Assaulted by my electrician: an example of how some contractors use violence or the threat of it to intimidate customers
Building a home by hiring a contractor is often a stressful learning experience. I learned more than I ever imagined about foundations, roofing, vapor barriers, and my county prosecutor. The latter bit of education resulted from my electrician, who assaulted me on his last day on the jobsite.
Surprisingly, we'd gotten along very well as my home was being built, and I helped him out many times when he needed another pair of hands. He was one of the workers I personally bonded to, liking him so much I soon felt a warm glow whenever I'd see his quirky vehicle rolling up my driveway.
I paid the builder as stipulated in our contract, and the builder was supposed to pay his subcontractors, as is typical. However, the electrician wanted more money than what he was paid, so on his last day, he brought along an assistant. That gave me the creeps, because I knew he didn't need an assistant; the few remaining tasks didn't require help. I knew this heavily-muscled “assistant” was there to either intimidate me or beat the hell out of me if I touched the electrician as he began removing circuit breakers from the breaker box, threatening to tear out that and other stuff unless I wrote him a check on the spot. I explained the legal details of how I paid the builder every penny I owed, and he in turn was obligated to pay his subcontractors, but this electrician wanted money NOW, not an explanation for what the unethical builder was supposed to do.
The level of tension quickly escalated, so I darted inside to call 911. No dial tone; the SOB had cut my phone line (I later learned he instead pulled its wires out of the phone junction box on the outside connecting all of my lines to the phone company). With my phone access cut off, I was terrified by what was about to happen to me and my home. I considered getting my pistol, yet I knew the risks of that, so I instead grabbed my video camera, hoping that would deter him, but it did no more than heighten his anger if I pointed it at him. I soon realized that I could lessen his rage a bit if I pointed the camera down, but I kept trying to film him. Furious, he began shoving me around my garage, knocking me to the floor, and causing a large pile of long, heavy boards to fall on me.
The pain made me instantly realize that he might kill me, or try to. He kicked me a few times and menacingly cocked his hammer, like a person about to throw a tomahawk, as if he were about to cave in my skull. I struggled to push the boards off my chest so I could get away from this madman. After doing that, I ran outside, figuring retreat and staying alive was better than fighting to save my home, but the electrician followed, with his “assistant” close by.
The electrician began shoving me hard again, knocking me over backwards once more, this time falling over a shallow mound of top soil I hadn't yet spread. I considered fighting back in self-defense, yet I instinctively knew if I did that, the “assistant” would earn his pay for the day. From the look on his face, I could tell he was just looking for an excuse to hit me, and the last thing I wanted was to be fighting Charles Atlas and an aging but maniacally furious electrician who evidently thought that a felonious assault of a customer was just another day at work.
I knew my neighbors were home, so I screamed for help, yelling louder than I ever had before. I screamed until I thought my vocal cords would burst, but their home—a couple hundred feet away—was evidently too far. I ran there, asked to use their phone, and called 911. A police officer appeared about 90 minutes later, but he seemed as interested in investigating my case as he would if I'd reported that a mosquito had stung me. His “investigation” couldn't even be called half-assed, but he did take the videotape to show the prosecutor, who later contacted me to say he wouldn't go after the electrician, who left before the police arrived.
My $1600+ Sony Hi-8mm video camera had malfunctioning audio for years before, with the audio cutting in and out, but the video portion was A-OK. I didn't have all of the assault on tape, since the camera was pointed down at times to mitigate the electrician's anger, but I had enough so that any reasonably competent prosecutor would have charged the electrician with a felony and done his best to put him in prison for years.
I thought, “My God! Is this the new standard? That victims won't get even a chance at justice unless they capture all of the crimes on videotape? Nuts!”
Obviously, I shouldn't have needed to get any of it on tape. I was a credible, solid citizen with video evidence that what I said happened actually did happen. I still had marks on my body from the boards falling on me, and where the electrician struck me, but the officer didn't bother to photograph that.
The pile of boards, some undoubtedly with my skin embedded in it? Skip that, too.
My foot marks in the dirt, and the foot marks of the electrician as he chased and then shoved me? His path to the phone junction box? Why bother to check that? It could have corroborated my story, along with the videotape, but he had better things to do, he told me. He explained he had another call to go on.
Fine, I thought, I'm an ER doctor and understand busy, but why not come back when you're not busy?
Nah, he evidently still had better things to do.
Evidence? Who cares about evidence?
Crime? Who cares about crime?
