WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - At age 66, Mary Beth Smith never thought she would be re-staining her stairs on a Friday afternoon.
“I’ve got arthritis, and believe me, I love a little home project here and there, but to prepare an entire home is out of my wheelhouse,” Smith said.
During Hurricane Florence, a tree fell on her home off Carolina Beach Road, leaving significant water damage that seeped into the walls, molded her sheet rock and ruined doors and windows.
Smith hired a water remediation company that deconstructed the house, and she began looking for a local contractor for additional repairs.
“I was very patient because I knew people were in worse shape than I was," Smith said. "We waited all the way from Sept. 25 to Oct. 31, and finally, I found someone.”
That’s when Oak Ridge Construction rolled through her neighborhood.
“I signed a contract with them on Oct. 31 for $19,500, which they said was the deposit and they cashed the check right away,” Smith said.
She filed an insurance claim, and borrowed more than $20,000 in an SBA loan, figuring she could pay it back once her insurance money came in.
“They said they would start the work on Nov. 1, and they would be finished on Nov. 13,” said Smith. “When the work started, they did the sheet rock and insulation first, and I questioned why they wouldn’t start with the roof.”
Smith said come mid-November, hardly anything was done. She sent the project manager a text since no one was showing up at her home.
“He said, ‘We have spent all your money. There is nothing more I can do,’” said Smith.
That’s when she began to think she was a victim of a scam or defrauded out of her life savings.
“I certainly was taken aback at how much money I had to put down, but I thought I had about $40,000 worth of damage,” Smith said. “I kept asking Oak Ridge for an estimate but never received one.”
Come Thanksgiving, Smith’s home was still in shambles. She called the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Department to report the incident and was told she would have to file a civil claim.
Smith continued to do her research on Oak Ridge Construction. She discovered the company was based in Iowa, where her check was cashed, even though Oak Ridge claimed to have an office at the Landfall Executive Suites in Wilmington.
The company website lists a Wilmington address and also photo with the message, “Caution: Beware the out-of-state storm chasers.”
“I thought they were a local company," Smith said. “They had the letterhead and everything.”
On Friday, WECT called Eric Goldfarb, general Manager of Landfall Executive Suites, to see if Oak Ridge Construction was operating out of his facility.
“He was interested in establishing a presence here at Landfall Executive Suites, but never did. People have been coming in looking for the company and we didn’t have any information because we aren’t doing business with him. You have one tragedy on top of another. He is telling people he has an office and he does not.”
The Better Business Bureau lists Oak Ridge Construction as an Iowa-based company even though the website has a Wilmington address.
On Friday afternoon, a former employee of Oak Ridge who said he was the project manager for Smith’s job called WECT and confirmed the company was not operating out of Wilmington, but is based in Iowa.
The former employee, who wished to remain anonymous, said:
“I would be cautious with Mrs. Smith. She has been harassing me. I actually quit the company because they owe me $6,000 and I moved my whole family down here. I noticed something was going wrong when the owner, Nyles Lehnen, didn’t pay me, his employees or other people."
The former employee who worked on Smith’s home said there was a lot of work Oak Ridge did for her and added, “She isn’t getting ripped off like she said she was.”
“There is so much work to do," she said. "I might be a woman but I am not stupid. I have no windows, gutters, fencing, trim. Now, little by little, I am trying to do it myself.”
Lehnen said in a phone interview Friday that his company is storm chasers and it had a virtual office set up in Wilmington. He added he is in Iowa.
About Smith’s claims, Lehnen said, “She gave us $19,500. We completed 65-75 percent of the job. She wouldn’t give us her scope of loss. She is being dishonest.”
Smith said life after Florence has been difficult. She is financially strapped and living in a dust pit.
“It’s been hard staying above water,” she said. “The most difficult part is losing faith and trust in someone that you hire. My home is my refuge and my sanctuary, and I have become so disillusioned and disheartened as I believe I was scammed by a predatory contractor when I was at my most vulnerable.”
Smith said she has contacted the Attorney General’s Office to file a claim. The AG’s office told WECT Friday it has not had any complaints about this company.
“I don’t want anyone to go through what I did," Smith said. "I can just imagine that they are taking advantage of the same kind-hearted, trusting people.”