Julie Cook retired to what she assumed would be the bucolic peace of 22 acres at Third Gate, west of Willits. She jokes that she's "the only person at Third Gate who isn't in the marijuana business." But the marijuana people don't concern her. She likes her neighbors, likes Willits, likes Mendocino County, but does not like what happened to her after she was majorly ripped off by two local men working under an expired contractor's license.
The less skilled carpenter of the two, Brian Bleecker, "Started off doing handyman work for me," Julie recalls. "Minor stuff that was ok." When the former insurance agent and owner of her own business, mentioned to Bleecker that she'd like to build a cottage so relatives and old friends could comfortably visit, Bleecker's partner, Steve Hoehn, the man who possessed what appeared to be a valid contractor's license, quickly agreed to design a cottage with a sleeping loft. Hoehn said he and Bleecker could get 'er done for $44,842. Hoehn produced the plan, and Bleecker provided a proposal on letterhead representing himself as North Coast Renovations Inc. at 540 West Mendocino Avenue, Willits. The letterhead also provided Hoehn's license number. Julie herself found the names of reputable local people who vouched for Bleecker and Hoehn's work.
Julie Cook had every reason to think she was in good hands. "It was all there," she recalls. "A local business address, a contractor's license number, a couple of people vouching for his work. And some small jobs they had completed and done well. Why would I be suspicious?"
The construction of Julie's cottage was to be done in two stages. Initially, it would be framed out, siding erected, the roof put on, doors and windows installed. Although incomplete, the little structure would be ready to withstand the rigors of the winter. The second stage, scheduled for Spring, would finish the job. "I'm retired after all," Julie explains, "and I didn't have a lump sum and wasn't in a rush."
Work commenced in the middle of June of 2014 with both men on the job, the more experienced Hoehn directing the less experienced Bleecker. Everything seemed to be proceeding normally until, apparently, the two men, who were romantically involved, seemed to suffer a serious falling out. Hoehn stopped showing up, work slowed, then slowed more.
The project seemed, however, close to reaching its halfway completion mark. Half of the money had been spent, but Bleecker said everything would be ready for winter at the half way mark but, when Julie talked with Bleecker about ensuring that the cabin would be halfway finished by winter, Bleecker told Julie he was bidding on some very large jobs, and if he got one of those big projects he might not be able to start Julie's job back up in the Spring. Bleecker said he wanted to continue working on her cabin and get it all wrapped up. Now.
Julie borrowed money to keep Bleecker laboring away. At least she thought he was laboring away. She'd been paying him to labor away.
But, Julie recalls, "Work slowed down considerably at this point. Hoehn was not showing up at all, and Bleecker would show but it was not evident what he was doing."
While the now glacial pace of the work concerned Julie, she felt that since she had a contract with a licensed entity she was safe. There was the Contractor's License Board to go to if her contract was not honored.
"What became evident, though," Julie says, "is that Bleecker had many things started but nothing completed. He continued to ask for money to finish some of the things that were started. But I didn't see any of the materials he was buying. When I asked where the materials were, Bleecker said he was a listed contractor with Friedman's and could store materials there until they were needed."
Julie, by now entirely dubious, promptly called Friedman's and was told that Bleecker was indeed listed with them as a licensed contractor, but the Ukiah mega-materials outlet would not tell Julie what Bleecker had purchased or if any of it was in fact stored with them.
It was now December of 2014 and most of the contracted money had been spent. Julie asked Bleecker when he would be finished with the job. The blithe reply was that he'd be done by the second week in January. Julie Cook would have her guest cabin to begin the new year with.
At that point, an entirely skeptical Ms. Cook brought in a male friend who had worked in law enforcement in Salt Lake City. He would pose as her prospective renter and, together, they would attempt to gage exactly what Bleecker had done to complete the cabin and what exactly he was currently doing when he did appear at the construction site.
Julie and her friend walked out to the skeletal structure. She introduced her friend to Bleecker as the renter who was prepared to move in in January. Julie asked Bleecker if the cottage would be ready for occupancy by the 15th of January. And again Bleecker replied, "absolutely."
An hour later Julie and her friend watched Bleecker drive off. They went back out to the cottage where they discovered that their contractor had packed up all of his tools and left.
Julie remembers: "He had left the cottage without a front door, without a porch to the front door — you had to use a ladder to enter the cottage. There was a hole in the roof covered with plastic where he said he'd installed a skylight and no roof caps. He'd left the cottage totally open to the elements in January with rain predicted."
