SEMINOLE — For weeks, Glenn Holland, 67, crawled out of bed before the sun rose to look for a dead man.
The retiree and Vietnam veteran spent several weeks on stakeout in his Ford F-150. Under the cover of darkness, he waited outside the home of a man he was told had died in a car crash.
For weeks, neither the Corvette, Hummer or pick-up truck in the driveway moved.
Holland nearly gave up. He waited one last time. It was 4 a.m. on a Friday in March.
Four hours later, the deceased walked outside and jumped into the truck.
Adrenaline shot through Holland. His heart started pounding. His mind raced:
Could Marc Anthony Perez be alive?
He was. The contractor who Holland said ripped him off, then faked his own death to get out of paying him back for a botched renovation, who left Holland and his cancer-stricken wife with nowhere to live, was still among the living.
"I want to get my hands on him," Holland recalled thinking. "The man cost us $13,000. He faked his death to avoid paying us. I thought about driving up to him and jumping out."
He didn't. Instead, Holland sued him.
• • •
Glenn Holland spent three decades as a municipal employee in Erie, Penn. Judith Holland, 66, spent 28 years owning and running a tavern in the town on Lake Erie, nestled between the Ohio and New York borders.
In recent years, the couple rented a Seminole home each winter to avoid the treacherous snowbelt. They grew to like Pinellas County and last year decided to buy a home here. In March 2016 they paid $125,000 for an 845 square-foot home in the 55-and-older community of Tamarac by the Gulf.
The couple expected a smooth transition from Pennsylvania to the Sunshine State. But their new home needed work: a new kitchen, a remodeled bathroom, duct repairs, a new hot water heater, etc.
They hoped to hire a contractor to complete the work while they were in Pennsylvania. And then they found Perez.
They spotted him working in the neighborhood, the Hollands said, and asked to view his projects. Neighbors praised the quality of Perez's workmanship. The couple met Perez to talk about hiring him.
Glenn Holland noticed Perez identified himself as a veteran on his business card and thought: A veteran would never rip off another veteran.
Perez, 52, said he had the proper licenses to do the job, according to Holland.
A gentlemen's handshake sealed the deal. The contract was officially signed in March with Marc Anthony's Repair Service. The Hollands wanted to move in by December. That's eight months to finish the work. The lawsuit said it should have been done in three.
They gave Perez a key in April and headed back north to Pennsylvania.
Two months later, there were already problems.
• • •
Perez sent the couple receipts and said he was almost finished with the job, the Hollands said. He was to be paid thousands of dollars in fees.
But Judith Holland visited on July 15 and said she didn't see much work done. Perez made excuses, the lawsuit said, and said he had run into problems. He vowed to get back on schedule.
Then the rains came. Perez said he needed $950 to repair leaks from a tropical storm and to replace an electrical outlet, the couple said. They objected, but Perez said he already did the work. He demanded the money. They paid him.
The Hollands visited in October. What they saw devastated them.
After six months, the kitchen still wasn't done. The "job was being performed very slowly and poorly," the lawsuit said. "Perez assured them he would correct the poor workmanship."
Perez vowed to finish the job by mid-December. But he kept demanding more money.
Then in October, the couple was dealing with something far more serious: Judith Holland was diagnosed with cancer.
Around Thanksgiving, Perez texted to "wish her the best." He said all he had left to do at the house was install a water line for the fridge.
Move-in day was Dec. 14. The Hollands arrived at their supposedly renovated home.
"I knew we were in trouble," Glenn Holland recalled.
Within seconds, they realized they could not live there. The kitchen cabinets were hung crooked. The bathroom tile had gaps. The walls were not level. The house was in shambles.
Judith Holland wanted answers. She said she texted Perez at 12:36 p.m.
Fourteen minutes later, she got a text back.
"This is Marc's daughter, dad passed away on the 7th of December in a car accident. Sorry."
• • •
The text had shaken the Hollands. They felt terrible for Perez's family.
But they also needed a place to live. They rented a nearby home. They hired more contractors to fix the defects in their future retirement home.
The news got worse. Those contractors told the Hollands that Perez wasn't licensed. They also said the work he had performed violated building codes, that he never obtained any permits. Those emergency repairs Perez demanded payment for? They were never done.
The Hollands moved into the rental. Judith Holland's cancer spread. She underwent radiation treatments in February and March. They started to talk to neighbors about Perez.
The couple never found an obituary for him.
They were driving to the beach on a Sunday when Judith Holland said she remembered where Perez lived in Indian Rocks Beach. They drove past the house and thought nothing of the packed driveway. They told the neighbors about the vehicles.
Then the entire neighborhood started snooping for information about Perez.
One day a neighbor stopped by while Glenn Holland was working in the yard and said Perez was still alive. Holland didn't want to believe it.
"I never thought someone would go to that extreme to rip someone off," he said.
• • •
That's when Glenn Holland started his stakeouts outside Perez's home.
He said he didn't want to escalate the situation. He wanted his money back but didn't know where to go for help. So he went to everybody.
He filed a complaint with the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, which is supposed to catch unlicensed contractors. But he said the agency, which has had its own troubles of late, never responded. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office told the couple the dispute with Perez was a civil matter.
They had no other options. So they filed a lawsuit in Pinellas-Pasco circuit court on June 1 accusing Perez of misrepresenting himself as a licensed contractor when he agreed to the job.
It cost the Hollands $15,000 to fix their house. Meanwhile they lost the $7,600 they had already paid Perez. They're seeking that and more in damages.
The Tampa Bay Times contacted Perez. He returned a reporter's text on Wednesday.
"This is Marc Anthony Perez," he said when he called back. "You texted and called about a remodel job. What kind of work do you need done?"
The reporter explained that he was calling about the Hollands' allegations and lawsuit.
"I think you have the wrong number," Perez said. Then he hung up.
The number no longer worked as of Thursday.
• • •
Holland said he blames himself for not doing a more thorough check of Perez, even after neighbors provided glowing recommendations.
"You always hear about these things happening, but you never think it would be you," Holland said. "It frustrates me that there are people like this."
The county's Consumer Protection Office said it is investigating the case.
Daniel Moody, the Hollands' attorney, has been a construction lawyer for 33 years. He said his clients' ordeal is an example of how even a minor project can turn into a severe hardship. He warned homeowners to never pay for anything until the work is completed.
What happened to his clients, he said, is pretty typical of unlicensed contractors.
"Other than faking his own death," Moody said.
Contact Mark Puente at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente