PITTSFIELD – All they wanted was a steel garage, but instead they found themselves scouring the internet, empathizing with each other and with the police as they tried to hold on for responsible the man with a southern drag who still looked them in the eye but who they say got away with their hard-earned thousands.
And because of their efforts to stop what police say may be a multi-state, multi-year crime wave that has affected at least more than a dozen people and even a local fire department, detectives from Pittsfield Police were able to arrest Fred Lewis Senter Jr., who they say was taking deposits for steel garages he would never build.
They arrested him on September 16, accused of stealing money from three townspeople. He is being held without bail for 90 days for three counts of theft over $ 1,200. He is considered a danger to the community and it is unlikely that he will abide by the conditions of his release.
Senter’s first preliminary hearing is set for October 14 in Pittsfield District Court.
According to police and three of Senter’s alleged victims, Senter, 39, is accused of crossing at least six states, collecting cash and checks representing a 50% deposit on the steel garage structures he he said he would build through his company, Northern Steel Buildings and Structures LLC. The Lee-based limited liability company was dissolved by court order on June 30.
Detectives across Massachusetts and beyond are investigating other suspected Senter’s crimes. He is also accused of receiving deposits from people and entities in Saugus, Acushnet, Hinsdale, Huntington, Richmond and Dalton. Its reach would extend to New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, according to the police report.
According to the police, there are probably many more victims who have not come forward.
“There are numerous Google reviews and Facebook posts where Senter / NSBS victims discuss their experiences and express their frustrations,” the police report noted.
This is not Senter’s first arrest.
Senter, who said he was originally from North Carolina, has a case pending in Pittsfield District Court for theft, resulting from the 2018 sheet metal theft at TNT Carports and Metal on Industrial Drive. He was on probation for that charge and was arraigned in the same court in 2019 for being a warrantless fugitive from justice after being charged with robbery in Columbia County in New York, according to court documents. Police said the charge was dismissed.
“No little crook”
What led to Senter’s arrest last week at the Econo Lodge on Cheshire Road is a role model that three of his alleged victims, speaking to The Eagle in one of their homes, said was his inspiring confidence by charm and eye contact. He would then immediately put their deposits in a bank, then start making excuses for delaying the job, before turning off the ignition altogether. The coronavirus pandemic helped his project, as he was able to claim steel and labor shortages, as well as price increases.
Those who thought they were doing business with him say they learned in hindsight that the materials were never obtained and, in at least some cases, the permits were never filed.
At Courtney Soto’s dining room table in Holmes Road / Elm Street, Soto holds a file filled with his research on Senter. She and two other people who say they lost money to Senter explained how it happened. Senter behaved the same with all three.
“He’s not a petty con artist,” said William Rennie, of Dalton, who has given Senter a total of $ 13,000 in deposit checks since February for a garage to hold his car lift – a garage that doesn’t was never built.
Rennie, who works for the Pittsfield Highway Department, has yet to build a structure to protect his investment.
“Now I have to find another $ 25,000,” he said. “I have an elevator sitting outside. I’m losing more money.
He is surprised that he has not noted the alleged wrongdoing, because he considers himself naturally suspicious.
“I didn’t see a lie in him,” Rennie said of Senter, whom he and the others describe as “the nicest guy.”
“He looked us in the eye, told us about our family and his family,” Soto said. “He was a seemingly down to earth and kind guy.”
Michael Codella lives close to Soto. The two found each other because Codella posted a negative review of Senter’s limited liability company on Google. It snowballed in a focus group of 18 people in six states who say Senter did the same to them.
It also includes Rennie and Lisa Echard, resident of Pittsfield. According to the police report, One Union Dale, Pa., Owner of a steel construction company, said it lost $ 102,000 in customer deposits to Senter.
Unlike Rennie, Soto and Codella had taken out home equity loans to hire Senter to build their new garages. Soto, who runs a daycare at her home, knew that when she bought it 18 years ago, the garage would need to be replaced. She has waited so long for equity that would qualify her for the loan, on which she must continue to make payments. In May, she gave Senter $ 9,145 – a 50% deposit he insisted on.
“You add interest to it and everything, and it will be way more than what it stole from us,” she said. “He said he needed 50 percent drop, and that should have been a signal to us, but we didn’t know it. He said the cost of steel has increased due to the pandemic. “
Codella, who works for the state, gave Senter a bank check for $ 11,000 in August 2020 for a garage next to her house. He built a concrete slab to prepare for it, and now that slab is exposed to the elements.
“So I’m losing even more money because it will be ruined by the time I put a garage on it,” Codella said.
Lisa Echard, of Pittsfield, in a phone interview said Senter quickly gained confidence before asking for the 50% deposit for a two-car garage. She and her husband paid Senter $ 6,250.
“He was crazy nice,” she said.
She and her husband visited Senter’s store, met his girlfriend and mother – she is listed as a manager in the company’s Massachusetts business record – and they discussed the reasons he had moved. in New England from Mount Airy, North Carolina, where, he told them, it was from. It was a place that Erhard and her husband loved.
Senter told them that his father had saturated the steel construction market there and he learned that the Berkshires had very few steel builders.
“My husband is a very good judge of character,” Echard said. “And he just can’t get over it.”
In Echard’s case, Senter had completed the engineer’s drawings and obtained the city permit in September 2020. Their concrete slab had been completed the previous month.
“That’s when the apology started,” said Echard, who works at General Dynamics. “From the moment we got the permit, we were suddenly in a really long line because of COVID,” he told us. “
After a series of COVID-related apologies until May, he then said he could not source materials for the steel doors. And in July, when Echard said he could build it without them, Senter stopped communicating.
“The slab is still empty,” she said. “He’s there waiting for a garage, which won’t happen.
The Richmond Volunteer Fire Department, which is a private fire company, has also opened a new garage and a $ 52,965 depot intended to hold fire fighting equipment and other devices, Eric Smith said, president of the fire company.
Smith said he couldn’t comment because he didn’t know the status of the investigation.
“It is in the hands of the state police,” he said.
Soto says her faith gets her through, and she, Codella and Rennie say they will push for justice and hope more people come forward.
“I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Codella said.