After Bleecker packed up his tools and drove off for good, Julie recalls, "I called Steve Hoehn to see whether he would help me. Steve indicated Brandon had been 'doing this for years,' and that Steve had lost all of his friends because of Brandon. I didn't take the conversation one step further and ask why he continued to hand his friends over to Brandon on a silver platter!"
Hoehn told Julie that he and Brandon were no longer speaking to each other, "but whenever I asked Steve about something that had been done by Brandon, he already knew about it. Several months after Brandon left my job there was an ad in the Willits Weekly paid for by La Sicilia Restaurant thanking Steve and Brandon for the work they had done at the restaurant. So if they were not talking to each other they were at least working together. When I asked Steve whether he would install the front door on the cottage, he indicated he would charge me $250/per door. So, he was not trying to make good on what he had sold and left behind by Brandon, his partner."
Julie fired off a Demand Letter to Bleecker listing all of the work he had not completed, per the contract, and tried to negotiate a settlement with him.
"I then documented the situation and sent everything that I had to the Contractor's State License Board," Julie remembers. "When Brandon received his copy of the action, he phoned me and left a lewd phone message. This was positive in a way because at least I knew he was still in town."
The Contractors Board wasted no time investigating the complaint, which included the complaint of another Willits senior citizen about the same two men. That other senior had lost even more money to the two unlicensed carpenters.
The Contractor's Board sent their findings to the Mendocino DA's Office with a recommendation for criminal prosecution.
Julie assumed she was on the road to justice, but it took justice six months to get from Willits to the County Courthouse in Ukiah, and then, on February 10th, 2015, Mendo justice suddenly informed her that Brandon Scott Bleecker was being charged with six misdemeanor counts: two counts of Contracting Without a License; two counts of False Contractor's License; and two counts of Excessive Down Payment.
"I was expecting financial fraud," Julie says with understandable indignation. "Brandon had received the full amount of money for the contract but had completed less than half the job."
And Julie's money was gone.
Now a full-fledged victim of felony misconduct, Julie wrote to the DA's Office asking why there were no fraud charges. The DA's Office didn't respond. It seems they don't do timely correspondence. Whether this is policy or simply bad manners is unclear.
Ms. Cook, who has brought an admirable relentlessness to her case in the face of Authority's yawning indifference, next called the Victim's Advocate and asked why she was not getting a response to her inquiries. After all, Bleecker's trial was coming up, but she had never been asked about her case and was worried that the DA was not getting the full picture of the magnitude of her loss and the even greater loss of her friend.
"When I was eventually called into the DA's Office I was told that other charges like fraud could be brought out during trial. I asked if this case would ever go to trial, and was told they did not know."
On June 8, 2015 Julie finally received a letter from the DA's Office announcing that Brandon Scott Bleecker had pled guilty to two counts of Excessive Down Payment.
"There was no explanation," Julie complains, "about why all of the other charges were dropped or why there was no inclusion of fraud charges. And Bleecker was sentenced to 18 months Summary Probation and 50 hours of Community Service. Now the question here is twofold: 1) is the punishment appropriate for the crime? and 2) how can a DA's Office drop criminal charges when the crimes are so well documented?"
She points out again that she is not the only victim of Bleecker-Hoehn.
"For clarification, this was not a crime against one person. It was a crime against two people, and has the potential for getting much larger. The claim was filed by two people, me and another person who doesn't want her name made public. We lost a total of $150,000."
The victims of persons Contracting Without a License can be awarded the full amount of the contract, but the two charges of Contracting Without a License were dropped by the DA's Office. Minus that charge it is impossible for the victims to get any of their money back.
The Willits retiree had gotten a thorough investigation from the State Contractor's Board in the person of Oather McClung of the agency's Santa Rosa office. McClung visited Julie's property, interviewed all the parties involved, wrote a detailed report confirming that Ms. Cook had indeed been the victim of a serial fraud, and turned his report over to the DA's office for prosecution. All the DA would have to do is haul it into court.
But nothing happened.
"I wrote to the DA's office. I didn't hear anything from them for three months. I was finally invited to a meeting in their Ukiah office where they asked me no questions and the attorney, McMenomey, looked like he was so bored he was going to fall asleep."
