Gwendolyn Dixon, 83, hasn’t been able to live in her East Orange home since it was severely damaged in a fire in March 2016.
She says she was Bamboozled by not just one, but two contractors hired to repair her home. One could be headed to jail. The other still has a chance to make it right.
The first contractor — Michael Solise of Clean Air USA — once did work on Dixon’s roof, so Dixon figured he was reputable. She hired him to fix the fire damage.
Solise agreed to do the job for the insurance payout of $84,200, according to the contract. He said the job would be done in two weeks, Dixon said.
Solise received the first insurance check for nearly $30,000, and he told Dixon he would start the work, she said.
But after delays, Dixon got suspicious. She learned Solise never applied for the required permits, and his business address was a furniture store where Solise used to work.
And he stopped answering her phone calls.
Dixon filed a police report and a complaint with Consumer Affairs.
When we reached Solise, he made some excuses and hung up the phone.
Then he disappeared.
Consumer Affairs investigated, and prepared a Notice of Violation against Solise in December 2016. It assessed $29,579.35 in consumer restitution and $6,250 in civil penalties for acting as an unregistered contractor and other violations of New Jersey’s Consumer Fraud Act, Contractors Registration Act and Home Improvement Regulations, a spokeswoman said.
She said the division hasn’t served Solise because despite multiple attempts, investigators have been unable to locate him. But they’ll keep trying, she said.
Then we learned Solise came to the attention of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office.
Dixon received a request to appear before a grand jury to tell her story about Solise.
“He has been charged with third degree theft by deception and we are preparing the case to go to the grand jury,” a court spokeswoman said. “He is a fugitive.”
THE SECOND CONTRACTOR
What’s happening to Solise should be of interest to Dixon’s new contractor — Sulaimun Jenkins, whose business goes by Y&N Construction and 5 Star Restoration Services.
He agreed to take the Dixon job for $58,900, just a few thousand dollars more than the remaining insurance money, documents show.
According to Dixon, Jenkins, who has a valid Home Improvement Contractor registration with the state, has been dragging his feet since October, even after receiving all the money in the contract.
“At first he said he was putting his own money into it, bringing in one man here and there to do a little bit of this and that,” Dixon said.
Dixon, not wanting to get fleeced again, was reluctant to sign over any insurance checks.
“I called the insurance company and said he didn’t complete the work, but they said I had to sign the check,” Dixon said.
So Jenkins got paid.
There was no end date on the contract — something required by law — but Dixon said Jenkins promised the home would be ready in December.
“He was bringing people in off the street to do work,” Dixon said.
Come December, there was more left undone than was completed, Dixon said.
Among the problems, she said: Windows and doors weren’t replaced, a bathroom was missing a plumbing hookup for the toilet, gas lines were closed in behind sheet rock, electrical work was incomplete and more. Dixon said there was a mess of trash and tools in her basement, backyard and on her front porch.
Jenkins did replace the kitchen counter top, but it was well over an inch too short. One can see directly into the cabinet below.
Dixon said she had to hire someone else to board up the windows to protect the home from the winter weather.
Throughout the winter, Dixon said, Jenkins often didn’t answer her calls or show up when he said he would.
At one point, Jenkins said he was waiting for an inspection, Dixon said.
Dixon called the building inspector and learned there had been one inspection, but the work wasn’t complete so the town was waiting for the contractor to call for another inspection.
Exasperated, Dixon asked Bamboozled to help.
We reviewed photos of the home, the contract and other records. We also checked public records on Jenkins, finding bankruptcy filings and state and federal tax liens.
We contacted Dixon’s mortgage company, Financial Freedom, and her insurer, National General.
Both pointed fingers at each other, but National General sent the adjuster to the home.
“He was shocked,” Dixon said.
She said the adjuster told her that when he met the contractor previously, Jenkins said he was only supposed to fix two rooms and that the job was 99 percent finished.
The insurance company apparently okayed the release of money based on a lie told by the contractor, Dixon said, noting no one called her to confirm the job was near complete.
While Dixon filed a new complaint with Consumer Affairs, we asked several insurance organizations if it’s common practice to take the word of a contractor and not ask the homeowner if the homeowner is satisfied with the job before paying money out.
“It is customary for the adjuster to deal with the homeowner rather than the contractor,” said Jim Whittle of the American Insurance Association. “Situations can differ and there may be instances when an insurer deals with the contractor but most of the time, an adjuster deals with the homeowner.”
We told Dixon to file a complaint with the Department of Banking and Insurance (DOBI), seeing that the adjuster may have made a grave error.
Either way, Jenkins was far behind on the job.
We gave him a call to share Dixon’s concerns.
Jenkins said the to-do list “was not significant” and he promised to “rectify anything that needs to be fixed.”
He said he would return to the home later in the week — by then it was the middle of June.
Jenkins promised to call with an update the following week.
He never called us, but he did — sort of — stay in contact with Dixon.
“I’ve been trying to give him the benefit of the doubt,” she said. “He said he would have it in order in three days.”
That didn’t happen.
What followed was a series of days when Jenkins was a no-show, Dixon said. Other days, Dixon said, Jenkins brought a worker or two but Jenkins would leave, and the workers didn’t accomplish much of anything, she said.
For example, on July 5 at 9 a.m., Dixon said, Jenkins dropped off a worker who said he was supposed to paint a bathroom. He ran out of paint. The worker waited on the front porch until 8:55 p.m., which is when Jenkins picked up the worker, Dixon said.
Then on July 10, Jenkins dropped two workers at the house, Dixon said.
“One was sitting on the porch all day while the other was fumbling to try to install a door,” Dixon said.
Another day, Dixon said, Jenkins and a worker took garbage cans filled with tools and other items to a rented truck.
“The place is a wreck. He hasn’t even made a dent in what needs to be done,” she said. “Every day he actually comes, he leaves to get something and then he doesn’t come back except to pick up the workers.”
Through the weeks, we called Jenkins multiple times for an update, but he never returned our calls.
We let Consumer Affairs know it might have an opportunity to chat with Jenkins if an investigator wanted to stop by the home.
Someone came by last week, Dixon said, taking photos and helping Dixon finalize her complaint.
Jenkins was not there at the time.
That same day, Dixon received a letter saying she was to testify before a grand jury in the Solise matter — a pleasant surprise.
“They don’t have him yet,” Dixon said. “But [the prosecutor’s office] said this will mean when they do catch him, they will be able to get him.”
If they get an indictment, that is.
On Friday, Dixon said, she was surprised again, this time by a call from Jenkins. He promised to work through the weekend and on Monday to complete the job. On Sunday, Dixon said it seemed like Jenkins was keeping his word.
Why the sudden change?
Turns out he got a call from Consumer Affairs late last week. We don’t have the details of the conversation, but we hope investigators motivated Jenkins by sharing what’s happening to Dixon’s first contractor.
We’ll let you know how this story ends.