People dutifully pay their taxes year after year, decade after decade, expecting that if they ever need police assistance, they'll get it, not excuses as to why they won't get it.
At that time, I was mystified by how the police and prosecutor brushed me off. I wondered what on Earth they were thinking.
I got a possible clue years later. The plumber for my home called me a couple times, filling me in on the plot hatched by the builder in cahoots with the electrician and the plumber, motivated by their desire to get more money from me. The electrician had performed more work than he originally planned for the home (with him thinking he'd do the bare minimum to meet code, and me thinking he'd wire it as we discussed), but most of the additional circuits were completely done by me, with me purchasing the circuit breakers, wire, switches, outlets, and light fixtures, and doing all the wiring, from the circuit breakers I installed to whatever they controlled. I wired every bit of the extensive security system, and purchased every component of it. I cleaned up every mess for him and the other contractors, except on days I had other obligations. Although I did most of the extra work, I really didn't care who did it, so I was willing to pay the electrician extra, as if he'd done it all.
The plumber explained how they'd meet in a bar to discuss how to force me into paying more. Their bright idea was to stop working, so for several weeks, that's exactly what they did: nothing. Desperate to complete it, I worked on it 18 hours per day, seven days per week.
I finally arranged a meeting where the builder, electrician, plumber, and I hashed out an equitable agreement. I didn't want any more misunderstandings, so to supplement the original contract I had with the builder, an attorney friend of mine advised me to get everything in writing. I did that, as the builders and I drafted mutually acceptable terms. In return for promising to do the work specified, I gave them a big check—more than what they otherwise would have been paid at that stage. After a pit stop in a bar, they returned to work, did more things, with me—as usual—doing a lot of it, helping the builder, electrician, and plumber.
Not long afterward, they decided they did enough work, though the house was far from complete, so they stopped showing up for work. I kept working day and night to complete it, when the electrician finally agreed to complete the few things I hadn't done. That's the day he arrived with Mr. Muscles, the “assistant,” and used force in an attempt to EXTORT even more money from me.
Know what EXTORTION is, Mr. Prosecutor?
Here's how the dictionary defines it:
extortion (noun): the act of securing money or favors by intimidation or violence; a crime in which the offender forces the victim to do something against his will, generally to give up money or other property, by threat of violence or property damage, etc.
The electrician wanted money—more than the tens of thousands I already paid in my last installment. The electrician signed that contract, along with the builder and plumber. Is it OK in Michigan to invalidate a contract with a fist?
When the plumber heard what the electrician did, he called me, utterly amazed by the idiocy of the electrician who admitted to him what he'd done. He said even the builder was alarmed that the yahoo electrician crossed a line that civilized people do not cross.
OK, Mr. Incompetent Prosecutor, in addition to everything else, you now have two witnesses who, under oath, would likely corroborate my story. But did the prosecutor bother to lift a finger? Nah, he had better things to do, just like the police.
Clearly rattled by the electrified idiot, the plumber came out and completed his work, after which we had a long chat in which he admitted how they colluded to get more money out of me. The plumber and I generally got along very well during the building process. He struck me as being intelligent, and I like intelligent people, few of whom ever sincerely hear that they are intelligent. I'm not shy about expressing my opinions, so if I have something good to say about someone, I will. The plumber told me how much that meant to him.
He echoed that sentiment years later when he called me a few times and we spoke, usually for about two hours. He told me of his serious health problems and concern that he might die before it was his turn on the liver transplant list. (Remember the bar?) He mentioned how the builder had his license revoked by the state, not for the shenanigans he pulled on me, but seemingly a result of some another scam. He mentioned how the building inspector in a local county (not the one I lived in, but home to the builder) lost his job and went to prison for accepting kickbacks for approving substandard work. Evidently some prosecutor is doing his job!
From what I was told, it seemed my builder had been involved in that scam, which didn't surprise me. In fact, I wondered if my builder paid my county building inspector to look the other way as he did substandard work that didn't meet the building code (I'm not talking about minor details, but a foundation and roof—among other things—that didn't meet code). The plumber said the builder lost his business and now worked as an apprentice for a well driller. The plumber now entirely sided with me after the builder cheated him out of money on another job, in addition to cheating him on my job. He asked that I write a letter detailing what my builder did wrong; I was happy to do that.