A DA's investigator, Butch Gupta, was assigned to the case. Gupta did do what he was supposed to do. He quickly confirmed Julie's allegations, and received from Julie’s telephone incriminating recordings of Bleecker not only admitting he'd taken money for work not done, but the obscene crank call Bleecker had made when Bleecker learned Julie had gone to the Contractor's Board. Gupta also recorded the phone messages that Bleecker left on Julie's answering machine claiming that he'd purchased materials and would have things installed pronto.
According to DA spokesman Mike Geniella, the two top prosecutors in the DA's office, DA Eyster and Paul Sequiera, "never did see this one. Eyster almost always looks at everything, and I mean everything that comes through the office, but this one went right on by."
Geniella went on to say that these cases are "almost always" prosecuted as misdemeanors because the amounts of money involved are relatively small and straight-up felony fraud hard to prove.
Ms. Cook finds it impossible to believe that a guy can fake a legitimate license and take her money for work not done. "I wonder," she says, "if the justice system has ever caught a bank robber who stole $150,000 and reduced his sentence to trespassing?"
She says she knows of other people who've been cheated by the two men, and if an example isn't made of them via punishment that hurts, more victims are inevitable.
Ms. Cook summarizes her frustration: "I could spend the better part of the rest of my life trying fix the problems Bleecker and Hoehn created. And Bleecker gets away with 50 hours of community service and Hoehn gets away with no charges!"
What happened is this, and it often happens here and in courtrooms everywhere else. A fast game of Let's Make A Deal was played out in court without the victim of the crime being included. Fraud was not on the table because fraud takes some work to prove. Without Julie being informed, charges against Bleecker were first filed in January of this year, and after 15 court appearances finally, in Judge Moorman's courtroom, Bleecker was sentenced to a mere 18 month's probation and 50 hours of community service.
"The public might want to be aware that our case was considered small potatoes," Julie warns. "But how many people in Mendocino earn over $150,000? How many people consider a case of $150,000 as too small to bother with? The second thing the public should realize is by allowing this crime to go unpunished it is encouraging the very people that commit these crimes to flourish. Is that what we want in our DA's Office--one that encourages crime? A DA's office should be about pursing justice for the victims."
The feisty senior sums up her present situation.
"And much of what had been done on my cabin will eventually have to be done over. It's not even close and I don't know whether it can ever be finished. I have been told nothing will fit in the area Bleecker had designated for a spiral staircase. I have been told that the south wall of the building would have to be knocked out by several feet for one to go in. There is no heat. Most of the electrical has not been installed. I have finished the floor and ceiling and put a porch and front door on, where previously I had to climb a ladder to get to the door opening. There are no gas lines for propane to heat the house or for the stove. There is no hot water heater (he was going to install an instant hot water heater). The worst thing is I have no idea whether he has gotten permits and inspections for anything he has done."
Bleecker and his victim will be back in court the afternoon of August 18th to hash out how much Bleecker will re-pay Julie for work not done.
"The DA’s Victim-Witness person has asked me to gather my receipts for the damages I have incurred," Julie rightly complains. "I don't have the money to pay a contractor for the kind of time it will take to uncover all the problems, and I have not been able to get any quotes on the fines I will get for not getting permits or what the charges will be to bring the cottage up to code. Contractors do not want to look over someone else's bad job and they are not about to do this pro bono. It's my understanding the cost of the engineering, permits and equipment, etc. for the septic could be upwards of $15,000. That's about a third again the price of what I paid Brandon, and this is work that he said was part of the contract."
Ms. Cook says someone has been parking at the foot of her driveway at night. "He just sits there for a while with his headlights on and then leaves. Ms. Cook's co-complainant says her property has been vandalized. Both say the Sheriff's Department will not note these occurrences, although these are elderly women living mostly alone.
Mr. Bleecker did not respond to my offer to print his side of the story. I was unable to reach Mr. Hoehn. I have seen all the documents corroborating Ms. Cook's allegations, allegations now confirmed as true by Mr. Bleecker's misdemeanor conviction.
Ms. Cook says she was "shocked when I was told Brandon [Bleecker] was assigned a Public Defender. When I asked Helen Nicholas, from the Victim Witness office, how Brandon could get a Public Defender, she responded, 'Because he qualified.' At that point I was not so embarrassed about being bilked out of my money. The County was being bilked out of their money, the public's money, as well."
The obscene phone call from Bleecker to Ms. Cook, and a phone call from Bleecker indicating that he had purchased all the materials to complete the cottage, were recorded on Julie's answering machine. Investigator Gupta has recorded copies of these calls.