Anthony Wright was going to be her savior.
The clean-cut, solidly built contractor that Geraldine Dershay hired to repair her home said he had 20 years of professional experience working in his home state of Ohio. A trusted neighbor had recommended Wright to Dershay, 74, soon after she discovered her new home on 25th Ave. S needed repairs.
"He was going to be my knight in shining armor. He was going to get the work done fast so I could go back to work," Dershay said.
Weeks after Dershay paid $14,000 to Wright in August 2000 to shore up her roof and replace several decaying window frames, she said, she found out he was a fugitive from the law. "I was at the hands of a true con man," Dershay said.
Wright, 40, was supposed to move the house's outside electrical box to make way for sliding doors and a deck. He was supposed to replace a water-damaged wall. He was supposed to make life more livable for Dershay, who suffers from asthma and severe allergies.
Instead, he and his three-man crew disappeared with Dershay's money, leaving yards of electrical wiring and an entire room exposed to the elements, said assistant state attorney Gary White.
For two years, since Wright's disappearance, Dershay has been forced to live with the mess he left behind. With her savings tapped and a monthly income of only $632 from Social Security, Dershay has been unable to pay for a new contractor to finish the job Wright began.
After Wright told a Pinellas County judge at a restitution hearing last Friday that he did not have enough to pay off his debt in one lump sum, Dershay said she holds out little hope she'll be fully repaid.
Animals have begun nesting in the 20-foot hole left in the bedroom where Wright ripped out a wall. She is barely able to navigate the narrow maze of boxes stacked ceiling high and left unpacked in anticipation that someone would someday come to her rescue.
"I'm washing my dishes in the bathroom sink," Dershay said.
The details of Wright's scam emerged after Dershay filed a complaint with the Pinellas County Department of Consumer Protection in 2000. Police tracked Wright down in Ohio and he was convicted of grand theft in Pinellas County.
Dershay only found out after his disappearance that Wright was never licensed to work as a contractor in Florida.
"What work he did do was substandard and he left her in dire circumstances," said assistant state attorney Gary White, the prosecutor on the case.
A judge sentenced Wright to four years of probation and ordered him to pay back the money he had taken. But the sentence was little comfort to Dershay, who will receive just $150 a month from Wright until his probation ends.
White said Wright's operation had all the markings of a "classic con." Dershay told prosecutors that Wright returned to the house after their first meeting with an estimate for about $27,000 scrawled on a piece of scrap paper. Dershay balked at the price, telling the contractor she couldn't pay more than $14,000. Wright agreed and dashed off a contract on another scrap of paper.
Dershay told Wright she wanted the work done fast. She wanted to put things in order and get back to work. "He told me he would have the job done in two weeks time. He did not even have the job started in two weeks," Dershay said.
"He would work on the the place a couple of days and then disappear. So she would have to call him and he'd give her all kinds of excuses," White said.
Dershay's failing health and Wright's constant delays kept the elderly woman in a state of limbo for more than a month. She was unable to unpack and was afraid to leave the contractors alone at the house. When Wright stopped returning her phone calls altogether, she lost hope. "I really should have moved out of the place, but I couldn't afford to do that," Dershay said. "I was just so ashamed."
Gabrielle Wiechec, a victims' advocate for the Area Agency on Aging of Pasco-Pinellas assigned to Dershay's case, said shame is the main thing that keeps many elderly victims from reporting economic crimes.
"They think it's their fault. But the people that dupe them are very good at what they do," said Wiechec.
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Gabrielle Wiechec, left, a victims' advocate, consoles Geraldine Dershay, 74, as she recalls hiring Anthony Wright to repair her house. "He left it a mess," she said. He did little work, and what he did was substandard.
Exposed electrical wiring was left stapled to the back of Dershay's house. "I don't know what all these wires are for," she says.