EXCLUSIVE: Tracking down a contractor

February 4, 2009 6:12:43 PM PST
There is a widening criminal investigation in New Jersey into a contractor who's already been arrested once for leaving a homeowner in the lurch.He's accused of taking thousands of dollars, starting jobs and then disappearing. But he couldn't hide forever, and the Eyewitness News Investigators tracked him down.

Francisco Monterroso has been arrested and charged with taking money and failing to do renovation work. And now, the Howell, New Jersey man faces a whole new round of accusations by devastated homeowners.

We found Monterroso leaving a house that's being remodeled just a few miles away from where he was arrested in June for taking Jackie Jackson's money in South Plainfield, New Jersey.

"Both emotional and financially, it's turned our life upside down," Jackson said.

She says her backyard was left in shambles by Monterroso's company, American Trimmer. Jackie, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, can't maneuver through the rubble.

"They ripped up our backyard and disappeared," she said. "They have been missing in action for over a year."

Jackie's close friend, Sandy Conroy, who lives nearby in Piscataway and also has MS, is even more financially devastated by her dealings with Monterroso.

Sandy says she hired Monterroso more than a year ago to make her home more handicap accessible. Now, only two rooms are usable.

"I don't have a sink in my kitchen," she said. "I paid the contractor $175,000...All of my savings is gone. I have $300 left in my savings."

She says Monterroso stopped showing up, and then his workers, who he wasn't paying.

"I have wires hanging out everywhere," she said. "I have no electricity on the right side of my house...It's going to come to $210,000" to redo the work.

"He just basically just took the money and ran," Sandy's son, Michael, said. "He did all this damage to my property and never came back."

Michael also hired Monterroso around the same time to put an addition on the basement.

Michael: "As you can see, there are no re-bars here. The walls are crooked. There is so much damage here I can't begin to describe it...They damaged the deck completely. It's collapsing, it's starting to lift up."
The Investigators' Sarah Wallace: "How much is it going to cost you to fix this?"
Michael: "Basically the total to fix this it's gonna cost me $65,000."
Sarah: "And how much have you already spent?"
Michael: "$65,000."
Sarah: "Are you going to be able to afford to fix this?"
Michael: "I don't think so."

Robert Budham's says he's been trying to get Monterroso to finish his basement for months after paying him nearly $200,000 for work, inside and out.

Budham (on his garage): "He dug a hole and just left."
Sarah: "How do you look at him?"
Budham: "Geez, just a crook."

Plainfield police officer Joe Puchel got a judgment against Monterroso for renovation work on his house he says wasn't done, but he hasn't been able to collect.

"He sold me a bill of goods," Puchel said. "And I don't see him no more. He is non-existent, he is hiding."

Hiding in plain sight.

We confronted Monterroso, who is legally not supposed to be doing any contracting work. Witnesses say they've seen him at a renovation job for the past several days, and took photos.

"You see these stories on television all the time, and you never think it can happen to you," Sandy said. "But it can."

All of the complaints, including the criminal one from South Plainfield, have now been referred to the Middlesex County prosecutor. Sources say the case will likely be presented to a grand jury in the very near future.

Tips if you hire a home improvement contractor:

  • Make sure the contractor is registered or licensed with the State Department of Consumer Affairs.

  • Check to see that the contractor has gotten all state and local building permits and that they are issued before work is started.

  • Make sure everything is in writing (do not accept verbal promises). The contract should include the date or time period that the work is to begin and be completed. In some states, like New Jersey, it is the law.

  • Don't pay too far in advance. Payment should be on par with the work being performed. Don't be persuaded to pay in full when 50 percent of the job is still unfinished.

  • Check to see if the contractor's insurance is paid and up to date. Make sure the insurance covers the particular work the contractor is doing (for instance, carpentry or masonry).

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    STORY BY: The Investigators' Sarah Wallace

    WEB PRODUCED BY: Bill King

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