Star investigation: Kennis Heath one of a growing number of vulnerable seniors being preyed on for their life savings.
Kennis Heath lay in her wrecked house, her life savings gone, slowly starving to death.
A Star investigation reveals the 76-year-old Toronto woman was one of a growing number of Canadian seniors victimized by fraud. In Heath’s case, it was a home renovation scheme that the province alleges has also hurt as many as 90 other seniors across Ontario.
“The elderly are targeted because they have a lifetime of accumulated wealth . . . and are particularly vulnerable because of their upbringing during a different time when one was courteous to and trusted strangers,” according to claims filed in a court action against Toronto builder Jack Singer and his associates, seeking to recover lost funds on behalf of victims, including Heath.
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Singer, 60, was recently convicted of fraud and theft in the Heath case, and is awaiting sentencing in late March. The judge found the Yorkville-based contractor guilty of “cheating” Heath out of $300,000 in life savings stored in RRSPs. In return, the judge said Singer provided shoddy workmanship worth about $45,000.
According to claims filed in court by the province, Singer and his family have been living the high life. A forensic review found two Yorkville condominiums were purchased shortly after the Heath renovation, and Singer family members paid off Visa Gold bills of more than $40,000.
Singer’s wife, who the province has also gone after, had charges to her card for purchases from Prada, Giorgio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana in Milan, Italy, as well as travel expenses in St. Maarten, New York and Las Vegas.
Singer and his wife have maintained their innocence. Both say their lifestyle has been funded by generous inheritances from family members. Singer maintains he is a conscientious contractor who strives to deliver good value to clients.
In 2008, Kennis Heath was an energetic lady who loved gardening and puttering around her modest bungalow in Willowdale. Strong-willed, she is a retired nurse who saved well over the years. Kennis has two adult children who keep watch over her but are busy with their own lives. She has bipolar disorder, court heard, and a decision had been made earlier that her financial adviser would restrict her monthly withdrawals from savings to $1,000.
That summer, Heath, who separated from her husband when her kids were young and lived alone, found a pamphlet in her mailbox from a company called Stay at Home Renovations. When she phoned to inquire about making improvements to her home, contractor Jack Singer agreed to come by for an assessment.
That meeting resulted in three contracts that outlined an escalating series of renovations, including rebuilding a chimney, installing an eavestrough, building a cedar deck, removing “black mould” from the attic, installing a new kitchen and two new bathrooms, and new plumbing and electrical wiring.
Heath was unaware that Singer had a lengthy history of complaints lodged against him by other seniors and was being investigated by the province for home renovation schemes.
Singer and his team of renovators quickly began what the criminal trial later heard was a “gut renovation” — tearing the inside of the bungalow apart. Court heard that the contract did not allow that.
Within two days of signing the first contract with Singer in August 2008, Heath paid Singer $127,000, prompting her financial adviser to call her son Brian and sound the alarm. A series of other payments to Singer followed.
The court documents do not explain why an amount far over Heath’s $1,000 monthly limit was paid out.
Brian Heath said in an interview that when he called his mother to see what was going on, she told him not to worry, that she was renovating her home and was “perfectly fine.”
But when he dropped by his mother’s house, he said he could see the work was substandard. “The trim around the door was on backwards,” he said.
The place also appeared to be in shambles. Brian voiced his concerns, but his mother insisted that it was her money and she would be proceeding with the work.
A few weeks later, Brian received an alarming phone call.
“I really think someone should come down and look in on your mom and see what’s going on down here,” said the caller, one of Singer’s workers.
The call came during a raging snowstorm and Brian, unable to drive to his mother’s house, called 911. By the time he was able to get to his mother’s home, she was in hospital being treated for severe dehydration. Police had entered the house and found Heath curled up in bed. They were unable to wake her, according to documents filed in provincial action to regain funds from Singer.
“My mom’s house was destroyed . . . there wasn’t a tool in the house.”
Not only was the place unlivable but the builder had abandoned the job. The kitchen wasn’t functional. There was no running water.
In an affidavit later filed in civil court, Ministry of Consumer Services investigator Dermot Jennings said “it is possible (Heath) had nothing to eat or drink for some time.”
Brian went through his mother’s paperwork and when he realized what she’d paid, he immediately contacted Singer, who told him it would cost another $60,000 to finish the job. Until that money was paid, Singer said he would do nothing.
More than $300,000 to renovate his mother’s small house, with another $60,000 owing, seemed excessive to Heath. He went to the police, and on Jan. 27, 2009, police laid criminal charges of fraud and theft against Jack Singer.
It took four years to complete the criminal case.
Singer testified at trial that he had developed a “fabulous relationship” with Kennis Heath. He said they often sat together at the job site and discussed medical conditions — he said Kennis spoke of her bipolar condition and he told her of his battles with depression. They shared tea and baklava almost every other day during the three-month renovation project and Singer said he “treated her like my mother.”
Singer testified that the work and materials were worth about $100,000. He said in addition, he paid $40,000 to associate Brent Steinberg to supervise the renovation because Heath was a “difficult” client.
Moreover, he said he owed Steinberg another $40,000 for finding the job.
Justice Glenn Hainey of the Superior Court of Justice observed that $40,000 was a lot of money to be paid for what amounted to dropping off a handmade pamphlet in Heath’s mailbox.
