A single mother in Red Deer is sounding the alarm about a contractor who took her money and gave her nothing in return.
Ronald Westergreen has left a trail of bad debts across Central Alberta spanning the past 14 years, but hasn’t yet been put out of business.
Jennifer Bell wanted someone to build a glass enclosure for her pet boa constrictor.
She posted an ad on Kijiji, an online classified site, and Westergreen responded.
“We talked a couple of times over the phone,” Bell said. “He presented himself very professionally.”
After reviewing drawings, Bell said she and Westergreen seemed to understand exactly what she wanted and had the experience to do the job. He quoted her $1,975.
She had intended to buy the materials herself, but said Westergreen told her he could get her a better price using his own business account. She agreed.
“I don’t have a lot of money,” she said. “I’m a single mom and a student.”
Bell gave Westergreen a deposit of $1,000 for materials. In return, he gave her a receipt and a delivery date.
She said Westergreen kept in touch with her throughout the job, and that she paid him the balance of the agreed-upon amount the day before the enclosure was to be delivered.
Excuses began mounting
After receiving the payment, Westergreen told Bell there had been problems drilling holes through the glass. He said there would be a delay in completion.
When Bell asked him to send her pictures of the finished product, she said Westergreen told her he’d had a mishap, had dropped a drill on the enclosure and broken a pane of glass.
After that, she said Westergreen became hard to contact.
After being unreachable for a few days, he called to say he’d been at a funeral in the Northwest Territories.
“So, of course, I’m like, ‘That’s so sad. Take your time and get back to when you can,’” Bell said.
After a couple more weeks, however, Bell discovered Westergreen’s phone had been disconnected.
After sending an email saying she was worried she had been ripped off, Bell got an email from someone using Westergreen’s address claiming to be his son “Keith.”
"Keith" said Westergreen had suffered a stroke, but that his sons would take care of all his affairs. He gave her a new cell number to call.
'''I honestly believed he was getting mad at somebody for my stuff not being in – but who knows? He was talking to nobody.' - Kodie Semeniuk
Believing this explanation, Bell felt sympathetic, but when nothing happened after another week she started pressing for answers once again.
"Keith" continued to email back excuses – then, the new cell phone number he gave Bell was also disconnected.
After more emails from Bell, “Keith” said Westergreen had suffered another stroke and that the family had a “decision to make.”
“Which, to me, meant they going to have to pull the plug on him,” Bell said.
She never heard from Westergreen or his family again.
Eventually, Bell admitted she’d be taken. It was only then she began hearing other people’s experiences with Ron Westergreen.
Contractor owes money all over Central Alberta
Kodie Semeniuk is also a single mother. She hired Westergreen to re-do her kitchen.
Semeniuk said she went with Westergreen to Rona and Home Depot to pick out cabinets, plumbing and countertops, paying Westergreen more than $3,000 to buy, deliver and install everything.
Then, Westergreen told her there would be a delay because the cabinets were back-ordered.
Finally, after more a month of waiting, Westergreen said he was ready to begin.
Semeniuk emptied all her cupboards in preparation for Westergreen to start work, but when he arrived he said the wrong order had been shipped.
She said Westergreen then made a phone call and began berating someone for the mistake.
“I honestly believed he was getting mad at somebody for my stuff not being in,” she said. “But who knows? He was talking to nobody.”
Semeniuk later discovered Westergreen never ordered anything and had instead kept the money for himself.
Three months later she confronted him on his doorstep, demanding her money back, she said, but had no success.
Semeniuk later won a court order against Westergreen for $3,895, but has never been able to collect.
Familiar stories and excuses
Go Public spoke to nine other people in Red Deer and Lacombe County who say Westergreen owes them money for work not completed or never started, or for materials ordered in their name without their knowledge.
One person, who claims to be owed more than $25,000, said he also was told Westergreen had suffered a stroke.
However Westergreen's daughter, Sarah Westergreen, denies her father has ever had a stroke. She said her father was recovering from both a car crash and a heart attack, however.
And while she admits to being largely estranged from her father, Sarah Westergreen said she does maintain weekly contact.
Joanne and Earl Slack of Mirror, Alta., have a court order against Westergreen for close to $11,000 – but claim he owes them at least an additional $10,000.
The Slacks had hired Westergreen in 2008 to raise their house and build a basement and addition.
Westergreen never finished the work.
Although they paid him in instalments, they said Westergreen never paid suppliers for materials or for inspection permits as they had agreed, leaving them on the hook for things they believed had already been paid for.
“We’re a little bit poorer and a whole pile wiser, I’m hoping,” said Joanne Slack. “How did we feel about our experience? Like a bunch of fools obviously, but we’ve weathered it okay.”
The Slacks still have not collected any money from Westergreen.
‘Walking that line between a civil matter and criminal matter’
Court documents show Westergreen declared bankruptcy in 1999.
In 2012, Ron Westergreen was charged with 12 counts of defrauding a couple from Lacombe County. His next court appearance is in June 2014.
Go Public made several attempts to contact Westergreen; through his daughter Sarah, at his last known address listed in court documents and through phone numbers provided to clients. We haven’t heard back from him.
People familiar with such cases say repeat offenders know exactly what they’re doing.
“They’re walking that line between a civil matter and criminal matter,” said Kathy Macdonald, a former police officer, now a volunteer board member with the Alberta Community Crime Prevention Association.
Macdonald said before they can lay fraud charges, police must believe they can prove the scammer intended to deceive.
“They may do a little bit of the work, they may delay it because … of missed delivery of goods – so it seems they are doing the job, they’re planning to do the job, but they never actually do the job,” Macdonald said.
“Often the customer loses energy and moves on and doesn’t report it to police,” she said.
She advises anyone who feels they were ripped off to report it to police so they can start a file and recognize names and recurrent patterns of behaviour.
She also says people can do more to protect themselves in the first place.
“Don’t rush into things. Get some references and check them and get quotes so you know what the cost of a job is so you can be skeptical when someone says they can do it faster for [a lower] price.”