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Arrest Made in $5 Million Fire-Rebuild Scam Case

Peggy Art Estes is described as 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds with gray hair and blue eyes. (Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department photo)
Penny Art Estes is described as 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds with gray hair and blue eyes. (Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department photo)

A woman who was being sought for allegedly swindling fire survivors in Santa Barbara County out of millions of dollars as they attempted to rebuild their homes has been arrested in Southern California, according to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office.

Penny Art Estes, 63, who operated a company called Green Building America, is accused of stealing money from 13 people in the Santa Barbara area after their homes were destroyed by wildfire, disappearing with nearly $5 million.

According to the criminal complaint filed against Estes in March, the crimes occurred between Aug. 25, 2010, and Sept. 30, 2011, and a warrant was issued for her arrest in February.

On Tuesday, District Attorney Joyce Dudley announced that Estes had been arrested in San Bernardino County by district attorney investigators Norma Hansen and Greg Wilkins.

Estes was booked early Tuesday into the San Bernardino Jail, where she was being held in lieu of $2.5 million bail.

She will be brought to the Santa Barbara County Jail as soon as she can be transported.

Estes’s arrest warrant was based upon an investigation into her alleged defrauding of homeowners who were the victims of the Jesusita Fire and Tea Fire.

In Tuesday’s statement, Dudley praised the efforts of Deputy District Attorney Gary Gemberling, Hansen, and the cooperation of a number of local, state and federal agencies, including the FBI, Franchise Tax Board, Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, Santa Barbara District Attorney Investigators, the Mesa, Arizona Police Department, and the District Attorney’s Arson Task Force, as well as other fire agencies and arson investigators throughout the country. 

“In addition to multiple theft and fraud charges, Estes has been charged with the rarely used criminal enhancement of preying upon disaster victims,” Dudley said.

According to Hansen’s report requesting 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.

Three of the victims were over 65 when they signed the contracts with Estes.

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.

She will be arraigned in Santa Barbara Superior Court.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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