ST. PETERSBURG — On a September Thursday, a personable fellow showed up on the doorstep of Elizabeth Peterson’s 89-year-old mother.
His name was Shaun Sullivan. He’d come to speak to her mom about buying a water purifier. When they got to talking, he said he could replace her carpet at a good price. It needed it.
Peterson, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., looked over the invoice he sent via screenshot and checked to make sure Sullivan was associated with a real business. They settled on a little more than $5,000 and agreed on half paid up front for flooring materials. Her mom seemed to like him.
“He’s a real charmer,” said Peterson, 53.
Then the red flags.
It turned out her mother had written Sullivan not one, but two checks for more floor work in the house, Peterson said. When the bank called for Peterson’s approval, she thought she was okaying one check. When Peterson asked to see a store receipt for flooring materials, he didn’t provide one, she said. When he was supposed to arrive Tuesday to pull up the old carpet, there was a rain delay, he said, and a job he needed to finish.
Peterson’s friends googled and found the jail mug. She recognized him from his Facebook page: Sullivan, a decade younger.
Her mother, who has a caretaker, lives on Social Security and a few annuities. The two checks for a total of $4,400 had been cashed from her everyday-expenses account, leaving $8.
Texts between Peterson and Sullivan went from friendly to heated. He said her mother wanted the job done, and he had done nothing wrong. She said she wanted her mother’s money back.
“My mom doesn’t know the difference between a fraud and a nice guy,” Peterson said.
Back in 2009, Shaun Sullivan was in trouble.
He worked in concrete, painting and other jobs, he told the Tampa Bay Times. At 24, he said, he got behind on work for “probably seven or eight different customers.”
“I had too many jobs going on,” said Sullivan, 36, who has lived in Bradenton and Sarasota.
Customers said they paid deposits for screen work that wasn’t done and crushed driveway shell that never arrived.
A Manatee woman who gave Sullivan a $580 check said he told her someone used his credit card to steal $6,200. She felt sorry for him and gave him another $580, according to court records.
A customer said after she paid him $2,610, he told her he was robbed at gunpoint and all the money was stolen. She paid him another $1,700, court records say. A detective found no robbery report, though Sullivan said recently it happened.
Another customer said Sullivan told him the job was delayed due to a death in the family. Days later he said he was too busy and promised a refund that never came, according to court records.
The Manatee Sheriff’s Office named nine cases in which customers’ checks were cashed but Sullivan “either never came to start the work, or worked only about one hour and left, failing to return." Calls and texts from customers went unanswered, the report said.
“The jobs weren’t done, absolutely,” Sullivan said. He said he was gambling heavily then.
“In 2009, I made up lots of excuses to buy myself time," he said. “I’m sure I said a lot of things that were far fetched and whatnot to hopefully come up with the time.”
“I was robbing Peter to pay Paul, and there was no more Peter," he said.
He pleaded no contest in several cases. “There really was no fraud. There was no theft,” he said. "I just didn’t finish (the jobs) in a timely manner.”
Sullivan said he spent a total of 17 months in jail in several counties. He said he finished his 10-year probation sentence early and paid $100,000 in restitution and costs. “When I was in the wrong 11 years ago, when there was money to be owed, I paid it back,” he said.
Sullivan said he became a successful regional sales manager, has five children and no longer gambles. He said he’s had lots of positive reviews. But if there is a dispute over his work, a customer can point to his record, he said. “It’s going to follow me for the rest of my life."
His involvement in the court system didn’t end in 2010.
Last week, his lawyer told a judge that Sullivan was amenable to a plea deal on a misdemeanor charge of working as an unlicensed contractor for a Sun City Center woman who said he failed to finish the work. First, Sullivan wanted to subtract about $2,000 from the $6,000 restitution because pavers had been delivered.
Sullivan faces a nine-count criminal case in Manatee and Sarasota counties involving at least four customers. Charges include exploitation of an elderly or disabled person and grand theft.
In one case, Sullivan said he and the customer worked up a civil agreement to pay the customer back, but the customer called police when Sullivan was late on his first payment. “I definitely owe the man the money,” he said.
A Sarasota customer said he discovered three checks missing. The checks were cashed. Sullivan said he has “plenty of proof” those checks were written for the job.
A 76-year-old woman said when she had trouble tearing the check from her checkbook to pay for work on her house, Sullivan helped. Court records say the check beneath the one she wrote was also removed and deposited in Sullivan’s company bank account.
He said the woman wrote that check for materials, and he paid her back what she was owed by leaving money in her mailbox.
A jury trial is scheduled for January 2021.
Jacky Taylor, 56, told the Times it took three months to get $1,500 back after she found his work to be substandard.
“He seemed like a decent guy, and I’m usually a really good judge of character,” she said. "As soon as I got my money back, I deleted him from my contacts.”
“I did the work,” Sullivan said. “Whenever I’ve had a discrepancy with a customer, even when the job had been done, I paid her back.”
In September, Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor who just finished law school, hired a private investigator. She filed reports with the St. Petersburg Police and Better Business Bureau. She left negative reviews online.
The texts flew.
Maybe you should do a sermon this Sunday how everybody’s past should be exposed because that’s what they deserve. I mean I thought Jesus was a redeemer, Sullivan wrote.
Send the money and you’re free of me ... I will not stop until you repay my mother what you stole from her, Peterson texted. “It was quite the dramatic several days,” she said.
It ended in the parking lot of a St. Petersburg 7-11, where a man from her mom’s church agreed to meet Sullivan. Sullivan came with a thick stack of bills. He left with a handwritten receipt.
“I’d never seen that much cash in my life,” Peterson said.
Afterward, she texted him: Thank you very much for doing the right thing.
He texted back: You’re welcome.