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Contractor Facing More Charges After Actor Mounts His Own 'Sting'

May 28, 1987|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

Ten more felony counts were filed last week against Joe Zurita, a Reseda contractor who was arrested after an angry customer tied him up and called police.

Zurita, 33, who previously was charged with eight felony counts by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office, pleaded guilty May 13 to one count each of grand theft and illegally using another contractor's license number. Each count carries a maximum three-year prison sentence. Zurita is scheduled to be sentenced on that conviction June 10.

The latest charges, filed by the Glendale district attorney, resulted from a 10-week investigation by the Glendale Police Department and the San Gabriel Valley office of the Contractors State License Board. Seven counts were for grand theft and the others accuse Zurita of illegally using another contractor's license number.

'A Common Scheme'

The charges stem from seven construction jobs Zurita failed to complete between July, 1986, and last January in Glendale, La Canada, Encino, Northridge and the Westside, Glendale Detective David O'Connor said.

Zurita's customers allege that substantially no work was done after they gave him cash advances to retile or construct a swimming pool, lay a new driveway or build a wall. The seven cases, O'Connor said, show "a common scheme and design."

Although by law, contractors can collect only 10% of their fee as a down payment, Zurita regularly requested and received 33% to 50% of the total cost in advance, O'Connor said. The down payments ranged from $500 to $3,500 and totaled $17,000 for the seven jobs, he said.

Zurita, who did not have a contractor's license, used the license numbers of several other contractors without their knowledge, O'Connor said. In a civil action last month, Zurita was fined $7,500 by the Contractors State License Board on three counts of contracting without a license.

Zurita's case is unusual because of the large number of complaints and the criminal charges, officials said. Felony charges are rarely filed in such cases because prosecutors must show a pattern or other circumstances that prove a contractor intended to defraud.

Zurita's apprehension was also extraordinary. Scoey Mitchlll of Glendale, a former actor and television producer, said he had decided to "sting" Zurita after he said the contractor bilked him out of $2,500. Mitchlll said he gave Zurita a 33% down payment for a $7,500 wall around his new spa but was unable to get him to complete the work or return his calls.

As Mitchlll told it, he had another man, Tom Ellis, lure Zurita to an Eagle Rock home March 13 for an estimate on a bogus job. As prearranged, Mitchlll appeared and demanded his money. Zurita responded that he was having personal problems. Mitchlll, saying he had heard enough excuses, roped Zurita's feet together, tied him to a "no parking" sign and called police.

While waiting for the police, Mitchlll and Ellis say, they stumbled upon some of Zurita's papers listing names and phone numbers of other customers.

The list led police and the contractors' board to other potential victims.

"I think it's dastardly when you start betraying trust," said Mitchlll, who was a regular on such television shows as "Rhoda" and "Barefoot in the Park" and is president of a television production company.

Mitchlll's action led to more immediate problems for Zurita. After arresting him, police discovered several traffic warrants against the contractor. He now is serving a 381-day sentence in County Jail for a drunk-driving conviction and was sentenced to 180 days in jail after pleading no contest to a hit-and-run charge April 15.

Zurita's former customers say he was an ingratiating man who called them "buddy" and offered to start work immediately because "things are slow."

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