By KYLE MARTIN
Published: April 19, 2008
Bryan Pearce returned home from work to find a new air-conditioning system cooling his house. He was incensed.
His partner had bought it that day from U.S. Air Conditioning for $9,000; the salesmen had assured him the original 4-year-old system was on the brink of collapse.
“There was nothing wrong with it,” Pearce said. “It was cooling the house and that’s all I cared about.”
The company came out again months later and offered to replace another part for $1,600. Pearce didn’t call them back. They kept calling to remind him he’s still entitled to free inspections. Pearce made it clear they could keep their contract.
Until three weeks ago, the 44-year-old Seven Hills resident thought he was alone in his struggles. But then he read a story in Hernando Today about the arrests of three U.S. Air Conditioning salesmen accused of duping their customers into paying for unnecessary air conditioning repairs.
It was like an epiphany.
“I said ‘I knew it, I knew it,'” Pearce recalled.
He wasn’t alone.
Others who claim they were scammed by U.S. Air Conditioning called the newspaper to complain about their treatment by the New Port Richey-based business.
They live across Hernando County and hail from around the globe, but each had a similar experience to share.
They spoke of scare tactics, high-pressured sales and instant financing for what they called exorbitant prices. Some were taken in; others got second opinions that validated their suspicion.
One of the suspects from the recent arrests, Stanley Lachowitz, accused Hernando Today of biased reporting and said there was no reason to write a follow-up article.
As for his charges, “everybody is innocent until proven guilty,” was his only comment.
The two others, Dennis Garloch and Steven Buhler, did not return messages.
Messages left at U.S. Air Conditioning seeking comment were not returned.
All three men list Port Richey addresses and are charged with attempted grand theft; Garlock, 25, of 8615 Newton Drive, is charged with criminal mischief and unlicensed contracting; Buhler, 32, of 7748 Washington St., and Lachowicz, 40, of 9100 Mark Twain Lane, are also charged with exploitation of the elderly.
The following is the summary of kitchen table talks and phone interviews with alleged victims of U.S. Air Conditioning.
The lead investigator on the case, Detective Jeff Kraft of the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, said the market is ripe because air conditioning is a key commodity in Florida. The prospect of enduring a summer without a cool retreat is a strong incentive for customers to dig deep into their pockets, he said.
Likewise, Florida’s senior population can make for easy pickings, he said.
“It’s the older people that are trusting,” Kraft added. “Go back 30 years and you could do a deal on a handshake. But you can’t trust anybody these days.”
Little Black Bugs
Beatrice McCrea thought they were little black bugs on her floorboard. She rubbed at them with a paper towel, but they never seemed to go away.
Folks who live below the Mason-Dixon Line would likely recognize the “bugs” for what they were — mold. But McCrea represents many of Hernando County’s retirees.
“I never had termite inspections or mold; I’m from New York,” she said.
Besides, U.S. Air Conditioning removed the mold in April 2007. At least, that was her impression.
McCrea, 75, calls home a cozy two-bedroom house with a shady front walk in Timber Pines. A widow of nine years, McCrea is independent and more than capable of taking care of herself — despite what her children might think, she said. But home repairs have her scratching her head.
Her husband was the kind of handyman who once had to instruct the plumber how to do the job. He would call her in to observe him on the job and say, “Bea, you’re going to have to learn this because I’m probably going to go before you.”
He was right, but his lessons didn’t stick and McCrea was left dependent on others to fix her leaky faucets and clean the gutters.
So when a U.S. Air Conditioning employee diagnosed mold during an inspection last year, McCrea took him for his word.
They recommended the installation of an ultraviolet light in her system to filter out the hazard. They charged $1,379 and wrote on the bill: “Fresh with install of UV.”
Problem solved, or so McCrea thought.
Ten months later, a “very nice young fellow” from her original air-conditioning company, Cool Quest, dropped by as part of her regular maintenance agreement.
He climbed down from the attic and dropped this bombshell:
“You are full of mold.”
The repairman dissembled the ducts in her attic and brought them down for her to see. The insides were black with mold, she said.
This is the part of the story when McCrea gets angry.
“I said, ‘How can I be full of mold?'”, McCrea demanded, stabbing the U.S. Air bill with her index finger. “What did I pay all of that money for?'”
The ducts were taken outside and hosed off for at least three hours. He returned with the ducts and let McCrea inspect them.
“Clean as a whistle” was her proclamation. The cleaning bill came out to $525, money McCrea says she shouldn’t have had to pay in the first place.