Singer testified that he still had $40,000 worth of work to complete the job and so the $300,000 made complete sense when you added up all the numbers and factored in a reasonable profit margin.
Though Kennis Heath was not well enough to testify at the trial, she told an earlier preliminary inquiry that she was “living in shambles” and Singer “was just tearing the house apart.” When Heath first spoke to the Toronto Police, she alleged her house had been “desecrated by a confidence trickster.”
At the trial, expert witness Rudy Mulder, a building inspector and contractor, stated that, at most, Singer’s work was worth $67,750, a figure he said included materials, labour and a 25 per cent profit margin.
“You got to keep this in perspective, I could provide a new house for $140,000 . . . you can’t dump $300,000 into a 700-square-foot cottage,” Mulder told the Star in a recent interview.
Justice Hainey would later look at pictures of Heath’s home and write that the builder had “left Mrs. Heath’s house in an almost uninhabitable condition.”
On Nov. 1, 2012, Singer was found guilty of fraud and theft. In his written decision, Hainey wrote a scathing indictment of Singer. Regarding the renovations at Kennis’s house, Hainey stated that, far from being worth more than $300,000, “very little of the work done meets the low end of construction standards . . . the renovations actually provided … have a value of approximately $45,518 worth of material and workmanship.”
Hainey said he did not find Singer to be a credible witness and concluded the builder’s “markup to be a grossly excessive charge.” Justice Hainey concluded Singer’s plan all along was that he “intended to defraud Mrs. Heath.”
Singer will appear for sentencing March 28.
The costs to the Heath family were high, both financially and in less tangible costs described in court.
Hainey observed “Mrs. Heath’s mental health deteriorated . . . she was admitted to the psychiatric department of Sunnybrook hospital.” The stress turned an energetic senior into a broken woman. At one point, shortly after her house was left in shambles, Kennis tried to kill herself, the judge noted.
While the criminal case against Singer proceeded through the courts, a little-known provincial agency called the Civil Remedies for Illicit Activities has been using the civil courts to try to recover money it believes Singer, his wife and son, associate builder Steinberg and four others bilked from as many as 90 seniors. The case, which alleges Singer and his group committed serial fraud against the elderly, is still before the courts.
The province has discovered more than 90 victims who were allegedly defrauded by Singer and his group — virtually all seniors living on pensions, nine of them older than 90. The amount lost, more than a million dollars.
The claim filed in this case alleges “Jack Singer is the controlling mind of these three corporations . . . all of which he used to engage in and conspire with others to engage in the unlawful activity of consumer fraud.”
One of the victims named in the civil case, Clifford Kettlewell of King City, is an elderly retired police officer. He replaced his roof in 2007 and, a year later, Singer turned up and said he was part of the company that had done the work. He was there, he said, for the one-year inspection. The owner of the company later denied knowing Singer.
Kettlewell alleges Singer told him that insulation in his attic was full of mould. According to the court record, Singer told Kettlewell: “this mould caused cancer . . . this insulation needed to be replaced immediately.” Kettlewell’s wife had recently passed away. The allegations against Singer say he implied “that this mould was a contributing factor in Mrs. Kettlewell’s demise.”
Kettlewell paid Singer for two contracts worth more than $30,000 for the repairs. Later, the Ministry of Consumer Services would notice that the two contracts billed for the same work twice.
Yet Singer came back for more — an additional $10,000 to do exterior work. Kettlewell decided something was wrong with the whole deal. He phoned in a complaint to the Ministry of Consumer Services. They investigated and charged Singer with an offence under the Consumer Protection Act. He pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay $10,000 restitution to Kettlewell. The money was paid, but provincial investigator Jennings alleged in his affidavit that the “$10,000 may have come from another victim.”
The civil suit also paints a picture of how Singer’s group allegedly worked as a team to defraud seniors. One person gained entry and then let the rest know that the elderly person was a suitable victim.
In his defence to the ongoing civil suit brought by the province, Singer, his wife and others say that their lifestyle, including recent purchases of property, has been funded by inheritance money from relatives.
Singer notes in his affidavit that he has had several careers, including the scuba business, chocolate manufacturing, a Florida sandwich shop and for the past 20 years the renovation business. He said he declared bankruptcy in 2001.
As to the allegations brought by the province in the Kettlewell case, Singer said all of his work for Kettlewell was done in a “workman like manner and the contract price was consistent with contracts in the industry.” He said he only pleaded guilty to the consumer charge to resolve the matter quickly.
As to the allegations involving Kennis Heath, Singer said the work he did was “necessary, to the appropriate standard and fairly priced.”
When contacted to ask about the allegations and criminal convictions, Singer referred the Star to his lawyer, who did not respond to an interview request. Asked about the province’s action against him, Singer said: “You can see how complex this case is. To me, it doesn’t make sense.” When asked what doesn’t make sense, Singer replied, “Everything.” Singer told the Star he plans to appeal. He denies all the charges and says his work was well within acceptable standards and earned him a profit similar to any other contractor.
Kennis Heath, now 80, lives in a retirement home near Alliston, north of Toronto, close to where her son lives. Visited recently by the Star, she seemed to be adjusting to her new life. Due to her condition, she has no memory of what happened.
In the months after the renovation scam was discovered, her son began fixing up her home. Within weeks, Brian’s friends started showing up. They helped put his mother’s house back together, it was sold and she had enough money to move to the retirement residence.