court system is, I would be very concerned about the state’s ability to protect its citizens.”

“I thought my complaint would be straightforward and an easy one for the Vermont court system to enforce, but I was wrong,” he said. 

He recounted entering into a contract with house painter Robert Merrill in April 2020. After more than two years of “no shows,” Gillespie filed a complaint with the Vermont State Police in July 2022. 

Gillespie claims that when he told Merrill he was going to the State Police, he responded, this was “a civil matter and good luck with that.” His complaint did, however, lead to Merrill being cited in criminal court for home improvement fraud. 

When a trooper met with Merrill at his residence in Windsor in June 2022, Merrill admitted to cashing the checks and never completing the painting job as agreed to in the written contract, according to the charging affidavit. Merrill told police his business experienced some difficulties due to the pandemic and he would like to pay the victim back once he receives a paycheck from another painting job.

Gillespie said the two checks Merrill deposited totaled $2,686. 

“It has been almost two years … but the court system seems more concerned about bending over backwards for a contractor that has already admitted his guilt versus my rights as a victim,” he said. “Vermont law provides crime victims with certain rights including ‘the right to speedy prosecution.'”

Merrill has missed several court appearances or has shown up unprepared, Gillespie said. An arrest warrant was issued when Merrill failed to show up for arraignment in July 2022 and again on March 25 when he didn’t attend a pre-trial conference. 

Gillespie said staff at the State’s Attorney’s Office told him that police wouldn’t be actively searching for Merrill. 

“The courts have gone out of their way to accommodate him with little or no concern about the rights of the victim,” Gillespie said. “If Vermont is wondering why they have such a backlog of cases or a high rate of home improvement fraud, maybe some of it is caused by over-accommodating shady contractors who have learned how to abuse the court system in their favor.”

Gillespie commended the State Police, attorney general and prosecutor for their work on the matter. Now, he said, “it’s time the court system got their job done as well.”

“I totally understand the frustration that Mr. Gillespie is feeling,” Deputy State’s Attorney Steven Brown said. “This case, like hundreds of other cases if not perhaps over 1,000 cases in Vermont, is slowly winding its way through the court system. There is a backlog of cases that need attention, that need trial time.” 

Prosecutors and courts have “a limited amount of resources,” Brown said. He advises Gillespie and others to have patience. 

“We are working these cases through as fast as we can,” Brown said. “It’s really a discretion for the Legislature about how they are allocating resources to the criminal justice system.” 

Merrill was arrested April 1. His pretrial conference is scheduled for April 29. 

Brown said arrest warrants are sent to the Vermont State Police and entered into a database so if police stop a defendant for speeding or have another interaction, the warrant will appear and police can make an arrest. He noted there are warrants in cases where police are actively seeking a defendant. 

Police need to make decisions based on resource allocation, Brown said. 

“Most agencies are dealing with staffing issues,” he said, “so there’s a finite amount of resources available.”

Records requested by the Reformer show Vermont has 14,524 pending felony and misdemeanor cases, and 4,728 outstanding warrants in which some may be for multiple cases and are only counted once in this total. The records were provided Wednesday morning. 

Lauren Jandl, chief of staff at the Attorney General’s Office, said current priorities of the attorney general involve “the prosecution of complex violent crimes, including murder, sexual assault, domestic violence, child abuse and exploitation, and neglect and abuse of vulnerable adults.”

“The Attorney General’s Office also handles non-violent crimes, including home improvement fraud, from time to time,” Jandl said. “The attorney general and our Consumer Assistance Program have invested in providing education and outreach to homeowners and contractors, including hiring a home improvement specialist last year, to help avoid problems in the first place and to work out problems when they happen.” 

Jandl said the home improvement specialist has been on the job for just six months and has already returned or saved Vermonters more than $400,000 in more than 50 disputes by informally resolving disputes between homeowners. The specialist also has engaged in outreach and education efforts with the contracting community to alert them to new registration requirements under Vermont law, and provided homeowners with tips and information on how to find a qualified contractor. 

CAP receives about 100 home improvement-related complaints annually with total reported losses of about $1 million per year.

“These complaints include stolen deposits, failure to perform, and quality of work disputes,” Jandl said. “Criminal matters are referred to law enforcement. For others, CAP assists in letter mediation, helping parties communicate and resolve the complaint. If there is a violation of the Vermont Consumer Protection Act, CAP refers the complaint to the Attorney General’s Office’s Consumer Unit.”

An assistant attorney general is stationed at CAP and enforces home improvement fraud civilly, Jandl said. She noted most home improvement complaints are dealt with via mediation. 

In a recent op-ed, Vermont Attorney General Charity Clark suggested using Vermont’s residential contractor registries to make informed decisions. She recommended searching a contractor’s name online with “scam” or “complaint,” reviewing the Better Business Bureau’s complaint history, and contacting the Consumer Assistance Program and asking if any complaints have been filed about the person. Other tips include asking contractors to show their active registration and insurance policy, and getting quotes from two to three other reputable contractors and asking for references.

“In a perfect world, homeowners and contractors work hand in hand to complete projects on time and on budget, adding value to homes and local economies,” Clark wrote. “Unfortunately, sometimes things don’t go as planned. That’s where my office can help.”


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