I-TEAM probe leads to arrest of tree trimmer, money returned

Suspect with long criminal history charged with felony grand theft

By Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects , Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter , Corley Peel - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - It took less than two days. An I-TEAM investigation that began Tuesday ended Thursday afternoon with the State Attorney's Office directing the arrest of a local tree trimmer -- a man with a lengthy criminal history. 

Shawn Curtis Albin, who has been arrested by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office 22 times since 2003, is now behind bars accused of stealing from a Hurricane Irma storm victim. In a court hearing Friday morning, a judge set his bond for $10,000 on the charge of felony grand theft.

Our investigation began immediately after Army veteran Greg James contacted the I-TEAM asking for help for his mom. He told us the day after Irma hit, his mother -- Wyannette Ephron -- paid a $700 down payment to Albin to take care of trees damaged by the hurricane.  But, both mother and son say Albin did not do the work.

"I just want to get justice for my mom," James told us.

James said he was out of town Sept. 12, the day Albin was in the 32210 ZIP code, seeking business in the storm-battered Westside neighborhood.

"The man came up, he had the sign on his truck, he had the professional shirt, and I asked him could he cut my trees down?" said Ephron.  

Surveillance video from Ephron and James' home show Albin in the neighborhood with a clipboard in hand Sept. 12, offering residents with damage estimates for his landscaping services.

"He said these are my credentials right here, and he said I have insurance, too," Ephron added.

She said because her neighbors where already hiring Albin, she felt comfortable hiring him too.

In both the front and back of the house, Ephron and her neighbor showed Albin the damaged and dangerous hanging limbs -- something we could also see on video from the surveillance cameras.

Ephron described to the I-TEAM the conversation she had with Albin in her backyard.

"Telling me all of what he was going to cut down. He said major trimming on that tree."

After looking at her trees in the front and back, Ephron said Albin told her it would be $700 down and another $650 after he finished the job. She said Albin said he would be back the next day to do the work, so she paid him the $700 in cash and Albin wrote her a receipt.

 "To be honest with you, he's a dirt bag," said James about Albin.

James is a retired Army veteran.

He did eight combat tours and was wounded by an IED. His valor earned him a Bronze Star Medal and a Purple Heart. Because he was out of town the day his mother hired Albin, he was heartbroken he wasn't there to check him out first.

"He did absolutely nothing. He got over on my mom," said James.

 He contacted the I-TEAM Tuesday night because Albin not only had his mother's $700, James said Albin contacted his mother demanding the additional $650 -- claiming he had done the work and wanted to be paid.

"He said you owe me my money. He said I want the rest of my money," Ephron told us. "He was supposed to come back the next day and do the job, which he has never touched my yard at all."

The I-TEAM uncovered Albin, with the Jacksonville business Unique Home Improvements, has an F rating with the Better Business Bureau.

We dug deeper and found his criminal background is lengthy. 

We found years of arrests including one just last month, on Aug. 28. Albin was charged exactly two weeks before Irma with false representation as a licensed contractor. He was released on bond before the Category 1 hurricane hit.

"I want him off the streets. I want him off the streets," James told the I-TEAM. "I want justice done."

We contacted the State Attorney's Office with the information we uncovered on Albin, and in less than 24 hours -- on Thursday -- he was arrested and charged with grand theft. At Friday morning's court appearance, the judge set Albin's next hearing date for Oct. 12.

Right after Albin's arrest Thursday afternoon, James called us to say an employee of Albin's brought him two money orders totaling $700.

The mother and son credit the I-TEAM and the swift work by the State Attorney's Office for resolving this stressful situation for their family.

"I recommend you calling the I-TEAM because they are on it. They're for the citizens of Jacksonville and they do investigations," James said.

Storm-related crimes hotline

State Attorney Melissa Nelson says her office is taking storm-related crimes seriously, and has designated a hotline so you can report any offense directly to her and her investigators -- whether you've been taken advantage of, ripped off, or worse. 

"We want to hold people accountable and the Florida statutes actually under a state of emergency allow enhancements, and we want to take advantage of the tools available to us to send a message to the community that we won't tolerate this," Nelson explained. "The folks that are out there taking advantage of victims of the storm aren't just targeting ... Most likely, they're taking advantage of another person so we encourage anybody who has information to please call us."

In the case against Shawn Albin, Nelson credits the I-TEAM for doing the digging and contacting her office with what we uncovered.

She told us, "Because of your station's investigative reporting and alerting us to an offender who is taking advantage of people, one of our investigators, John Zipper -- who is an excellent investigator -- was able to put a case together and arrest this offender in 24 hours."

Nelson says most of the calls to the hotline so far have been about looting and burglaries. No matter what storm-related offense you think has been committed, call 904-255-3099. Or if you prefer, you can report it online at sao4th.com. (On the home page, scroll to the bottom of the screen to where it says "Send An Electronic Message To The State Attorney's Office.")

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