Until recently, Ronald G. Stratton was a smooth-talking builder who took money from pensioners, young families, and the disabled - never delivering on promises to build their metal buildings.
But Friday the tables turned, giving some justice to 44 Idaho and Montana victims who lost at least $160,000 to a conning contractor. Stratton’s next career is bunking at the Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise - for as long as 28 years.
Dressed in a Christmas-red jail suit, Stratton left Kootenai County District Court looking surprisingly upbeat. His victims left mad because the State Parole Commission could release Stratton after three years.
“They shouldn’t ever let him out,” said William S. Entwistle. Entwistle and his son hired Stratton to build them a shop building and got only a few holes dug for their $2,750.
“I can’t see letting him off with such a short period of time,” said Donna M. Blackburn, who lost more than $4,000 to Stratton.
Stratton, 43, of St. Maries, pleaded guilty to eight counts of grand theft by deception minutes before his jury trial was to begin in November. Those charges are connected to just two years of Stratton’s handiwork. Prosecutors suspect it went on much longer.
His basic scheme was to tell people he would make them a deal on a building kit someone else ordered but didn’t pay for. Stratton would take an advance payment, dig a few holes and disappear, fending off complaints with excuses.
His attorney, deputy public defender Joel Ryan, read a statement Stratton wrote about his remorse for his misdeeds and apologizing to his family for ruining their name. Ryan encouraged District Court Judge James F. Judd to only jail Stratton for a year.
“The sooner he can parole, the sooner he can get back to work repaying” the victims, Ryan said.
Judge Judd made restitution a part of the sentence. But he gave dismal odds that Stratton will ever repay his victims, barring a winning lottery ticket.
“If I put you out working today and you worked for $10 an hour, you’d be hard pressed to pay this back,” Judd said. Unless Stratton has the money he bilked people out of squirreled away. And Judd encouraged Stratton to turn his books over to the prosecutor to prove the money isn’t stashed somewhere.
Judd rebuked Stratton, reminding the defendant that he presided over the 1991 trial where Stratton was acquitted on three similar charges. “I find it incredible that you didn’t learn with your first brush with this issue,” Judd said.
While acknowledging Gov. Phil Batt’s call for judges to reserve limited prison space for violent criminals, Judd told Stratton, “when an individual has injured so many people, we can use bed space in the prison.”
One reason for the stiff sentence “is to send a message if people are going around out there selling smoke, they understand it won’t be tolerated.”
Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas is satisfied. “I feel justice was served,” Douglas said. “He could be in 28 years.”
“The bottom line from the state’s point of view is this defendant left a trail of tears throughout the Inland Northwest and justice was finally served,” he said. “There’s other construction fraud out there - I hope this sends a strong message.”
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