Santa Barbara residents are all too familiar with the devastating fires that occur in our area. The Tea Fire began on November 13, 2008 and destroyed 210 homes after burning 1,940 acres. The Jesusita Fire began on May 9, 2009 and destroyed 80 homes, damaged 15 others and burned 8,733 acres. The people and families that lost their homes were devastated.
Penny “Penn” Estes was an alleged contractor who took advantage of the vulnerability of numerous victims of the Tea Fire and Jesusita Fire by promising to rebuild their homes using “green” building material that Estes claimed was fire resistant, cheaper than traditional building materials and good for the environment. Estes operated under her corporation name of Green Building America (GBA). It was discovered that Estes was not a licensed contractor and her corporation, Green Building America had been suspended and was not authorized to do business in California for at least 7 years. Her modus operandi would be to host gatherings and invite fire victims where she would gain the confidence of the fire victims by playing on their vulnerability and desperation for things to be normal again. Shortly thereafter she would promise to rebuild their homes in an unrealistic time frame, take most, if not all of the victim’s insurance proceeds and other building funds and then abandon the project. In one instance, Estes took in excess of $500,000.00 from a victim/homeowner (a local beloved family practice physician) and all he had to show for it was a concrete slab. This victim stated, “I lost my home once to the fire, and then I lost it again to Estes”. Another victim paid over $440,000.00 of a $455,000.00 contract and had a home that was less than 50% complete when Estes abandoned the project. Other victims were even less fortunate. They paid large sums of money to Estes and never had a single shovel full of dirt turned over. A number of the victims that were interviewed stated very plainly that that they simply wanted to be back in their homes and Estes promised them and assured them over and over that everything was on schedule. “We wanted to believe her because we simply wanted our lives to be normal again after the fire took everything from us. She (Estes) used that against us.”
Estes, on the other hand, was living the high life. A review of bank records show that Estes was using the money she misappropriated for travel, restaurants, shopping sprees, trips to the salon and numerous other expenditures that were in no way related to the rebuilding of the victim’s homes. A conservative estimate reveals that Estes illegally obtained close to 4.8 million dollars from at least a dozen fire victims.
An intensive 9 month investigation was conducted by Santa Barbara County District Attorney Investigators and a Special Agent from the Franchise Tax Board which resulted in the filing of a 24 count felony complaint against Estes and a warrant was issued for her arrest with bail set at $2,000,000.00. Estes was charged with Grand Theft, Diversion of Construction Funds, Tax Evasion and numerous other counts. In addition, special allegations were added to the complaint alleging that she defrauded victims of a natural disaster.
If you have any information on Estes or were a victim of Estes or Green Building America, you are encouraged to contact District Attorney Investigator Norma Hansen or Deputy District Attorney Gary Gemberling at 805 568-2300.