OSPREY — Sarasota County deputies arrested Stephen Dukes, co-owner of now defunct HD Custom Homes in Englewood.
His arrest came Thursday morning in Osprey, the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office reported.
As he bonded out of jail a few hours later, a half-dozen former customers confronted the builder to pepper him with questions about their unfinished homes and lost savings while he looked for a way around the crowd and to his vehicle.
Duke’s arrest came a day after Charlotte County issued arrest warrants for him and his business partner Matthew Harden. The two are accused of leaving homeowners with unfinished — in some cases never-started — homes while cleaning out construction accounts.
At press time Thursday, Harden, 53, was still not arrested on the warrant.
Hearing of Dukes’ arrest, some former clients of HD Custom Homes went to the Sarasota County Courthouse for his first appearance before a judge. There they learned that due to COVID-19, Dukes would not be transferred to Charlotte County. Instead, his bond was set at $54,000.
Four hours later he posted bond. As the door to the Sarasota County jail opened, Dukes’ frustrated customers approached him.
Marcia Vaccaro, a former customer, captured video on her phone while she asked Dukes where the doors to her home were and whether her floor tiling is finished yet.
“How about all of the people you ripped off?” she shouted as Dukes looked for a way around the crowd. “How about the millions of dollars? Who paid for your wedding? Who paid for your lobster dinners? Who paid for your cruises with the company?”
One of two television reporters asked Dukes to turn to a camera and face his customers. Dukes pointed to someone and said, “That gentlemen over there owes me $60,000.”
Several customers said they plan to attend upcoming court proceedings. They also hope Harden is caught soon.
Evelyne Peters, a former HD Custom Homes customer, said she’s had many sleepless nights.
“I believe Matthew Harden and Stephen Dukes deserve nothing less then a lengthy jail sentence,” she said. “I can’t even begin to explain the feeling of despair that I’ve experienced losing all my savings. I’ve met other victims, and I’ve seen their pain and the loss of joy. For some, there is no recuperating from this financial loss as many like me are at retirement age. This is not how I thought my move to Florida and retirement would play out.”
Peters said some financial institutions failed to protect HD Custom Homes customers as well.
“In amongst all of that mess, we have issues with the bank, who I felt did not watch our money as well as I had hoped,” she said. “So we had rat-bag builders and careless lending institutions that have since tightened up policies — but that doesn’t help me, unfortunately. I hope the legal system gets to do what needs to be done, so these people don’t get the opportunity to do this to anyone again.”
Matt Couturiaux, another former customer, agrees.
“It’s a terrible process and something has to change at the state level,” he said. “Banks should be legally required to verify subs are paid before releasing funds if a mortgage is involved. If not, builders should be legally required to provide them to the owner before progress payment is requested.
“But that would make way too much sense and protect homeowners who do not do this every day for a living. It’s frustrating.”
HD Custom Homes clients and subcontractors estimated the builders owed $8 million in deposits and services — with a handful of clients reporting as much as $300,000 in losses from the builders.
Both Dukes and Harden put their homes on the market after closing their business. Dukes’ Orbit Avenue home sold in April for $519,000.
According to the Charlotte County Clerk of Court documents, Matthew Harden’s unfinished Burwell Circle home was once listed at $479,999 in South Gulf Cove. The house went into foreclosure in August. It is scheduled for auction at 11 a.m. Sept. 28.
After surrendering his state license, Harden’s mailing address changed from Charlotte County to Alabama.
Harden voluntarily surrendered his general contractor’s license in December. If he reapplies for a contractor’s license in Florida, he will have to pay $250,000. He was also fined $735.24 in investigative fees by the Construction Industry Licensing Board in Charlotte County.
CCSO Detective Kevin Bordner with the Economic Crimes Unit investigated 52 cases since 2018. Each man was wanted for one count of fraud and 13 counts of misapplication of construction funds, court records show.
Anyone with information regarding the whereabouts of Matthew Harden is asked to call the Charlotte County Sheriff’s Office at 941-639-0013 or call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-780-TIPS (8477).