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Big Buyer Horror Story? Corrupt Contractors

A seemingly trustworthy SW Fla. construction company allegedly defrauded dozens of retirees. After it stopped building, the vendors sued the homebuyers.

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. – Dozens of retirees allege they were defrauded out of millions of dollars by two owners of a Southwest Florida home construction company.

Now, their four-year wait for justice has hit another delay.

Matthew Harden, a certified building contractor who oversaw construction projects for HD Custom Homes, was expected to appear in Charlotte County Court on Jan. 31 for trial before Circuit Judge Donald Mason. Then Harden’s Charleston-based attorney, David Aylor, died a few days into the new year, according to news reports and a statement made on his law firm’s website. A new Feb. 6 court hearing has been scheduled.

Charlotte County Sheriff’s officials announced in September 2020 that Harden and his business partner, Stephen Dukes, were each charged with one felony count of scheming to defraud and 12 counts of misapplication of construction funds.

Both men have separate cases pending against them in the 20th Judicial Circuit Court, and in May 2022, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody also filed a lawsuit against Dukes, Harden and HD Custom Homes after receiving and reviewing some 33 consumer complaints.

The majority of those who contracted with HD Custom Homes were seniors or retired veterans. The consumer complaint alleges $7.8 million in losses.

Four victims speak up

Lynn LeBoutillier, Evelyne Peters, Robin Cyphert and Harriet Zimmerman hadn’t known each other when they all planned to move to Florida for retirement in 2017 and 2018. Yet, as the four sat around LeBoutillier’s outdoor dining table at her home in North Port in January, they acted as if they had been friends for decades.

Their shared experience of losing tens of thousands of dollars – the stress of their retirement homes not being completed when HD Custom Homes closed its doors in late 2018 – and a stream of liens filed against them by subcontractors bound them together.

“We came down here for the good life of Florida,” Peters said. “We’ve finally come to a point where we can retire. You think you’ll get yourself a nice home in the beautiful weather and start living your life. Well, some of us, literally our pension fund has been completely taken from us.”

Peters said she lost some $132,000, and court documents show that those involved in the 12 cases of misapplication funds lost anywhere between $1,000 and $89,000. Peters, LeBoutillier and Zimmerman added some people lost as much as $200,000.

LeBoutillier and her husband, Kent, were ready to trade in the cold Maine winters for warm year-round sunshine when they started looking for homes in the area in 2017. LeBoutillier, a retired mixologist, said she and her husband came down with the intention of buying a home, but ended up connecting with HD Custom Homes after not finding one that met their needs.

Zimmerman, a registered nurse, and her husband were retiring from Virginia in 2017 when they began looking for a home or lot in the area and were suggested to use HD Custom Homes as contractors.

When the couples signed on as clients and during the building process, not much really seemed amiss.

Zimmerman said that the only indication anything could have been wrong was when family members who lived in the area would drive past the lot where the house was being built, and it seemed like not much was getting done. It wasn’t until soon before HD Custom Homes shut down that its clients were alerted that something was wrong.

The postcard

Peters had just returned from a vacation in 2018 when she opened her mail to find a small white postcard with HD Haters United written across it. On the back, a warning: Be concerned, HD Custom Homes is about to go under.

The postcard had been sent to most, if not all, of HD Custom Homes’ clients, and they still don’t know who sent it to them.

Then, around Thanksgiving 2018, HD Custom Homes abruptly closed its doors, leaving many of the homes unfinished.

Cyphert, a retired RN from a university hospital in Alabama, said she and her husband, Daniel, were fortunate in a sense, HD Custom Homes hadn’t touched a blade of grass on their lot.

“They didn’t do anything,” Cyphert said. “Even though, right before they went out of business, they called and asked us for $6,000 to put dirt on the property. I say fortunate because we weren’t in the middle of a build when they just walked away.”

Then the liens started filing in. White envelopes with a bright green stripe across the top were delivered to those Harden and Dukes had left with partially built homes.

At least 12 or 13 couples were able to get some money back through the Florida Homeowners’ Construction Recovery Fund, a special account set up by the Florida Legislature in 1993 to compensate those who suffer monetary damages as a result of violations by licensed contractors. However, the fund will only pay an individual up to $50,000, with a total aggregate cap of $500,000 per contractor.

Expected delays

The Florida Attorney General’s lawsuit has a potential trial set for this August. However, the trial could be pushed to November, according to an agreed case management plan.

Tracey Redd, a local attorney also representing Harden, declined to comment since the case against Harden is still pending. Redd did confirm that they are prepared for a trial.

Dukes’ attorney, Terry McCreary, was unavailable to comment, according to a receptionist who answered the phone.

While the two criminal cases against Dukes and Harden only list 12 instances of misapplication of construction funds and Moody’s case lists 33 consumer complaints, there could be as many as 58 cases where retired couples or individuals were allegedly schemed out of their savings and homes, according to the four victims who sat down to speak with the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Seeing justice served, warning others

The four women know they’ll probably never see a single penny lost, even if the cases are won in court. For them, there’s justice in knowing that their stories can help raise awareness.

“We don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” Zimmerman said. “The state really needs to change whatever laws they need to change.”

The women felt like they were targeted: Most of those who lost money were from out of state and on the brink of retirement, but not in a rush to get down to Florida just yet. Many didn’t have connections in the area, relying on Dukes and Harden’s word on how everything was progressing.

They’re also not sure what more they could have done to prevent being scammed. Looking back, they now see some of the red flags.

“At the end of the day, I think we all realize we can’t get anything back,” Peters said. “There’s no financial gain in this, but it would be nice to think justice would be served.”

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