When one of his hundreds of upset clients called to complain that no work had started on his pole barn, Sam Cover told the caller that he ate guys like him in prison.
Cover, 41, gets his second chance at the big house chow line after Superior Court Judge Robert Austin sentenced him to serve 19 years in prison, one of the longest sentences in Washington for a property crime.
The Spokane Valley contractor was convicted this month of 14 counts of first-degree theft by deception after he took thousands of dollars from Spokane County residents for pole barns he never built.
However, Cover was found innocent of 14 additional counts because he took some action, such as digging a few holes on the properties, before he took his clients’ money.
Cover is accused of raking in more than $1.2 million from more than 100 similar deals in Washington and North Idaho. He pleaded guilty to 17 counts of virtually the same scam in 1993. But the state issued him a license to work as a contractor again, even after he served five years in prison.
Spokane County Deputy Prosecutor Bob Sargent said if he had convicted Cover of leading organized crime, the most the ex-convict would have faced would have been nine years in prison. Cover got twice that.
“Honestly, I’m never pleased for a man to receive a sentence this big,” Sargent said. “But it was justified.”
Spokane County sheriff’s Detective Mark Renz said it was hard to contain his elation after the two-week trial and all the work put into the case.
“There are no winners in this. All we can do is our job and hopefully keep more people from becoming victims,” he said.
Cover spoke briefly but offered no apologies.
“I built several hundreds of buildings, and I worked hard,” said Cover, who argued that his building record had not been considered. “I would much rather complete my obligations to them than standing here or going to prison. It’s a shame that this happened.”
Austin said he did in fact consider the buildings that Cover had built, sometimes to the satisfaction of his customers.
“If you did any work, I figured it was your intention not to deceive these people,” Austin said, explaining his basis for exonerating Cover on 14 of the 28 counts.
Austin explained to the courtroom packed with Cover’s victims that a person would almost need a law degree to understand the state’s sentencing guidelines, which put a premium on violent crimes over property crimes.
Those sentencing guidelines called for Cover to serve only 57 months despite his criminal history and the number of victims. To give a convict more time than the standard range, Austin said, he must find something exceptional about the case.
Assistant Public Defender Derek Reid argued that the prosecution never proved that Cover’s thefts were any different from another theft, and he said that 57 months in prison would hold his client accountable.
“I’m not here saying that these crimes should go unpunished,” Reid said. “What I am saying is that the Legislature gave us guidelines. And I think we follow those guidelines until we are given a reason … to go outside those guidelines.”
But Austin didn’t agree with Reid.
“We do have something exceptional in that this pattern repeats,” said Austin, referring to Cover’s previous convictions resulting from the same pole-barn scam. “I do find to leave it at 57 months is clearly too lenient.”
He then ordered Cover to serve 57 months on each of the first four counts consecutively, or one after another. The remaining 10 counts of first-degree theft will be served concurrently, or at the same time.
While the actual sentence was 19 years, Cover has spent 308 days in the Spokane County Jail awaiting trial, and he will be given credit for time served.
Many of Cover’s victims spoke at the hearing, and still more were not allowed to express their views because Cover was found innocent in their cases.
“We will never recover the money he has taken from us, but seeing him being sent to prison … that’s our justice,” Raini Jarrell said. “He stole our trust in people. We feel he should spend the majority of his life in a cold, dark cell.”
After the sentencing, the victims smiled and shared stories. They invited Sargent and Renz to Charley’s Grill and Spirits to celebrate.
As deputies led Cover away to his cell, one of the victims said: “See ya, Sammy.”