Thursday, June 21 , 2018, 9:19 pm | Fair 61º


Local News

Penny Estes Pleads Guilty to 28 Counts in Fraud Case Involving Fire Victims

Former contractor faces more than 36 years in prison when she is sentenced in November

A woman accused of stealing millions of dollars in a construction-fraud scheme involving victims who lost their homes in the Jesusita and Tea fires pleaded guilty to 28 counts against her on Thursday 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.

She pleaded guilty on all counts, including diversion of construction funds, grand theft, fraud and embezzlement, tax evasion, obtaining services of false pretenses and other charges.

Estes also pleaded guilty to all special allegations, including that she defrauded victims of a natural disaster, as well as defrauding elderly victims.

Estes pleaded no contest to charges with several of the victims, but Judge John Dobroth found her guilty based on those pleas.

She is facing a maximum sentence of 36 years and eight months in state prison.

Estes appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit, and was represented by her attorney, Brian Mathis.

Also present was Deputy District Attorney Gary Gemberling, who is prosecuting the case.

Three of the counts she pleaded guilty to occurred in Riverside County, and included theft from an elderly adult and wrongfully diverting funds.

According to a 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.

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.

Gemberling said that he encourages all of the victims to come to the sentencing hearing to tell the court what they went through. 

"We intend to show the court that the defendant should receive a sentence that is commensurate with the incredible damage she has done to the victims, their families, and our community," he said.

She will be sentenced on Nov. 26.

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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