PENSACOLA, Fla. — In north Florida, five months after Hurricane Ivan, thousands are still living in temporary housing. Just finding a contractor to show up is considered good fortune.
But 82-year-old Virginia Rice discovered otherwise.
"In the beginning, I thought he was nice fellow," she says. "But all he did was ruin things."
Rice says she paid her contractor $36,000 from her insurance money. He claimed he'd fixed her roof and began to rip up her home's interior before he disappeared.
"He was just conning me all the time and I thought he was so nice to me," says Rice. "I was like a big fool."
Most of her belongings are piled into the living room now. The roof, supposedly fixed, sags so much it's now braced with lumber. Paint is sprayed everywhere in the kitchen. And what didn't need fixing — like expensive cabinets — are gone. The contractor took them.
"I told them, I begged them practically, not to take them," says Rice.
The only rooms still intact are her bedroom and the bathroom, which now doubles as her kitchen.
Who did this?
Investigators say it was 31-year-old Michael O’Malley, who's now charged with exploiting the elderly during a state emergency and contracting without a license. He's in jail now and has yet to enter a plea. His lawyer did not return multiple phone calls.
Florida lawmen say they're chasing more than 1,000 similar cases.
Eddie James, of the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, has a message for people who come to Florida figuring they can just rip people off, take the insurance money and run.
"Don’t come, 'cause if you do we're going to use all means necessary to catch you, and put you in jail," he says.
State investigators checking on work sites say part of the problem is there's more work than there are reputable contractors. That’s a painful lesson for homeowners like Virginia Rice, whose husband died just a week before the hurricane hit.
"I'm worried sick, how it's going," she says. "I don't know how I’m going to handle it financially. I just don't know."
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