For more than two years, Debbie Rowe pressed law enforcement to bring fraud charges against the contractor she hired to remodel her home.
The 54-year-old St. Petersburg resident says she suffered from depression and high blood pressure, gained 65 pounds and filed for bankruptcy after contractor Jack B. Quick took $30,000 for a job he never completed.
"This has destroyed me," Rowe said.
After investigating at least a half-dozen complaints in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, prosecutors now agree that Rowe was victimized by the Largo contractor with the name from a nursery rhyme.
On July 2, the state filed two counts of felony grand theft against Quick, 54, accusing him of bilking Rowe of $30,000 and another St. Petersburg woman, Donna Myers, of more than $17,000.
The contractor, who also has filed for bankruptcy, says he has done nothing wrong. "I deny everything that they've said," Quick said. "It will be proven that it is false."
Getting prosecutors to charge Quick was a battle for Rowe. The disputes, which the St. Petersburg Times first profiled in 2006, were the kind that authorities often dismiss as matters for the civil courts. Other victims — fearing costly legal fees and emotional trauma — might have abandoned the cases long ago.
Still, Rowe's struggle for restitution is far from over.
Quick's state and county contractor's licenses remain active and in good standing. Over the past several years, he has prevailed in several complaints filed against him with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board.
Even with Quick's bankruptcy case, a judgment against him would allow Rowe and Myers to seek money from a recovery fund for victims of construction fraud. But there are hurdles to getting access to that money, which suggests all the more to Rowe that the system favors contractors more than homeowners.
"That's why most people give up," Rowe said. "But as they say, it only takes one person to start something and others will follow."
Rowe's campaign began after she contracted with Quick in February 2005 to add a bedroom, a master bathroom, a utility room and a garage to her house. She made payments totaling $30,000 on the $95,000 project before the problems arose.
The addition was to help her care for her ailing 84-year-old mother, Geneva Wisenberger, whom she moved from Ashland, Ky., to St. Petersburg 5 1/2 years ago. Wisenberger is in advanced stages of Alzheimer's disease, but Rowe did not want to put her in a nursing home.
The work was supposed to be completed in April 2005. But even now, Rowe's home has bare concrete floors in some rooms, unfinished walls and roof trusses exposed to the elements.
Rowe continues to pour whatever money she has into the project. She has had help from friends and from online services. And she has tried to tackle some of the drywalling and painting herself. But her $50,000 in retirement money is gone, as is her $60,000 in savings.
"I promised mom that she would never have to go into a nursing home," Rowe said. "Did I do the right thing in bringing her here and putting her through this nightmare?"
Rowe sought out other Quick customers, including Myers, to see if they had experiences like hers. Several said they did and filed complaints with various local and state agencies.
After their investigation, prosecutors found cause to pursue Rowe's and Myers' cases. Myers could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Scott Andringa, a Clearwater lawyer representing Quick, said prosecutors should consider that the state and county licensing boards vindicated Quick in other complaints.
"We believe this case is more complex than it may first appear to the casual observer," Andringa said. "We're certainly going to bring those previous proceedings to their attention."
The Pinellas County State Attorney's Office declined to comment because of the pending litigation.
The licensing agencies said they do not have the investigative powers and jurisdiction that prosecutors do and their role is different.
"A lot of times it's very difficult for us to reach an intelligent decision," said Rodney Fischer, executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board. "A lot of times it's he said, she said. It's difficult to confirm these kinds of issues."
That's a big part of why authorities often declare them civil matters.
"It can be frustrating for consumers," said Sam Farkas, a spokesman for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which licenses contractors. "When they file a complaint, it is important to remember that we have to respect the process.
"Often, we move through the process and find no wrongdoing," Farkas said. "It has to be investigated, it has to be looked at. We have to make sure that we do everything we can do to protect that person's license."
Rowe said someone needs to protect the homeowner, so she's looking into starting a service to provide background checks on contractors.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.