For seven years, Mark and Gary Trager, twins who own a Northeast roofing company, offered one excuse after another to 11 customers, after taking nearly $6,000 in down payments and failing to repair roofs and skylights.
The weather was bad. Materials weren't delivered. Health problems. Scheduling conflicts. Or "I'm on the roof, I'll call you back," and so on.
When the 51-year-old roofers ran out of excuses, they stopped answering the phone, or returning calls, according to 11 complainants who testified during a 3 1/2-hour preliminary hearing yesterday before Municipal Court Judge Marcia Nei-feld.
Of the $5,965 collected by the nonperforming Tragers from the 11 customers, a total of $1,945 was paid back to three customers. Only two of them were reimbursed in full. One witness, Daphne Pommells, had a $995 lien put on Mark Trager's home that was satisfied after his house was sold.
The Tragers didn't discriminate as to age, sex, race or marital status. They allegedly treated all 11 customers poorly, including a sister-in-law, Patricia Ann Kellam, according to testimony.
Timothy Tarpey, the Tragers' attorney, said at least one case was outside the five-year statute of limitations.
But Assistant District Attorney Andrew Notaristefano said all alleged victims would be included. He said the multiple-fraud case would show how the Tragers engaged in a continuing course of criminal conduct from 2000 through 2006.
The judge then ordered the brothers to stand trial on one count each of deceptive business practices and conspiracy, and six counts of various kinds of theft.
With several victims older than 60, some misdemeanor charges rose to felonies.
In cross-examining each witness, Tarpey found that neither Trager brother sought to hide his contact information from customers.
"There's strong circumstantial evidence these two guys are not thieves," Tarpey argued before the judge. "They did not do anything to hide their identity, home address or phone number.
"These two guys were contractors who unfortunately ran into health problems and things spiraled downward," he added. Both had heart attacks, he said later.
But Notaristefano argued: "They never had the intent to do the work. They wanted to take the money and use it for whatever they wanted to. . . . They were just giving excuse after excuse."
When a contractor accepts payment and doesn't do the work, that's sufficient to charge deceptive business practices, he added.
Kellam testified that she had given her brother-in-law, Mark Trager, a Jan. 21, 2003, check for $1,000 written to the twins' firm, Santini Contractors, for the repair of two roofs on a duplex and a garage on Castor Avenue.
After a series of excuses, she testified, she finally filed a complaint with Small Claims Court. Trager didn't show up for a hearing, and she was awarded a judgment of $1,000 plus court costs.
Eventually Trager's wife paid Kellam $500 from her own IRS return, said Kellam, who is still owed $500.
Gardenia Bradley said she paid Santini Contractors an extra $50 in cash to block squirrels from entering her roof, but they never did the work.
" 'I gave you $50 to do something,' " she said she told Gary Trager. "He just laughed."
"They're so rude," she added.
Though a past customer, feisty 72-year-old Joseph Winkis testified that he was not happy when Gary Trager failed to replace shingles after he paid him $275 in cash.
"I trusted them," said Winkis. Following one excuse after another, he told Trager: " 'I think you're scamming me.' "
" 'We don't do things like that. We treat our customers good,' " he said Gary Trager replied.
Quizzed by Tarpey about not doing work during bad weather, Winkis shot back: "You mean you're going to tell me it's going to be raining for a whole year?"
"It wasn't raining every day," he added. "I want justice to be served, not only for me, but other people out there."