Proving criminal intent can be tricky. The biggest problem Kraft runs into is when suspects tear up equipment to force a repair and then remove the evidence by replacing the unit the next day.
That’s why he was surprised by the case of Garloch, who reportedly stabbed a coil with a duct knife to leak the Freon, Kraft said. The broken pipe was a gift for the detective.
What constitutes a criminal action is making statements that can be proven untrue. For instance: “This system is shot and needs to be replaced immediately;” or “Your evaporator coil is leaking.”
But some cases walk a fine line. Louis Mlecka says he was pressured into buying an ultraviolet light that eradicates the mold in the air passing by.
He was told the device would be required by law in the coming years so he might as well buy it now. Mlecka did, but he was able to bump down the asking price of $1,900 to $900 when he threatened to back out of the deal.
Mlecka, 78, never thought he needed it in the first place and cannot tell any difference in the air quality since the UV light was installed a couple of months ago in his Brooksville home.
But to take a case to court, Kraft would have to take an air sample before the light was installed, then one following the installation. The cost alone of such testing is prohibitive, but it’s impossible now that the light is in place.
Near Pinehurst Drive in Spring Hill, Peter and Freda Harden were made two promises. One was that their electric bill would be cut in half when they paid $6,218 for an entirely new system. That would also get rid of their mold problem.
The prospect of a mold infestation worried Freda Harden, who shares her home with her husband and two children. She signed a contract at 5 p.m. and by 8 a.m. the next morning they were on scene to begin installing.
“It was quick, quick, quick,” she said. “I felt set up.”
Her receipt shows they sold her a special filter for $1,000, which they assured her was a bargain. The Hardens later researched the filter and found it retailed for $288.
After the work was done, she asked another company for a second opinion and they told her that a mold infestation would have given the family watery eyes and irritated breathing.
Here’s what Cindy Koring and her husband would get for their $4,600: New air-conditioning ducts; fresh duct work; a coil guard; a lightning arrester.
Koring had to do a double take on the last item, which cost $94.70. Was that the same as a lightning rod? If so, why was that needed on an AC unit under her patio steps?
It was just one more nail in the coffin for her deal with U.S. Air Conditioning. The salesman had come out to her Pine Island home as part of her periodic maintenance agreement (PMA), which was supposed to be free. Her bill indicated as much, with the cost waived for a PMA.
But why was there another line item titled PMA for $89.90, then right below that another PMA for $87?
She already had her doubts about the bill and told her 89-year-old husband, Bill, to hold off on the estimate. When Koring tried to beg him off, the salesman first tried warning that the price wasn’t a guarantee, a hint that it could go higher.
Koring still had her doubts, so the man switched tactics and warned they would “freeze their bippies off” when the cold snap hit that night.
Cindy left the house for 10 minutes to compare notes with her neighbor and when she returned, Bill had signed the contract.
“He just pushed it in front of me,” Bill Koring said.
His wife clearly remembers the smile on the salesman’s face as he left.
“It made me sick,” she said.
Koring felt trapped, but her neighbor assured her that she had 36 hours to cancel the job if she wanted. Another AC company came out to look over her system and found nothing out of the ordinary.
They charged her $195 — a $4,500 drop in price — to change the filter and replace the Freon that the salesman supposedly leaked out of the system.
Koring waves away any suggestion of the old adage “caveat emptor” or “buyer beware.”
“That’s why we have people come out, because we’re not the experts,” she said.
Taken For A Fool
Ray Elliott is of the opinion that the U.S. Air Conditioning salesmen also take advantage of senior citizens with declining mental capabilities.
He gives his father as an example.
Before his death last November, it was evident Ray Elliott Sr. was succumbing to dementia.
Like others with complaints, Elliott says his father had no problems with U.S. Air Conditioning in the two years they serviced their house north of Brooksville.
Then one day in October 2007, Elliott returned home from work and his father proudly announced that a new AC unit had been installed.
Elliott was flabbergasted.
“What did you get a brand new unit for?” he demanded. “It was working just fine.”
Elliott Sr. assured him that the salesman had recommended an immediate change out because they had discovered rust and decay on the existing units.
Doubtful, his son checked the concrete slab outside the house where the AC unit sat and saw no sign of rust.
“They knew they had a fool,” Elliott said. “I hate to say that about my father … but he was the type of guy who believed you. He didn’t think people could lie, but he didn’t know the way people are.”
Reporter Kyle Martin can be reached at 352-544-5271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.