Debbie Piunno can't stop crying. She can't eat or sleep. Her hair is falling out in clumps in her hands. And her formerly quaint Euclid backyard resembles the gutted tableaux of some war-ravaged city.
All she wanted was a dining nook.
Debbie and her husband saved up for 15 years for an addition with a full basement, a long-awaited expansion for their compact mid-century bungalow just off the E. 222nd exit of Route 2. Her house now in shambles, Piunno's facing foreclosure at the hands of Neil Wolfe of Neil Construction Company, a silver-tongued contractor who seemed competent and reliable when she accepted his bid and paid him $11,625 up front last summer.
Seven months later, she's sunk $26,415 into the project, her dreams of a dining nook now an all-consuming nightmare.
"It's killing my wife," says Joe Piunno in the couple's cozy living room, clotted with furniture formerly destined for the dining nook. "She's aged ten years in seven months." Debbie, who once worked in property management, likens herself to "the shoemaker whose own kids have the worst shoes."
"Neil's a really good talker," muses the trim 59-year-old as she shakily stubs out her fourth Marlboro Light. "He convinces you he's going to do a fantastic job."
What a "fantastic job" entails, Neil Construction-style: the Piunnos' basement footer was poured four inches shallow, requiring a sump pump not originally in the contract. Tiptoeing gingerly through wettened gravel, Debbie indicates where she had to reinstall the pump herself after one of Wolfe's workers erected it sideways in the wrong part of the basement. Wolfe didn't mount downspouts on the addition's exterior, so rainwater floods the gravel bed. The contractor never got around to pouring the cement floor.
The problems continued to multiply. Wolfe's roofers didn't extend the sewer stack far enough through the roof, causing methane gas to empty internally. The three windows and patio door weren't installed level, but Piunno's not planning to use the door anyway: Wolfe never built a stairway, and her "backyard" is now a massive dirt mound abandoned by Wolfe's excavators. Half of Piunno's driveway is missing. The new roof leaks, breeding mold under the fresh drywall. The cathedral ceiling's roof beams threaten load failure.
"He does enough work to say that he's doing his job, that he's 'trying,' that you're 'interfering,' and then gets mad at you so you fire him. So he looks like the good guy and it's all everyone else's fault. My whole house is upside down," frets Debbie.
Not trusting Wolfe to finish the project, she sent Neil Construction a Cease and Desist letter on December 4th. She figured he had already gotten so much money from her, he'd move on. She was wrong. Wolfe wasn't done making their abode a living hell.
A month later, Wolfe filed a mechanic's lien against the Piunno property for $5,325 and on January 25th threatened to begin foreclosure proceedings if he didn't receive the balance for the contract within 10 days. "That's exactly what we would owe him if he had done the work, but he hasn't completed anything," says Piunno.
A structural engineer who inspected the addition noted "deficiencies of grave concern" and said he wouldn't feel comfortable standing in the room for more than ten minutes, though the Piunno clan ate their Thanksgiving dinner-without heat or electricity-on the bare plywood floor anyway. Debbie says she hasn't recovered from the engineer's grim prognosis: "an entire rebuild may be necessary," his report concludes.
The Piunnos aren't alone: Scene spoke with four other couples upon whom Wolfe imposed mechanic's liens last year. Rob Davis, a Canton homeowner who paid Wolfe up front for shoddy roof and siding work, was similarly dismayed when he found the lien notice. "I'm flabbergasted," says Davis. "He collects the money and walks away. He kept putting me off and telling stories. That's not a contractor; that's a con man."
Wolfe's excuses for the delays are myriad and colorful, the stuff of a low-rent picaresque: whether it's vacations, deer hitting his car, his girlfriend's daughter getting in a car accident, his son's friend stealing and pawning Wolfe's father's ring, his crew driver's brother-in-law dying of cancer, or workers betraying him, he appears constantly besieged by persuasive-seeming setbacks, several of which he cited to multiple clients on different dates.
"These people are on a smear campaign," claims Wolfe when reached by Scene. "They're crucifying me." Wolfe concedes that he made two mistakes on the Piunno property: not pulling a permit for HVAC duct work and pouring the basement footer four inches shallow. He says everything else is a contractual misunderstanding.
Failure to obtain permits is one of Wolfe's favored motifs: he was barred from registering in Wickliffe, South Euclid, and Mentor for permit violations. He's been taken to court twice by the State of Ohio for violations of the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act, most recently in 2004.
Scene last caught up with Wolfe in 2005, after his second state prosecution and a slew of lawsuits. He told us then that that the Better Business Bureau was "on a campaign to crucify and destroy" him (his laments, then as now, tend toward the messianic); currently, however, Wolfe's standing with the nonprofit mediating organization is rosier.
Wolfe relocated his construction operations from Mentor to Aurora in 2006 - intentionally or not - skirting the purview of the Greater Cleveland Better Business Bureau, which by that point had tallied a damning corpus of consumer complaints against him.
