Ever since she home schooled her daughter, Brenda Boronski has been in the routine of getting up early to prepare for the day.
That is a good thing. Around 4 a.m. on Aug. 6 last year, she was sitting at a table in their small home on Huron Street in Oakland Beach. It was 96 degrees in the house.
The prior afternoon, she and her husband, Eric, had sought relief from the heat and plugged in an air conditioner. After turning it on, it smelled strangely, and they turned it off. They then learned only a portion of their electrical system was working.
As she sat at the table, Brenda heard some crackling above her. She was trying to figure out what it was when the ceiling came crashing down around her. It was on fire. Eric was still lying on his bed and so was their 20-year old daughter, Rebecca.
Fortunately, Rebecca was not sleeping on the side of the bed she usually does, because the burning ceiling landed there. All three and their two dogs got safely out of the house. Flames were shooting out of the roof as they watched firefighters extinguish the blaze from a neighbor’s porch.
That was the start of a yearlong nightmare that only now do they fully comprehend.
Turn the clock forward to this Tuesday.
The family stood outside the house with Michelle Napolitano and the father and son construction team of Mike and Gavin Fallon, people they didn’t know until now. Brenda held a packet of papers, copies of checks and invoices and an accounting of the $72,905 paid in the past year to restore their home. Mike and Gavin had just carried out a ladder they had used to inspect the charred inner roofing and the burned out cross beams. Some beams are gone completely, as they fell with the ceiling.
The interior of the house has been gutted. Studs stand where there were walls. The flooring is gone, and the kitchen sink, cabinets and bathroom toilet have been torn out. Little more has been done. Blue tarps have been nailed over the holes the fire burned through the roof. There is a PVC pipe in the driveway, an access to the sewer line now connected to the house.
The Boronskis are trusting people, but now the faith that Eric placed in Justin Perreault can never be restored. They say Perreault took their money and did little to none of the work he said he was going to do. Brenda has all the records and has provided copies to Warwick Police. No charges had been brought against Perreault as of Wednesday.
Eric believes in the mission of helping other people, which Justin represented when he opened Peace and Providence at the corner of Warwick and Church avenues in August 2018. Eric volunteered his Saturdays at the center, providing food and sometimes cash to people who have fallen on tough times. He admired Justin and he felt comfortable when Justin approached him after the fire and said he was a general contractor and he could oversee the reconstruction of their home.
Meanwhile, All State Insurance provided for the rental of an apartment. The company paid $59,000 to Navigant Credit Union, which holds the Boronski mortgage for the repair of the house. According to Eric and Brenda, all of the insurance money has been paid out to Perreault and HBC Construction Co. of Johnston, plus an additional $13,300 of their own funds.
No building permit
A Beacon check of the city building records on Tuesday revealed that even though Eric said he retained Perreault soon after the fire last August, a demolition permit had not been sought until Jan. 14 of this year. The application made by Edward Freeman, a licensed contractor, was accepted on Feb. 11, but the $77 payment was not made until June 14.
Coincidentally, on the same day, Christopher Halton of HBC Construction applied for a building permit. Halton was told he needed a floor plan for the work, which he did not provide. HBC was paid a total of $33,000 in two checks issued in May. On July 31, Brenda informed the building department that HBC had been fired. She has since filed a plan with building officials, although as of Tuesday no permit had been issued.
A call to HBC was not returned.
A call to the State of Rhode Island Contractors’ Registration and Licensing Board confirmed Perreault is a licensed contractor and his registration expires as of October 2020. As a registered contractor, Perreault is required to carry public liability and property damage insurance of not less than $500,000 combined single limit, bodily injury and property damage.
In an hour-long interview Monday, Perreault – also armed with copies of invoices and checks – defended his actions. He said he was forced to close Peace and Providence due to mounting expenses and that he had suffered a stroke, which explained why work on the house wasn’t progressing.
“The bills were becoming so much,” he said. “We tried renegotiating with We Share Hope and they didn’t want to hear it, so then they stopped delivering to us. So, I stopped payment on their checks … they said we owe them $2,000. We gave that to them in March via cashier’s check.”
He added, “Looking at the numbers, we just couldn’t afford it … It was decided at a board meeting in the middle of July to close as of Aug. 1. And that’s what we did.”
Perreault said Peace and Providence is still in the red by $3,500 with an undisclosed amount owed to him personally.
He said he didn’t go on camera for a recent Channel 10 story because he had been released by the hospital the previous day and his face was still “droopy” from a stroke.
Perreault said he connected with Eric last July when he was out of a job and having a difficult time.
“I said we will commit to fill your gas tank every week to help you find work,” Perreault said. He confirmed that Eric volunteered weekly at the center but said he left in July after he had questioned him about asking a client for money. (Eric denies this and says if anything, he gave his personal money to clients. He said Perreault told him things had slowed down in July and there would be no need for him to come in.)
After the fire, Perreault said he offered to help Eric with the insurance company, and “that’s how I started to get involved.”
According to Perreault, on Sept. 19, 2018, the insurance adjuster reached out and said “he was going to issue the payment directly to Eric.”
Perreault goes through his paperwork and relates that the overall replacement value of the house was $103,173.77 and that the company was holding $41,957.66 in depreciation, so the actual cash value of the loss was $61,216.11.
