Wells man accused of taking advantage of tornado victims goes on trial

Mug shot Courtesy: Angelina County Sheriff's Office
Mug shot Courtesy: Angelina County Sheriff's Office
McKnight in the courtroom
McKnight in the courtroom
Prosecution witness Michael Hills
Prosecution witness Michael Hills

By Morgan Thomas - bio | email

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) – A Wells businessman is on trial facing 10 counts of fraud after he scammed tornado victims, according to prosecutors.

The trial of Jason McKnight is underway nearly a year after a tornado swept through a Lufkin neighborhood leaving behind a path of destruction.  McKnight is said to have taken advantage of tornado victims by illegally securing building permits on their behalf from the City of Lufkin.

State District Judge Paul White read aloud all 10 counts of defrauding the city to the jury.  McKnight pleaded 'not guilty' to each one.

Assistant District Attorney Art Bauereiss presented opening remarks to the jury, while the defense delayed making its opening remarks until after the state presents evidence.

Lufkin High School teacher Michael Hills was among the first witnesses to testify.  Hills told the jury just three days after the tornado, he was approached by David Meeks who was associated with three local roofing companies, including Wells Siding and Roofing which is owned by Jason McKnight.

Hills said he was asked to sign a proposal or bid for tarping and roofing his house.  Hills testified that he made sure that it was only a bid and that he told Meeks he didn't want any work or tarping done on his roof.  He said he wanted to get more bids.

Hills said after running a few errands he returned home to find about ten people on his roof laying tarp.  He said he was afraid to stop the workers because he was afraid they would rip up what they had already done which would have caused more damage than the tornado did.

Under cross examination, defense attorney Al Charanza asked Hills to read part of what the witness said was a bid proposal.  Charanza said essential what Hills signed authorized work to be complete on his home.  Hills said what he read in court and what he was told by contractors were two different things.  Charanza asked if Hills had signed other contracts before and Hills answered, "yes."

McKnight was arrested in January for securing building permits without homeowner approval of construction work.  At that time he said, "I've done nothing wrong.  We haven't taken one red penny from nobody."  McKnight said rumors started flying, scaring his customers and calls started going in to the city which sparked an investigation.

Charles Smith, a resident of the Englewood subdivision, was the third witness to be called by the prosecution to testify about his experience with Wells Siding and Roofing.  He explained that he, too, was given a bid or quote to sign.  He says he went out of the way to make sure it was only a bid.

Right after signing the bid, he saw a Wells Siding sign already being put up on his lawn.

"I told them I did not want the sign there since I had not made a commitment to them," Smith said.

Later, Smith said McKnight came back to try and work out a deal on the bid.

McKnight's trial continues Thursday morning.

Check back here at KTRE.com for continuing coverage of the trial and updates on KTRE's East Texas News.  Click here for related coverage.

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