By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
By Ben DuBose
By Sean Pendergast
So you're a contractor in Texas who likes to rip people off.
Sure, sometimes you'll do the job, but it's much easier to take the money and run. In February 2006, a San Antonio judge found you guilty of theft and theft of an elderly individual, and they really threw the book at you: probation. In September, you're charged again with theft and they issue a warrant for your arrest. But you moved to Houston and your probation officer doesn't know your address, so it's not like he's breathing down your neck. Besides, warrants never slowed you down before — you've already got two warrants out of El Paso, assault and theft. Those are nonextraditable warrants — only valid in El Paso County.
You move into your 20-year-old daughter's apartment, the same daughter whose name is listed as the owner of the two contracting businesses you just filed to open in Harris County. So now you can do business in Houston without any of that pesky San Antonio stuff hanging over your head. Your career is going great, but your personal life is lacking. So even though you're married, you list yourself as "single" on MySpace and express your interest in dating. You round out your profile with Proverbs 17:17 and "Can't You See" by Poison.
And then it happens: Bexar County authorities finally listen to the group of victims who had been pressing for your arrest for the last year and a half. Your name is David Ringo Avalos, and you're finally in jail.
One thing's for sure: David Avalos is not a criminal mastermind. He was not keeping a low profile or flying under the radar. In fact, he was lounging in a La-Z-Boy smack dab in front of the radar. It's just that no one was looking.
No one, that is, except for a group of about 20 people who won $140,000 in judgments against him. These victims have monitored Avalos's whereabouts for some time, providing his Houston address and criminal background to Bexar County authorities in hopes that officials would scoop him up.
The victims include Rebecca Lawrence-Weden, who sent a letter to the Bexar County D.A.'s office stating, "It's been very frustrating for all the victims. By allowing this man to continue to operate illegally, the message sent is very clear. It doesn't matter."
Avalos's brushes with the law date back to 1994, when he was charged with child abandonment in Webb County (Laredo). The first theft conviction came in El Paso in 1998. Not content to break laws in just one country, Avalos was arrested and charged with fraud in Ciudad Juárez in 1999. It's unclear whatever happened to those charges; there were no further records available.
Melanie Castillo met him in 2006, when her husband's coworker recommended him for some work they wanted done on their house. The coworker was satisfied with Avalos's work and believed the Castillos wouldn't have any problems.
Castillo says she checked Avalos out on the local Better Business Bureau Web site, where she found no complaints. At first, things went smoothly — Avalos sealed the concrete floor in the garage, installed a fence and poured a patio in the back.
But then, Castillo says, they gave Avalos $4,000 to install a sprinkler system. That's when he split.
Castillo says her husband called Avalos, only to get a threat.
"He said that he was going to...mess us up if we kept bothering him," Castillo says. (Not one to curse, Castillo had to explain that Avalos "didn't use the word 'mess,' though — he used the F-word.")
That's when Castillo checked out Avalos's background and learned the names of his previous victims. They banded together and mounted a campaign to get authorities to act on his open warrants.
"I understand there's a priority list," Castillo says. "And a lot of it has to do with profile as well. And this isn't something that would normally be high-profile — I mean, a guy comes on your property and [takes] you for $4,000; you were a schmuck. But what if you find out that that's multiplied by 22, in four different cities?"
She says that police brushed off the complaints by saying it was a civil matter. But Castillo hit the books and found a provision for contractor fraud in the Texas Penal Code. It still didn't matter.
Finally, on September 28, a Bexar County judge issued a warrant for Avalos's arrest. About two weeks later, Avalos thought it would be a good time to move. And here's how Castillo's group knew he was about to split: Dude held a yard sale. Castillo says she notified the Bexar County Sheriff's Office that a guy with one warrant out of San Antonio and two out of El Paso was selling off his personal possessions in public, but that didn't seem to matter either.
But what about checking in with his probation officer? How often did he have to do that?
The Houston Press contacted Avalos's P.O., Anthony Strappel, before Avalos was in jail. Strappel said he was prohibited from disclosing his clients' visiting schedules to the media. He was also prohibited from explaining why a guy who moved to Houston still has a P.O. in San Antonio. But Strappel assured the Press he had Avalos's Houston address. And then he asked which address Castillo had provided to the Press. Strappel wouldn't say if this was so he could compare the information, or if it was because he didn't actually have the address. When asked, he said, "I'm not going to answer that."
Unlike Castillo, Avalos doesn't mind dropping the F-bomb.
When reached on his cell phone and asked about how one goes about contracting work when one's a fugitive, Avalos said: "You're such a brain-fucking-child, why don't you figure it out yourself?"
Like Strappel, Avalos was pretty tight-lipped. He explained that he hadn't "opened" in Houston yet, and that the new business entities weren't even registered under his name. Then he hung up. When reached again, Avalos offered this: "You're just being a pain in the ass for no apparent reason. Someone's called you and told you things that they had no business talking to you [about] at all, you know? So you're trying...to make damaging reports before something even gets off the ground out there, okay? But I guess that's what you assholes do out there, right? You don't have a life so you go around ruining other people's names, right? You were abused as children or something, you need attention? Is that what it is?"
On October 3, a few days after his articulate phone interview, Avalos surrendered to Bexar County authorities and was booked into jail. Although the warrant was issued "no-remand," meaning no option of bail, Avalos had remarkable timing: When he went to court for his hearing October 18, he faced a visiting judge, as the sitting judge was out of town for her mother's funeral. Also out of town that week was Joanne Woodruff, the prosecutor handling the case. So without a prosecutor to argue otherwise, the visiting judge set bail and Avalos bonded out.
Woodruff told the Press that, as soon as her office found out what happened, they acted swiftly. A new warrant was issued October 23 and he was booked into jail October 30. A hearing was set for November 5. The two counts of theft carry a total of six years incarceration. Although it may have taken a while for Avalos's case to hit the D.A.'s office, Woodruff assured the Press that the office vigorously prosecutes scamming contractors. She added that, unlike some other counties, Bexar gladly pays to have fugitives returned, even if they're picked up in other states. (She mentioned a high-profile case of a fraudulent contractor who was sentenced last November to 90 years in prison.)
While they're happy that Avalos is finally off the street, Castillo's group is still bewildered as to why it took so long in the first place. Lawrence-Weden probably put it best in her letter to the Bexar County D.A.'s office: "I feel we need to have some answers to pass along to the other victims. We feel we have been [victimized] twice, by Mr. Avalos and the very system we trust to enforce our laws."