A woman suspected of swindling local fire victims during the rebuilding process pleaded not guilty to 24 felony counts on Wednesday in Santa Barbara Superior Court.
Penny Art Estes, 63, who operated a company called Green Building America, is accused of defrauding 13 people in the Santa Barbara area after their homes were destroyed by wildfire, disappearing with nearly $5 million.
Estes was arrested on June 4 in San Bernardino County after a protracted run from law enforcement, and in July, a Santa Barbara Superior Court judge granted a request to raise her bail to $4.5 million, a figure close to the amount she allegedly stole from her victims.
Estes is also a suspect in a case pending in Riverside County, where she allegedly defrauded an elderly person in another construction project. The losses in that case are alleged to be in excess of $500,000, according to documents.
Wednesday's case was continued to Oct. 16 for preliminary hearing setting, according to Deputy District Attorney Gary Gemberling.
According to the criminal complaint filed against Estes in March, the Santa Barbara County crimes occurred between Aug. 25, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2011, and a warrant was issued for her arrest in February.
Estes’ arrest warrant was based on an investigation into her alleged defrauding of homeowners who were the victims of the Jesusita and Tea fires.
The complaint against Estes lists 24 felony counts, including diversion of construction funds, obtaining services by false pretenses, grand theft and financial elder abuse, as well as failure to file income taxes for 2009, 2010 and 2011.
According to documents asking for an arrest warrant, Estes explained to fire survivors, many times after support meetings, that her company used mold- and fire-resistant hybrid blocks in construction. The report said various stages of work on the homes transpired, and millions of dollars were turned over to her, but at some point she became unreachable.
Ultimately, the company abandoned the projects and Estes could not be contacted.