Testimony resumes in trial of Wells man accused of fraud following tornado

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - By Holley Nees - email

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) – The City of Lufkin building inspector said a Wells businessman acted "very agitated" when he requested 10 building permits in December 2009, right after an E-F3 tornado ripped through a Lufkin neighborhood.

Jason McKnight is on trial facing 10 counts of fraud after he scammed tornado victims, according to prosecutors.

McKnight's trial continued Thursday, nearly a year after the twister touched down. McKnight is said to have taken advantage of tornado victims by illegally securing building permits on their behalf from the City of Lufkin.

Lufkin Building Inspector Dale Allred said the City had not received any payment for the 10 permits.

"If there had been payment we would have a receipt," Allred testified. "The receipt would've been given to the customer."

McKnight's attorney, Al Charanza questioned him about seeing a Lufkin Police Officer.

"I believe the originals [permits] were still at the counter," said Allred. "What I gave to Det. Stubblefield were the job card."

Allred remembered McKnight instructing his wife to stop writing the check and said no check was passed from McKnight to the City.

"And so these permits were never issued," asked Charanza.

"They were issued, yes," said Allred. "They were signed for, they were issued."

Charanza again pointed out that the City of Lufkin never got any money from McKnight  for the permits.

Prosecuting attorney Art Bauereiss began questioning Allred about the documents as McKnight shifted in his chair and nodded toward Allred.

Bauereiss read off a list of alleged victims to Allred to see if he remembered any names.

"Do you remember if Michael Hills was one," asked Bauereiss.  "Yes," said Allred.

Allred explained what he remembered about issuing the permits to McKnight that day.

"We had completely gone through the process of receiving the application, posting the information to our computer system, printing up an official document, having him sign it," said Allred. "She did put the amount in for the permit and printed it up because I recall…she didn't receive the payment , she said now what do I do?"

Allred pointed out there's no building code standard for tarping because there's nothing for him to inspect, so a permit is not issued for that specific job.

Margaret Gibson with the City of Lufkin's Inspection Services Department recalled the day McKnight came in to the office to request the permits.

Gibson said frequently they issue permits without payments from builders, but they have to be trusted customers.

"There are some guidelines we do adhere by…we don't allow that to just everyone," she said.

Gibson said she remembers McKnight coming in after the December Tornadoes to get permits.

"He was very assertive, very eager to do business, very eager to get jobs done, he was a bit, seemed somewhat agitated," she said. "Seemed like he couldn't get things done fast enough…He wanted them all done, then, there, and now."

Gibson said McKnight "came on pretty strong" that day.

"It was a kind of a unique situation because he wanted them right then and there, but given the dynamics of our department, we wanted to perhaps put him off…because there were just so many permits at one time," she remembered.

Gibson said they started initiating as many of McKnight's permits as they could at one time, but he became frustrated.

"It was just overwhelming and he finally left," she said.  Gibson said McKnight was going to come back and didn't have any permits at that point.

She went on to explain McKnight never asked for a partial permit and that's not something the city office offers.

"No sir, we don't do partial permits," Gibson said.

"[McKnight] came back…to start getting the permits and he started signing them, getting them ready," said Gibson.

"[McKnight] signed them, everything was good, he had his wife pay for them as he went back to talk to the detective," she recalled.

She said McKnight did sign the permits. Gibson told McKnight's lawyer it usually takes her about five to 10 minutes to process a roofing permit.

Gibson said the permits were not paid for, but they were signed. She said while McKnight was signing the permits, he was asked to go talk to Det. Stubblefield.

"It was almost chaotic…there was a lot of confusion in the department…Mrs. McKnight was also nervous," she said.

"To your knowledge he didn't receive his permits on that date," asked Charanza.

"[McKnight] wanted to do it his way, it was difficult to communicated with him," Gibson said.

She went on to testify McKnight continued signing the permits after he was asked to see Stubblefield.

Lt. Jerry Smith, a 23-year veteran of the Lufkin Police Department, took the stand Thursday morning and said he got a call that, "Basically there was a gentleman over there that was ripping people off."

"The area was in shambles," Smith said.

He said police had been heavily patrolling the disaster area.