Now the pieces of this puzzle seemed to fit together, forming a picture enabling me to understand the bizarrely nonchalant attitude I received from my building department when I informed them what was going on here. The builder walked off the job, used fraudulent inducement (in my opinion) to get me to pay him tens of thousands more dollars, did a bit more work, then left the job for good well before completing the house without so much as a phone call or note. I spent months doing what needed to be done, and the building department didn't seem to care that much of my home was built by me, a licensed doctor, not a licensed builder. The excuse they gave was that I, as the owner, could legally work on my home. Yes, but myriad Michigan laws were broken by the builder and electrician in that process. One might think it would be reasonable for the building inspector to hold the builder's feet to the fire, using some of the power given to him by the Michigan legislature, but he left me to deal with the problems on my own.
I wondered where I was. In Bugtussle? I previously jumped through all the building department hoops, with me dutifully informing them if I so much as breathed in their county, and now they're telling me I could do whatever I wanted on my home even though no licensed builder was still tangibly associated with it?
This didn't seem to pass the laugh test of acceptability, so I did my best to communicate with the building department, but the best I got out of them was a couple of sighs and seemingly doing their best to avoid eye contact. I'm sorry, but I communicate with words, not nebulous sighs and body language that says something is up, but no clear idea of what it was. The vibes they telegraphed suggested they would rubber-stamp this mess in return for me forgetting about it. They look the other way, I look the other way, and everything is OK, right?
I know how to read, and my brother is a builder, so between the two of us, I know the construction I did was better than what licensed builders typically do, but relying on homeowners to build homes struck me as questionable. Then there was that inscrutable bit about what I was really paying for by paying for building permits. The building inspector approved the inadequate foundation and looked the other way about the roofing problem, so I wasn't paying for supervision as much as I was a rubber stamp. Is this what our government has degenerated into? Using Mafia-like power to compel us to pay without giving much of real value in return? I pay for them rubber-stamping incompetence? What's the point in paying for that? Gee whiz, dope-smoking high school dropouts could earn big bucks by doing that; an official stamp of approval should mean something and should not be debased in this way.
Oddly, the building inspector didn't give a hoot about the foundation or roof issues, but he said the maple trim I installed on the countertops I built from scratch (the first ones I built) was bound to soon fall off. Wrong. Over 11 years later, it still looks new, in virtually perfect shape, because I used waterproof glue to bind it in place. My countertops may not be the granite works of art that cause people to ooh and aah, but I built them so solidly and precisely that I doubt Norm Abram could do any better on his best day.
Another county oddity was how the tax assessor showed up one day, asked me if I'd completed my home, sighed when I said no, left and never came back.
I was too afraid at that time to sue the builder, figuring that he likely had few assets, and I might only succeed in angering him or his son. Several weeks before, on one of their last days working on my home, his son went into a rage in my driveway, swearing like a mentally ill drunken sailor and clawing at the air as if he were a cat fighting for his life against an imaginary opponent. Cats do that sometimes when they've had too much catnip, but what was his excuse?
Had I witnessed that outburst in the ER, I would have used the power the Michigan legislature gave me to get that young man the help he seemed to need, with a figurative padded cell keeping him away from others until his behavior was controlled. With no obvious explanation for why he acted like a crazy man, and with the son acting surly but not nuts at other times, I wondered if the profane dramatic fit was purposely staged to intimidate me into not trying to compel the builder to complete my home.
Thanks to the porous local sand, and thanks to additional work I did to divert water away from the home, the foundation inadequacy didn't cause any problems, but the roof issue was something else. Before the builder started work, I told him of the ice dam problem I had on my last home, explaining why I wanted an additional row of ice and water shield on this one, which he agreed to install, but later claimed to have forgotten about. The single row he installed did not meet code. The building inspector did not make him remedy the deficiency, making me wonder if they don't make builders fix problems that don't meet code, what are homeowners paying them for? Why even have a code?
According to my licensed builder brother, my home builder did not install an adequate header over a long picture window on a load-bearing wall. Indeed, when snow piled on the roof, the header bowed so much I wondered if the window might shatter, so I spent weeks each winter shoveling snow off my roof to reduce weight on it. I eventually invented much faster ways to remove snow than snow rakes, which seem adequate only for people who live in narrow, short one-story homes in low-snow areas. Although my roof snow removal innovations saved time, they still took more time than I had free, so I began covering my roof each winter with a large piece of plastic—very effective, but an esthetic abomination that I plan to fix by installing a new roof that should (but won't) be paid for by the building inspector or the county dumb enough to hire him, and not fire him when I informed them of his errors. Their response, reeking of government arrogance, taunted me for my inability to do anything about it. Their response boiled down to, “You can't sue … ha, ha. We're the government; we're untouchable.”
