NEW PORT RICHEY — Clo Grenier was getting her car fixed the other day and mentioned she sure didn't need a big repair bill. She'd already dropped $1,500 on something else a few weeks earlier.
On what? asked her mechanic, Jerry Mendik.
Smoke detectors, she said.
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Grenier is 69 years old. She worked 30 years at a Rhode Island stitchery company and then went to work as a hospital housekeeper, cleaning 87 rooms a day.
Her husband of over 50 years, Pete, was a truck driver. He could fix anything and made all the cabinets in their old house.
After they retired a decade ago, they sold their house, rented a U-Haul and headed to Florida, moving first to a single-wide then to a two-bedroom manufactured home in the Country Place community off State Road 54.
Then, in 2006, Pete died of lung cancer, leaving Clo alone for the first time in her adult life. She keeps the wooden sign bearing their names on the outside of the house. She keeps his photograph on the television set.
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In late January, she got a card in the mail offering a free fire safety inspection of her home. "I thought it was from the firemen," she said.
The 864-square-foot home had one hard-wired smoke detector in the hallway and an old fire extinguisher.
Her husband had always taken care of things like that. Grenier figured the inspection might give her peace of mind, so she returned the card.
A few days later, a salesman from a St. Petersburg company called Florida Safety Inc. knocked on the door. Florida Safety is an independent distributor for MasterGuard, a Texas-based maker of fire safety equipment.
"He came in, tall guy, very pleasant to talk to," she recalled. "He said his wife died and he was taking care of his mom."
She fetched her husband's photograph to show it to the salesman.
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He had a laptop computer with him and asked her to watch a half-hour video on fire safety and the importance of detection devices. He took out a glossy MasterGuard magazine featuring products, which had no prices.
He walked around the house with her and pointed out where she needed the detectors: one in the kitchen, one in the master bedroom, one in the spare bedroom, one in the living room, one in the bathroom.
He recommended three smoke alarms, described in the magazine as "high quality plastic," and two heat alarms, that set off 100 decibel bells when heat is detected.
Then, she said, he started filling out the bill. His first price on the five units? $1,845.
Grenier said no. Too much. "He said, 'Well, let me call my boss,'" she said.
The salesman got on his cell phone and told his boss that he really wanted to give this woman a deal. He hung up the phone and had a new price: $1,500 plus two free fire extinguishers.
"I don't know what I'm going to do," Grenier recalled saying.
The salesman gestured toward the picture of Pete. "He says, 'Look at your husband. Ask yourself what he'd do if he were here. Wouldn't your husband be glad you're protected?' "
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Nearly 2 1/2 hours after he arrived, Grenier gave in. She's embarrassed about it now, but she finally signed her name on a contract. "I was tired, I just wanted him out of my house," she said. "I didn't know who to turn to."
The next day, a different man came out and used a drill to install the alarms on the ceiling. She said she wrote him a check out of her money market account. She said he finished his work in 10 minutes.
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The National Fire Protection Association recommends smoke alarms inside each bedroom and outside the sleeping areas. Spokeswoman Lorraine Carli said that translates to three alarms in a home like Grenier's.
Carli said decent alarms cost anywhere from $7 to $20. Should someone with an 864-square-foot home be spending $1,500 on smoke alarms?
Carli would not comment specifically on MasterGuard products but said, "In terms of smoke alarm costs, what we recommend could be achieved for a lot less than that."
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Grenier's car mechanic, Mendik, asked if he could look at these $1,500 alarms and a few days later he drove out to her house. He couldn't believe what he saw. Two of the alarms are less than 10 feet apart.
"It's overkill," he said. "She does not need to pay $1,500 for something like that, plain and simple. I think they were playing on her emotions."
He called the newspaper.
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Florida Safety Inc., the distributor, is run by Eugene Yauchler of Clearwater and Harry Carter of Treasure Island, according to state corporation records.
Yauchler was in the news 15 years ago when Largo Police called an auction venture he co-owned a sham that ripped off elderly investors. He and his partner, Robert Weakley, were arrested, but the charges were later dropped.
Better Business Bureau reported one complaint, now resolved, about Florida Safety over the last three years. The Pinellas County Department of Consumer Protection has an active investigation into one complaint.
MasterGuard says in its publicity materials that it has worked with independent distributors for over 30 years "to save lives through better education and high quality early warning residential fire detection equipment."
After the Times last Tuesday contacted Florida Safety and MasterGuard, both companies requested that questions be put in writing and e-mailed to officials. Neither company responded to the questions.
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But the next day, someone knocked on Grenier's door. It was another man from Florida Safety. "He says, 'I'm here to make you happy,' " she said. "He says 'We've got a good company. We just want to make good.' "
He gave her a $1,500 check and told her she could even keep the equipment.
"I think they did good to give me the money plus the stuff," she said later. But "I wouldn't tell anybody else to go get these things."
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.