But Perreault says the money didn’t go to Eric.
“The check was never sent to Eric. Navigant Credit Union was in charge of the funds. I had to send copies of invoices, paid receipts, of quotes directly to Navigant. They would look it over, they would compare whether or not it was part of the insurance thing. There was a couple of times where the guy overseeing it didn’t even have what they were covering,” he said.
Tim Draper, vice president of marketing at Navigant, said Wednesday that the only time the institution oversees the disbursement of funds is for new construction. In that case, the bank sends a team to the property to ensure the work is done.
In this case, he said, the money went into the Boronski account.
“We don’t have any control over their account,” he said.
Draper said Navigant is looking into how they can help out the family.
In a follow up call, Eric had a different account. He said Navigant “froze” the insurance funds and disbursements were only made once they had approved them. Draper said he would be following up on Eric’s version of the procedure.
Perreault claims he’s a victim of what’s happened and he intends to take action.
“We are looking at very severe slander, defamation – my life has been threatened numerous times by people in the public. I have a record from 12 years ago. I wasn’t always a good person. I made mistakes in the past. I busted my butt in 12 years to make my reputation good and to help people. That’s why I started that organization. [Eric] has destroyed that, and people have destroyed that because they don’t know the facts,” he said.
Perreault has 18 case files under his name listed in the state’s judicial court portal database, stemming from a combination of criminal, civil and family court issues ranging back as far as 1998.
Perreault has been convicted multiple times on criminal charges, including a violation of the Building Inspector Board on Jan. 9, 2008, to which he pleaded no contest and received a penalty of $3,625 in fines. Two other similar violations in September of 2008 and January of 2012 were dismissed with no ruling.
Perreault’s most serious conviction comes from an incident that occurred on April 17, 2008, in Cranston, when he was charged and pled guilty to the larceny and sale of a firearm and the unlawful carrying of a pistol, both of which are felonies. Perreault was facing a potential five-year prison sentence but was ultimately sentenced to serve six months and 54 months of probation, along with court fees.
On December 29, 2002, Perreault was charged with misdemeanor larceny. He was found guilty and ordered to serve one year of probation. On July 18, 2001, he pleaded no contest to six charges of writing fraudulent checks (all valued under $1,000) in Coventry. He was sentenced to six months of probation. His first conviction, according to court records, came after an incident on Sept. 21, 1998, when he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor malicious destruction of property, for which he was sentenced to one year of probation.
Perreault has also been the defendant or plaintiff in multiple civil issues, including two open, pending debt collection cases, one closed debt collection case in which he was ordered to pay $1,244.67 in 2019 and one closed civil suit in which he was taken to court by a landscaping company and ordered to pay $465.75 in 2017. He has been taken to small claims court twice.
Community effort to rebuild
The Boronskis’ story, as reported on Channel 10, resonated with Michelle Napolitano.
In an interview Tuesday, Napolitano said she knew the family through Facebook and she knew that her father, Michael Napolitano, was friends with Eric.
Michelle was particularly impacted by Rebecca’s condition, as she is disabled by a form of dwarfism.
“I thought, what if this happened to my parents and my brother, because my brother has autism. I could not imagine my parents being displaced, my brother being taken out of his element and his routine broken. That’s kind of what triggered the want to help. It bothered me so much. I’ve never had something that doesn’t affect my life at all affect me so much,” she said.
Michelle, who works as an account manager for Landscape America Inc., said she spoke with her boyfriend and they agreed they should do something to help. She started making calls to contractors she knew and the effort started to grow. One of the first to offer their services at no cost was Burns Roofing, which offered to roof the house. Mike Fallon of Fallon Contractors said he would serve as the general contractor, and on Tuesday he said he would help navigate the permitting process as well as put out the word in an effort to obtain donated building materials.
Eric points out that insurance no longer is paying for the rental of an apartment, and now, in addition to his mortgage, he’s faced with that expense. He says the family is desperate.
If there’s hope, it’s Michelle’s doing.
“She’s an angel,” he said.
Michelle said her goal is to get the Boronskis back in their home at no cost to them.
Reflecting on the experience, Eric says, “I looked at Justin as a real hero, a guy that I looked up to because I wanted to do what he was doing. I’d love to have a place where I could help serve people who don’t have a lot of money, because we’ve been down and out for a long time … We trusted him. I can’t even tell you how sad it is to trust somebody and to go and work for him every week, go to his business every week and give up my Saturday every single week …”
Where that all changed was over the $3,500 Eric paid last October to have the driveway paved. Eric said the money did not come out of the insurance settlement.
When he didn’t find the work done, Eric said he followed up directly with the contractor who had made the sewer connection and was supposed to have paved the driveway. Eric said the contractor told him Perreault was giving the job to someone else.
Eric asked for the $3,500 back, but he said Perreault refused to give it to him.
Eric said Tuesday if the money had been returned, he probably would have never questioned Perreault.
Now he is asking the question, “Where is the money? We’d love to have the answer to that.”
Warwick Chief of Police Col. Rick Rathbun confirmed Wednesday that the department has received a complaint from the Boronskis and that it has been referred to detectives for follow up.
With reports from Ethan Hartley.