Woman learns valuable lesson about checking a contractor's background

Malachi Crump promoted his small home construction business two years ago with a flier that said his company had been in business since 1978. He was proud, it said, of "our 31 years of service."

But for almost 10 of those years, Crump was in prison.

Sherita Musgrove didn't know that when she got a referral from a friend to hire Crump. She needed a contractor who could restore her grandmother's house after an electrical fire.

Crump promised to do a great job, and she signed a contract to pay $36,000 to his company, Ashley Designer Homes: $12,000 upfront, $12,000 when the job was 50 percent complete and the rest when the job was done.

But Musgrove says that after she paid him $14,000 in insurance money, Crump stopped work.

The insurance company sent another check for $4,000, and Musgrove got Crump to co-sign it. But then she gave it to a second contractor whom she brought in to replace Crump. That angered Crump, who told her she owed him $10,000. When she didn't give it to him, he filed a mechanic's lien for $10,000 on the property.

"We did the work," Crump's daughter, Danielle Abram, says in the lien's affidavit. The company removed the burnt materials, demolished four bedrooms, two living rooms and a kitchen, and removed all flooring. The company hired an electrician, bought materials, installed drywall, replaced rafters and removed front siding, the affidavit says.

The insurance company stopped sending money to Musgrove, saying work on the house had to be completed. But that wasn't going to happen with Crump, Musgrove decided. Because Crump had ceased work on the house, she believed that he had terminated the contract. Based on that, she sued him in small-claims court for $10,000.

In a brief interview recently, Crump said he can prove that Musgrove owes him $10,000. "I got copies. I got pictures. I got facts. I got everything. See? She doesn't have it. I do."

Crump did some work, but nowhere near enough to justify the amount of money she paid him, Musgrove maintains.

Ultimately, however, the dispute is a legal question about the contract. At issue is which of the two can stop performing his or her end of the agreement, at what point and for what reason, said Julie Forrester of the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law.

"The general contract rule is that a party can stop their performance if the other party committed a material breach" of the contract, she said.

But a judge or jury may have to decide the issue.

Musgrove might have avoided problems had she done her homework before signing the contract.

She didn't look into Crump's background until after their falling-out.

Then she learned that Crump, 62, was sentenced to four years in prison for theft in 1983, according to state and county records. He served eight years from 1994 to 2002 on a drug charge. He's under parole supervision until 2018. Crump also has convictions for burglary in 1968 and theft by check in 1981.

He filed for bankruptcy in 2006. The Internal Revenue Service said he owed $94,000, among other debts. His case was dismissed in 2007 when he didn't show up for a required meeting of creditors.

Musgrove says that if she had known any of those details, she would not have hired him.

She also learned about a neighbor who had a similar dispute with Crump. Irashonette Tatum hired Crump in 2005 to do a home renovation. She paid him $15,000 but couldn't find him so he could finish, Tatum told me.

In 2008, she sued him in small-claims court. Crump didn't appear and lost a $10,000 default judgment. He has never paid Tatum, according to court records.

In Tatum's notes for her court hearing, she wrote a list of excuses she heard from Crump.

"He would say: 'I had a heart attack. I've been in the hospital. I got electrocuted, so I've been out of work, and I got sick and found out I was a diabetic, and I had to have surgery on my foot. I passed out. After I go to New Orleans and do some work I will come back and finish your house.'

"He was always convincing," she says. "That's why I let this go on for so long."

Aside from Ashley Designer Homes, Crump's business has operated under the names of Chimeres Builders and Chimere's Designer Homes.

I spoke to Crump several times seeking an interview. The first time I called him, he answered and said, "I'm in the hospital right now."

When I asked about Musgrove's claims, he said, "I filed two lawsuits against her, one in small-claims court and one in federal court."

I could not find either.

Musgrove's small-claims case against him is scheduled for March 10 at the Tarrant County Precinct 8 Justice of the Peace Court. Federal court records show no recent lawsuits filed by Crump.

"I'm going to get the attorney to call you so you won't have to call me because it's been filed," he said. "Believe me, I'm on the winning side. That's all I'm going to tell you."

No attorney called.

When I asked about Tatum, he said, "I don't know anybody named Tatum" and hung up.

What has Musgrove learned? "Do a thorough background check on contractors."

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-390-7043

Twitter @DaveLieber