June 22, 1995 in Nation/World

Witnesses Hammer Contractor North Idaho Builder Faces Theft Charges

Susan Drumheller And Winda Benedetti S Staff writer

Angry people lined the county courthouse hallway Wednesday as they waited for their turn to testify against a man accused of bilking them out of thousands of dollars.

Building contractor Ron Stratton, 43, is accused of stealing about $30,000 in all from several clients.

After hours of bitter testimony at Stratton’s preliminary hearing Wednesday, a judge ordered him to stand trial on eight counts of theft.

“There’s plenty of ways to steal,” said Kootenai County Prosecutor Bill Douglas. “It doesn’t have to be by a pointed gun or a burglary. This was theft by deception. These people were taken.”

Douglas filed 11 felony theft charges against Stratton for crimes he’s suspected of committing between May and August 1994.

The alleged victims told Judge Barbara Buchanan how they paid thousands of dollars to Stratton for construction work.

Most of them ended up with only a few holes dug in their yards or a few poles sticking out of the ground.

Kathy Bissett, a Hayden mother of two, told the judge that Stratton came to her family’s house in July 1994 and offered a good deal for a 24-by-40-foot pole barn.

“He wanted $3,600 down. We thought this was a little high. A little better than half,” she said.

But she and her husband wrote Stratton a check and he cashed it almost immediately.

“The next day his son came out and dug some pilot holes,” Bissett said. No building material was brought to the site, and no one returned.

The couple called Stratton “countless times,” and Bissett’s husband even visited the builder’s house, trying to get him to finish the job.

“He said he was very busy and backed up,” she said. “There was always the promise that it would get done.”

Her job finally did get done - by another company that dug different holes, Bissett testified.

The couple never got any money back from Stratton, they said.

In a similar situation, Lola Martin of Athol hired Stratton to build a workshop for her son.

She wrote Stratton an advance check for $3,000.

“He came out there with a tractor, pushed some rocks and dug a few holes and that’s about the size of it,” she testified.

Tim Branen said he called Stratton at least 100 times trying to get him to finish work that he had been paid $5,400 to do.

Each time, the builder had an excuse.

“It varied from his truck engine was blown up, his truck had a flat tire … he was working in Montana,” Branen said.

Richard L. West, a self-employed painter, testified Wednesday that he worked for Stratton in 1990 installing insulated metal roofs and carports in mobile home parks.

West became disenchanted with Stratton and the two parted ways in 1991. West said that two of his paychecks bounced and he couldn’t get Stratton to pay up. He also said four jobs were never finished.

West says he asked Stratton several times about the unfinished work.

“Each time he’d say, ‘Rick, don’t worry about it. They have to prove intent.’ Then he’d change the subject,” West testified.

Douglas told Judge Buchanan that numerous victims showed Stratton intended to cheat his clients out of their money.

“This is not an isolated case,” Douglas said. “He performed little or no work in each of these cases. We’re not dealing with an innocent businessman who is the victim of circumstance.”

But Stratton’s public defender, Brian Long, pointed out that Stratton had been referred to several of the alleged victims by satisfied customers.

Judge Buchanan dismissed three of the 11 theft charges against Stratton. Witnesses in two cases didn’t show up for the hearing and the third charge was dismissed for lack of evidence.

The judge also dismissed five counts of check fraud because the prosecutor did not yet have the account information he needed. Douglas said his office may again file those charges.

He also said 15 to 20 more people have contacted his office about Stratton allegedly defrauding them.

He said the prosecutor’s office may file additional charges in those cases. Benewah and Bonner county prosecutors said Wednesday they, too, are looking into charges against Stratton.

Stratton is being held at the Kootenai County Jail on $172,000 bail.

, DataTimes

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