Smith said he began conducting background checks on McKnight.

The officer identified McKnight and said Wells Siding and Roofing signs were all over the neighborhood.

He said he contacted Dale Allred, who is responsible for code enforcement.

Smith said he wanted to find out if McKnight had, "authorization to be pulling these permits."

Smith said he removed a lot of signs from city right-of-ways in the tornado aftermath.

He said to his recollection the man who called in on McKnight didn't want to give his name.

"Most likely from the conversation it kind of sounded like it might have been a competitor," said Smith.

Smith remembered in the tornado-devastated area people being everywhere, including construction crews, city crews, and news crews.

He said once he believed an offense had occurred, Det. Ron Stubblefield became involved.

"I remember he was up there pulling permits on 35 different locations, I believe," said Smith. "I remember he came real loud and upset, threatening to call his attorney."

Smith explained they base the permit fees on the amount of damage to the home.

He said he wanted to see if McKnight's bids matched the amount on the permit.

"They didn't match, there was a big discrepancy," said Smith. "I don't remember any of them matching."

Smith said in his experience, tornado-ravaged areas are "…always a target for people to come in there, rip people off."

Charanza pointed out Smith never found anyone in the neighborhood that had given McKnight money for a job.

Lufkin Police Department Criminal Investigator Ron Stubblefield was called to the stand Thursday afternoon.

"The homeowners did not approve of the permits being pulled,"' said Stubblefield.

He said he talked to about 35 homeowners.

"The homeowners out of the first initial 10 that I talked with, there was 9 of the homeowners that had told me they didn't approve …they were just looking at getting a bid proposal."

Stubblefield said he didn't find any estimates that were accurate.

"I found that the dollar differences on the home estimate repairs were grossly mistaken," he said.

Stubblefield said he talked to McKnight when he came to get the permits.

Jurors were then played a taped conversation between McKnight, McKnight's wife, and Stubblefield.

On the tape, McKnight said he doesn't understand why he needs to talk with a detective.

"What do you mean there's discrepancies in the figures," said McKnight. "I have spent 23 thousand dollars out of my checking account."

McKnight became frustrated and said he was wondering why police went to potential customers and told them they shouldn't go with Wells Siding and Roofing, McKnight's company.

"Some of these folks are saying they have not authorized you to do the roofs," said Stubblefield.

"What we have done is we have put the prices down on the tarp job and some of the roofing job," said McKnight.

"I'm gambling a little bit putting my permit out there," explained McKnight.  He said he tarped people's houses and then he gave people bids on their roof, hoping for their business.

Stubblefield walked McKnight through estimates he had given people.

McKnight told the investigator he was going to get his lawyer to sue the city.

"I'm going to win this one," he said.

Stubblefield told the defendant he had underbid 35 permits.

When Stubblefield asked him about getting permits without the homeowners' approval, he said he tarped their houses.

"I'm saying you committed a felony," said Stubblefield.

"I have not," said McKnight. "I haven't done anything, you know I haven't…I had to get a permit for the job…we cut the trees back, worked on the property."

McKnight continuously told the investigator he doesn't want any trouble.

"I feel like I'm under scrutiny here for some reason," said McKnight. "The permit is for the roof job, but the tarp job you can't pull a permit."

"I can't pull a permit for 30 thousand dollars on this job," insisted McKnight. He said he just tarped people's houses and he had signed contracts.

Stubblefield told him it's illegal to falsify government documents.

"You need to calm down," said Stubblefield as McKnight became increasingly aggravated.

"I told them this morning I could not pull a permit for all this work because I don't even have a roof yet," said McKnight.

"I'll see you in court…there will be a warrant issued for your arrest for a felony," said Stubblefield.

He went on to tell an angry McKnight, "There's a difference between $30 and $160."

"I'm trying to get the job, free enterprise," said McKnight.  He admitted he was just trying to get a jump on the competition.

Stubblefield asked McKnight if he realized when he gets a permit on a house no one else can work on that house.  He said he didn't know that's how it worked.

"You falsified a formal government document 35 times," said Stubblefield. "The City of Lufkin would not issue you a permit on a job you do not have."

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