Now under the aegis of the Akron-area BBB, Neil's rating is an immaculate A+; Piunno's file states "Complaint resolved with BBB assistance." Piunno contests the verdict; since Wolfe told the BBB he was willing to resume work once Piunno paid him the balance of the contract, their dispute resolution consultant closed the case. Piunno encountered a similar stalemate when she filed a complaint with the Attorney General's Office.
A cursory search of Northeast Ohio municipal and common pleas court dockets reveals that Wolfe's no stranger to tort and contract litigation, however. Kathi Piergies tried suing Wolfe in 2008, the beginning of a four-year case that Piergies eventually lost because Wolfe's performance bond paid out.
One of the obstacles homeowners face when they pursue litigation against Wolfe is what Mentor Building Commissioner Scott Amos regards as his "ironclad contract." According to Piergies, "he'll structure his contract such that you pay ahead. Once he thinks he's gotten as much as he can get from you, he takes off with half of it built. Then he files a lien against you for the balance and uses it as a bargaining chip to get you to back off in courts."
"He would win quite often because of his contract," agrees Amos. "When he gets to court, he says, 'I did this, this, this and this,' and it's his word against theirs. [The contract] lists the dates he'll get paid, but it doesn't state the work that has to get done in order to get this money."
Piergies is worried that Wolfe has become "more aggressive," emboldened by the relative impunity he's enjoyed in the courts. As Massilon resident Peggy Benham discovered last July, "aggressive" is an appropriate term: Wolfe won't relent, even if you're dead.
Wolfe contracted with the Veteran's Administration to remove an interior wall and install a wheelchair lift and bathroom expansion to accommodate Benham's husband William, a disabled Vietnam vet. Though the Benhams received a grant for the project and Wolfe was financed through the Veteran's Association, Benham says he kept pestering the couple for additional funds, saying he needed additional cash up front for supplies. "This should be a red flag," says Amos. "Reputable contractors have good credit at supply houses."
The contract was approved by the VA in January; Wolfe tarried, and the Benhams had to re-submit a renewal for the grant application three times. The contractor didn't show up to work until July. Workers didn't take measures to contain the insulation and dust debris from the wall demolition, which exacerbated William's lung cancer and emphysema complications; his medical aide was forced to double his breathing treatments. "He wanted to be at home," Benham tearfully explains. "We were trying to figure out what to do to keep this stuff away from him. That last week just put him under."
William passed away on July 15th. Weeks later, Peggy received the same lien notification Wolfe had sent to Davis and Piunno. She knew the Veteran's Administration would handle payment for the work Wolfe had already done, a fraction of the original contract, and hoped he would stop contacting her. But Wolfe was furious she didn't want to proceed with the designated installations, though she by then had no need for a bathroom expansion or wheelchair lift. "I hate that I let this happen," says Benham. "I was like, 'My husband just passed away. I don't want to deal with you.'"
Homeowners aren't the only ones exasperated by Wolfe's dilatory behavior and what Benham terms his "extortionary" business principles. Amos indicates that Wolfe's subcontractors are frequently treated to the same chicanery as his clients: "He goes through subcontractors—he strings them along, keeping them with him to a point where he owes them money, and after a while, they just give up."
One of Neil's subcontractors who wished not to be mentioned by name insists that Wolfe has "screwed everyone over." "How can you justify this?" he clamors months later. "You're ripping me off and you're ripping off the customer." Though Wolfe still owes him "quite a chunk of money," he refuses to work for the contractor again. "You're dealing with a real psycho," he affirms. "Get the word out there so he's not burning more people."
Vance Goodman, a drywaller who worked on the Piunno property, was privy to another of Wolfe's unsavory trademarks: his predilection for racist epithets. When told that Wolfe growled, "You fucking dagos are all alike" in high dudgeon at the Piunno residence, Goodman wasn't surprised. He ruefully shared a representative text from Wolfe, choice excerpts, censored here, of which include: "You acted like an uppity N*****... is that how a man acts? Or a n*****, a child, a pussy?... You people are your own worst enemy."
"He's a lunatic," Goodman remarks of his embattled tenure with Wolfe. "I don't deal with him anymore."
The Piunnos aren't so lucky. Forsaken by the Attorney General's Office and the Better Business Bureau, their only recourse now is to seek funds to repair the addition through Wolfe's bonding agency, but Charles Drazetic, Housing Manager for the City of Euclid, believes their prospects aren't promising: "Right now, it's turning out to be a 'he said, she said' situation," he explains.
To the Piunnos, the dispute amounts to more than that. Unlike Wolfe's workers, Debbie and Joe can't just walk off the job. "He took all our hopes, our dreams, our money, and left us with a piece of crap," says Joe. Debbie nods. She's crying again, wiping her cheeks with the backs of her hands like a child.
"We trusted him," she huskily manages. "Now our lives are in shambles."
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