April 18, 2011

Nonviolent Crimes Create Victims

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Philip Lening has tried to forget about his experience with Vanessa Blaylock.

“A person doesn’t like to remember when they’re an idiot,” he said. In 2007, Lening lost $2,580 in a case of home-repair fraud stemming from Blaylock’s window and siding installation business.

Blaylock admits to defaulting on $150,000 worth of contracts. She pleaded guilty in 2009 to 13 cases relating to home- repair fraud in at least six Oklahoma counties. She is serving a 10-year sentence—seven years incarcerated, three years probation—and has outstanding warrants in five Texas counties.

Blaylock is part of a prison population that lawmakers are currently discussing. She is one of 1,850 nonviolent offenders who comprise about two-thirds of Oklahoma’s female prison population.

Nonviolent crimes can provide a unique challenge for prosecutors, district attorneys and the Legislature, said Trent Baggett, acting executive director of the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council.

People get outraged when they hear about violent crimes such as rape, murder and assault but some believe nonviolent crimes are victimless. Not true, he said.

“I can certainly, at least physically, I can recover from a broken arm in at least six weeks. That poor person taken for embezzlement, they’re likely never going to recover from that, and their lifestyle will never recover,” Baggett said.

Blaylock would contact people in southwestern Oklahoma and northern Texas by phone or going door to door. She would write up a contract, with half the amount due up front to buy materials and the remaining due at the project’s completion.

Once she got the initial check, she bailed, according to affidavits and interviews with a dozen victims.

That was the case with Lening, who is one of at least a dozen victims in Oklahoma and Texas, according to court records.

Blaylock, working out of Mangum in southwestern Oklahoma, contacted Lening to see if he wanted windows installed.

He first called the Better Business Bureau but wasn’t given much information.

Lening, of Hinton, regrets not checking Blaylock’s company, KB Exterior Design, online.

A quick Google search of the company shows the Better Business Bureau does not accredit it, consumers have filed five complaints against the company in the past three years, and it has an ‘F’ rating.

But Lening, 56, didn’t know that at the time. He paid the money, but Blaylock never finished the work.

In December 2007, Lening spent about $150 to file a small claims case against Blaylock in Canadian County District Court to try to get his money back. He said restitution was discussed in court, and the judge decided in his favor. But Blaylock never appeared at any hearings, according to Lening.

In a similar incident in Cheyenne, Forrest Ford paid Blaylock about $5,000 up front to put in windows and siding. The job was started but never completed. Ford, 50, filed a small claim against Blaylock in November 2007.

This time, Blaylock was in court to hear the judge order her to pay back a total of about $6,000—the cost of the down payment plus court costs.But Ford never heard from her again. And aside from a few necessary fixes Ford made himself, the house is left half-finished, and he is out $6,000.The list of similar incidents in nearby counties goes on, court records show.

There’s the 91-year-old Beckham County man who gave Blaylock two checks for $3,618 with no work completed. And an Elk City couple wrote a check for $1,000 initially and about a month later, gave Blaylock another check for $5,000 after she returned asking for more money.

Sitting inside the chapel at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Taft, Blaylock, 45, tells a different story.

It was not home-repair fraud, she said, but a lack of good business sense and defaulted contracts. Blaylock had helped her father, William Cox, with his siding and window installation business up until he passed away five years ago, she said.

After his death, she took over the business. At the same time, Blaylock said several employees left the company, forcing her to run it all on her own, something she was not prepared for.

From there, it became a small series of mistakes until Feb. 16, 2008. That was the day Oklahoma City’s KFOR news station ran an “In Your Corner” segment about a customer’s complaint. After it aired, she said she was hit with $98,000 in cancellations.

The cancellations hit the business hard, Blaylock said, and she wasn’t able to cover all the costs. Soon, the contracts she defaulted on began piling up.

Altogether, she said she defaulted on $150,000 worth of contracts in Texas and Oklahoma.

“I did lose everything: my home, my business, everything,” she said.

She doesn’t mention, however, that she already had several small claims filed against her and her business and that several people had filed police reports alleging home fraud before the airing of the report.

Blaylock agreed to a plea deal in March 2009 for about 13 cases in Beckham, Ellis, Washita, Tillman, Jackson and Greer counties. She will be released on her Oklahoma charges on May 20, but officials from Texas will take her to face charges in that state.

Despite her plea, she said her three children and three grandchildren know she has never stolen from anybody.

“They know I’ve worked a lot of hours to keep the business afloat and keep it going. And for that business to be the reason why I’m here, it’s tough for all of us.”

Some people, including Emma and Billy Brewer of Elk City in Beckham County, may argue with that statement. Blaylock contacted the couple in March 2007 about siding the couple’s house. Like in the other cases, they paid half—$2,993.50—up front.

“We thought that was the thing to do,” Billy, 64, said of the down payment. “We’re not knowledgeable business people. We’re just everyday folk. We just basically thought people needed some kind of money to purchase the material.”

When nothing was done after a year, and unable to reach her at her office or by phone, the couple decided to file a lawsuit in small claims court. They changed their minds and filed a police report when they were told detectives were already investigating Blaylock for other cases of home-repair fraud.

“The policeman told us we’ll probably not ever get our money back,” Emma, 61, said, adding the officer told them they were at the bottom of the list of victims.