At first, Sherita Musgrove couldn't keep quiet. She sat in the small-claims courtroom, a little too excited about finally facing the contractor whom she had paid $14,000 for what she says was one week's worth of work. She kept interrupting, and the judge ordered her to pipe down.
After more warnings from rookie Tarrant County Precinct 8 Justice of the Peace Lisa Woodard, Musgrove finally took the order to heart. She let her ex-contractor, Malachi Crump, and his business associate, Danielle Abram, do most of the talking.
Smart move. The more they talked, the more frustrated the judge became.
Yes, Crump testified that he had collected $14,000 from Musgrove's insurance company to remodel her house last year after a fire. No, of course he hadn't finished the work because he hadn't been paid more of the $36,000 total contract, he said. Why? Because, he said, he doesn't work for free.
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The judge took it all in and said, "You've given me several discrepancies."
When Crump's associate, Abram, tried to explain, she began by saying to the judge, "Sweetheart ..."
"I'm not your sweetheart!" the judge snapped. "I am Judge Woodard."
In her courtroom last week, Woodard tried to get to the bottom of a story first examined in a January Watchdog column.
Crump, 62, and his company, Ashley Designer Homes, promised to remodel Musgrove's house. But the work came to a halt, Musgrove testified, when she couldn't get any more money out of the insurance company, which wanted to see more progress on the house.
Musgrove testified that she kept calling Crump and asking him to return, but he wouldn't.
She researched his background and learned he had spent nearly 10 years in prison for theft, drugs and burglary. He filed bankruptcy in 2006.
She also learned that two years before her problem, Crump was sued in a case in which he also stopped work on another woman's house after he was partially paid. That woman, Irashonette Tatum, won a $10,000 judgment in small-claims court. But Crump never paid her.
Musgrove decided to follow the same strategy. In the courtroom last week, Tatum sat behind her offering support.
Musgrove had sued Crump for the maximum $10,000. Crump countersued for $10,000. (He also placed a $10,000 mechanic's lien on her property.)
In a brief interview in January, Crump told me he had evidence to prove he was in the right: "I got copies. I got pictures. I got facts. I got everything. See? She [Musgrove] doesn't have it. I do."
Given the opportunity to present his evidence in court, Crump struggled. He testified that his work had passed a 50-percent inspection, which means that half the work has been completed. That's an indicator for some insurance companies that more money can be paid.
But the judge kept looking for proof. She couldn't find it in the documents. "That's not on here," she said. "It's in your hand," Crump insisted, pointing to a document.
In court, Musgrove accused Crump of altering a mortgage document to make it look like a 50-percent inspection was done. When the judge asked about the discrepancy, Crump blurted out, "We're misleading you."
"I think so," the judge replied.
(Musgrove has since filed a police report charging Crump with altering a financial document.)
After more than an hour of listening, the judge scoffed at Crump's counterclaim against Musgrove. She questioned how Crump could have done $14,000 worth of work in one week.
"I'm sure it's going to take more than a week to make a 50-percent inspection," she said. "You gave me different answers."
She ordered Crump to pay Musgrove $10,000.
Crump declined comment afterward.
Musgrove has notified Crump's parole officer of the two judgments because she wants to have him sent back to prison. He's on parole until 2018.
His parole officer, James Bednarski, explained why that wasn't possible. "We can only revoke his parole if it's a criminal matter," he said.
Only prosecutors can initiate a criminal case.
The Tarrant County district attorney's office seeks a pattern of misconduct by a contractor that shows an intent to defraud customers, says Assistant District Attorney David Lobingier. Two small-claims judgments do not necessarily indicate a pattern, he said.
However, parole will keep closer tabs on Crump, Bednarski said. He had been required to visit his parole officer every three months. Now, he must check in monthly, Bednarski said.
The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.
Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043