The building inspector's incompetence wasted months of my time dealing with the snow load and ice dam problems. Had he been working for himself or a business instead of the government, I could have sued and easily won. However, the government insists on giving itself the right to behave like an irresponsible teenager who uses force to make others acquiesce to his desire to screw up without repercussions, compelling others to continue using his screwed up services, no matter how pathetically inadequate they are. This isn't a very bright survival strategy for a government that, thanks to its financial ineptitude, is now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy that will likely culminate in its collapse. It will finally get what it deserves, and we will finally get what we deserve: freedom from the noose it placed around our necks, compelling us to put up with their endless incompetence.
One would need rocks in his head to think we are best served by government building inspectors who, as in my case, can screw up without paying for their mistakes. The free market provides an obviously superior alternative: private inspectors working for themselves or private corporations that can be legally held accountable for their errors. Such a system would be better for the inspectors, better for the homeowners, and better for the buildings they own. In its infinite wisdom, the state of Michigan allows builders to build homes who really don't know what the hell they are doing. In less time than it takes to read my blog, a person can go from flipping burgers to building homes.
Had my home construction been supervised by a private inspector, I wouldn't have needed to get on my roof once, so I wouldn't have fallen off three times, as I have, risking my life. Nor would I have needed to buy hundreds of dollars worth of plastic, rope, and other supplies to deal with the repercussions of my building inspector's errors.
In retrospect, I wonder if his errors were intentional. On the day I met him, I was perched on a truss in the attic, working alone as I so often did, when the inspector appeared, announcing who he was. I introduced myself and asked if he were just the building inspector, wondering if he were also the plumbing and electrical inspector. At that time, being new to the building process, I didn't know how it worked, or who did what. In any case, he interpreted my awkwardly worded question in the worst possible way, instantly melting into a petulant huff.
He asked with obvious annoyance, “JUST the building inspector? Just the building inspector? Yes, I am just the building inspector.”
“That's not what I meant,” I replied. “I don't know if you supervise everything, or everything except the plumbing and electrical work.”
The former, he said. I went on to explain that my original question may have seemed intentionally worded to minimize or disparage the importance of what he did, but I intended nothing of the sort. That's not how I think of people. Whether you're a CEO or a garbage collector, we all have important roles to fill. I genuinely appreciate what my garbage collectors do for me, so I've given them various presents over the years. I respect anyone who produces valuable products or performs valuable services, including building inspectors—at least, the ones whose right to their paychecks isn't earned because they work for a thuggish, unprincipled government that feels justified in compelling citizens to use the services of workers proven by their performance to be incompetent. If restauranteurs had similar power, they could sicken you with food poisoning and disgust you with poor service, yet compel you to return for more. If you said no thanks to that, they could fine you. For an intellectual challenge, try justifying why the government compelling people to use its incompetent services is any less execrable than when the Mafia twists your arm to pay for their “protection.”
I suppose it goes without saying this was a traumatic experience. Since the electrician knew where my bedroom was, I feared he might return at night and fire through a window or wall, so I changed where I slept, on the ground and in a sleeping bag, instead of in my bed. Multiple pads didn't adequately soften the hardness of the cement floor, but the disrupted sleep and aching back were a small price to pay for the enhanced security I felt by sleeping there.
My experience with the electrician wasn't the only one I had suggesting that some contractors use violence to get their way. Everything went fine with the well driller until the last day. He buried the water line from the well to my home so near the surface I knew it was bound to freeze. He said the moving water would keep it from freezing. I wondered if he were an idiot or if he thought I was.
What if there weren't moving water? What if I went on vacation in winter? What if I dared to sleep in my home and not run the water frequently enough? What if I didn't use enough water some days to draw water from the well (with my needs supplied by that stored in the pressure tank)? The weather here sometimes plummets to way below zero. Counting on running water that will certainly not run at times is downright stupid.
He eventually relented, buried the line deeper, and asked for his whopping check. I had my checkbook in my back pocket, ready to pay what I owed, but I said I wouldn't until he used his tractor to move the pool of drilling mud that looked like an ugly swamp on the side of my home. He curtly replied that it was my duty to deal with it. That's odd, I thought, I've seen countless homes with wells, and not one had a swamp of drillers mud by the well, near the house. Less than 10 feet separated that mess from my picture window; picturing that eyesore wasn't what I had in mind, so I repeated how I'd pay after he moved the mud about 90 feet away, down the side of a hill. I didn't ask him to move it to the next county, or even to the back of my land; I gave him an easy out that took less than 15 minutes with his tractor, but it likely would have taken me a week with my shovel and wheelbarrow.
