Going door to door and advertising his services, D.C. contractor Norman Jones liked to present himself as a religious man, devoted to his family and to his business of repairing homes for low- and middle-income city residents. Often, it worked.
"He seemed really trustworthy, that he was really trying to work for us," said Mary Barnes, a D.C. homeowner who signed a $51,000 contract with Jones in the summer of 2000.
But when the 45-year-old Jones took his customers' cash and then mangled their houses, leaving places in various states of collapsing disrepair, polite talk stopped and a criminal case began. Some victims faced financial problems because they had to pay for more work; others still have rooms torn up.
Jones, 45, of the 3100 block of Knox Terrace SE, was sentenced in U.S. District Court this month to more than 6 1/2 years in prison. Judge James Robertson also ordered him to pay $141,000 in restitution to Barnes and nine other city residents whose houses he promised to repair but never did.
Robertson said he chose a longer sentence than called for in federal sentencing guidelines because Jones's actions caused so much financial harm. The highest penalty under the guidelines was a term of five years and three months.
Court records show that this was Jones's third conviction for home-contracting fraud in the District and in Maryland.
In this case, he pleaded guilty to one count of interstate transportation of a person in execution of a fraud scheme. That was for driving a 70-year-old District woman into Maryland to obtain a mortgage to pay him $18,500. Prosecutors presented evidence that Jones did only $3,000 worth of actual work -- putting up aluminum siding that blew off in the first windstorm.
U.S. Attorney Roscoe C. Howard Jr. said the case showed the damage that can be done by unscrupulous contractors who seek elderly, vulnerable targets.
"He preyed upon their hopes to fix their houses, mostly in need of essential repairs, like a new furnace or repair to the roof," Howard said. "He dashed their dreams, leaving them with little or no work done and a mortgage they must pay for the next 30 years."
Jones's attorney, Billy L. Ponds, argued in court for a lesser prison sentence, saying Jones had accepted responsibility by pleading guilty. But prosecutors said the guilty plea came only after the case was headed for trial.
Prosecutors said Jones advertised on television, in fliers and by making seemingly earnest door-to-door presentations. He said he could do almost anything in the house -- replace windows and doors, renovate bathrooms and kitchens, waterproof basements or install furnaces, boilers or air-conditioning units. He presented his license number, which had expired, and told prospective customers that he was bonded and insured.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri L. Schornstein, who prosecuted the case, said Jones would "prey on different values he picked up on." For instance, if prospects appeared religious, he "talked about the Lord. He'd say that God had sent him to help black homeowners," she said. If he saw that they were sympathetic to him being a black business owner, he'd try to use that to his advantage, she said.
Schornstein said Jones performed no work at all on some properties, disappearing after collecting an initial down payment. Customers who had him do some work say they wish he had never come to their houses, either.
Tijuana Thomas-Jackson said she hired Jones to do $11,500 worth of much-needed repairs to her longtime family home in the 1500 block of 25th Street SE.
She said she came home one day to discover that he had hired homeless men to dig a four-foot trench around the house and put down black plastic garbage bags along the exterior wall -- supposedly waterproofing the basement.
They left the trench open and never returned, Thomas-Jackson said.
When she angrily demanded that Jones do the work properly, he dodged her calls and letters, she said, requiring her to pay a subcontractor more than $23,000 to repair damage caused by Jones's work.
"I lost my house insurance because of how he wrecked my house," Thomas-Jackson said. "I had to go into bankruptcy, and my house is still in such bad shape that I could face housing code violations. Now I'm stuck paying a second mortgage for the work he never did."
Barnes, who had worked for years to lift her family from poverty, paid Jones $51,000 to renovate her kitchen and bathroom, close in a back porch and complete many other repairs.
He put up a partial wall in the back porch, never installed the furnace, left a hole in the bathroom floor where the tub had been and performed other work so shoddily that she had extensive water damage, she said. She lost at least $38,000.
"I hope other people will learn to be very, very careful about making home repairs," she said.