JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Many small businesses offer services to homeowners such as yard work, painting, repairs and tree work.
It's likely safe to say that most are honest, hardworking men and women who provide a good service for a fair price. However, experts urge homeowners to use common sense when hiring handymen, and never, ever pay the full cost of the service up front.
The owner of a tree and landscaping company sparked a consumer alert, with victim after victim coming forward to say he talked them into paying before the job was finished and then disappeared.
Channel 4's Nikki Kimbleton found dozens of people who say they handed the owner a total of nearly $18,000 to K & D Tree and Landscaping. There were alleged victims from across town, from Arlington to Middleburg.
"I'm not angry; I'm hurt," said one homeowner who was too embarrassed to give her name.
The woman said she hired K & D Tree and Landscaping to do hundreds of dollars in work. She said workers finished about 25 percent of the job and then the company owner talked her into writing him a check for almost half to the total price: $1,400.
She told Channel 4's Nikki Kimbleton he never came back.
Another family said it gave K & D cash to cut down dead trees, but he never showed to do the work. Two days later the trees fell, damaging the family's house and pool.
Both victims admitted they knew better about paying up front but did it anyway.
"I'm hurt because I trusted him, and I was trying to help somebody that was willing to work," one homeowner said.
Jacksonville Sheriff Office records showed that Arthur Kenlee Ayers is the man these people say scammed them. Ayers was arrested late Friday afternoon.
Channel 4 found a stack of complaints with allegations against K & D Tree and Landscaping. The complaints claim Ayers would start the jobs, get paid before finishing and then disappear, leaving them to hire someone else to pick up the pieces.
Kimbleton learned of the investigation into Ayers because her aunt was also an alleged victim. She paid Ayers $2,100 to fix a window and cut down several trees. She said he took the money and never came back.
"He brought in a business license, proof of insurance, and the credentials looked so viable for me," said Gail del Campo.
Had del Campo checked out the documents, she would have learned they had expired.
The Better Business Bureau has given K & D Tree & Landscaping an F rating.
"I feel like I've been totally taken," del Campo said. "It's embarrassing. But the only reason I'm (talking about it) is so it doesn't happen to someone else."
Channel 4's investigation uncovered dozens of alleged victims over the past four months. Some of them filed police reports; some didn't. While Ayers has an arrest history in Clay County, he has not been charged in connection to this investigation.
Kimbleton turned over all she learned about Ayers and his company to the state attorney's office.
Because Ayers started the jobs, prosecutors said it appeared he had intent to finish. They said they would need more evidence to show intent to defraud to allow them to file criminal charges.
"In the court's view, it's not a criminal case," Channel 4's crime expert Ken Jefferson said. "In other words, this person promised to perform a service for a certain amount of money and that promise wasn't completely kept."
Prosecutors advise homeowners to never pay for a job before it's finished, no matter what someone says to try to get the money. Jefferson suggested taking several steps before hiring a handyman of any sort.
"A legit contractor doesn't always want money up front," Jefferson said. "They will contract with you, perform the services, and then you pay them. Most of the fly-by-night people -- the shysters -- will want to get 50 percent or more up front. They'll do a portion of the work, they will never finish, and you will never see them again."
WJXT's cameras found Ayers working at a home in an Orange Park neighborhood not far from where other homeowners are still waiting for him to finish jobs for which they paid.
Channel 4 tried to reach Ayers to hear his side of the story. He did not return messages left on K & D's voice mail.
Those who feel they were taken by Ayers' company said they don't expect their money back, but they do want justice.
"It seems he preys on people -- women that are alone and that he can take advantage of," said del Campo. "He also told me, 'I need money up front to pay my workers,' and that sounded OK, so I went ahead and gave him $700 upfront."
After Kimbleton's stories aired Thursday night and Friday morning, WJXT received more calls from people claiming to be victims of Ayers' company.
One man said Ayers was at his Westside home on Thursday to collect $300. After seeing Channel 4's investigation, he doesn't expect to ever see Ayers again.