Before he agreed to do that, he became enraged that I wouldn't pay until it was moved. He began yelling at me, gnashing his teeth like a rabid animal, and clenching his fists as if he were about to slug me. His brawny son, just as well-muscled as the electrician's “assistant,” also had clenched fists and a countenance that spelled RAGE. He stood a few feet away from his father, just itching to hit me, but at that time—a couple months before the electrician blew a fuse—I couldn't imagine that any reputable businessman would strike a customer, so I wasn't shaking in my boots, just calmly but firmly standing my ground.
The sweetest, kindest, and most gentle man I've ever known, my Uncle Bob, hired a contractor to build a deck. The mess he partially built looked as if it had been built by an intoxicated junior high school student with a bad attitude who didn't know what he was doing and didn't care. My Uncle asked the contractor to fix the problems and complete the work, but the contractor said he'd do neither, but he would do something else: beat him up if he sued him or turned him into the state.
When I worked as a contractor, I treated every customer with respect and courtesy, even the one who needed anger management therapy or a better psychiatrist. I endeavored to do everything perfectly, not just well, being so conscientious that I thrilled my most picky customer, a GM engineering executive, who I still fondly remember decades later.
Picky or not, customers with money keep builders from starving, yet I sensed no gratitude from the contractors who built my home. Some of them seemed to hate me for no apparent reason, other than the fact I wanted my home built correctly, such as not having drywall cover an electrical outlet, and not having a kitchen wall so bowed I couldn't possibly hang cabinets from it. One carpenter manifested his wrath by dumping garbage from his car onto my driveway and repeatedly urinating on the side of my house.
Others seemed envious, commenting that a house as big as mine would surely be a babe magnet. Babe magnet? The house was half the size of my last one, with a windowless kitchen the size of a postage stamp, two bedrooms, one bathroom, only four closets, and cold cement floors. That's a babe magnet? Where? In Russia?
I'd purposely downsized in cost and size so I could spend more time inventing instead of working to pay for a home that was much too big for a single man. I was so embarrassed by this “babe magnet” that I felt like crawling under a rock when my beautiful mail carrier flashed her gorgeous smile, and especially when she ascended my long driveway to deliver a package and saw the hideous plastic draped over my house, one of the constant reminders of dealing with a builder and inspector who either didn't care what they were doing, or didn't know.
Or maybe they did.
UPDATE: After recently responding to a county Jury Board questionnaire, I realized why my enmity toward the county for its failure to act won't dissipate: because the government has taken away the ability of people to seek justice on their own (no vigilantes, etc.) and given itself sole power to enforce laws and punish transgressors. But with power should come responsibility. If they say I can't seek revenge for what the electrician did to me, they have an obligation to punish him. But they didn't, so justice wasn't done, and those with an obligation to seek justice were content with letting the electrician get off scot-free.
The prosecutor who made that wacky decision is now the ex-prosecutor. I researched him and discovered that his impaired judgment wasn't limited to my case; he got in trouble for ordering that a relative's speeding ticket be dismissed, he showed other favoritism, and he allegedly assaulted an elementary school student at school. The county Sheriff indicated that prosecutor wasn't always as aggressive as he should have been in prosecuting cases. No kidding.
- If the electrician had a license, I couldn't find it online. Not only did the builder lose his license and business, but the well driller lost his business when he filed for bankruptcy. Surprisingly, I have something good to say about him: he was the only one willing to drill my well. When I called other well drilling contractors, they all refused after learning I was building on a high hill in an area they said had a water table far beneath the surface.
- Years after he worked on my home, I was snowmobiling when I encountered a pole barn being built by my former builder. My brother and I laughed when we saw what the builder had done: the two-color siding had an obvious step-off (horizontal mismatch) at one corner, and he did not complete it before winter, leaving a roof gap that could have been quickly covered, yet large enough to let in several feet of snow.
- Is it Possible to Sue the Government? Yes.
- Proof that prosecutors can be wrong even when they're certain they're correct: (jump to the section that begins, “As evidence of such staging, she [Prosecutor Judy Newcomb] kept insisting that Downs' long blond hair, curiously fanned out behind her head like a halo, could not have fallen that way as a result of the shooting itself.”
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