The NBC10 Investigators have uncovered a contractor's path of destruction across Massachusetts. Homeowners paid big bucks for pools and other home improvement projects, but were left with giant holes in their backyards and broken promises.
During a three-month investigation, we discovered criminal records and lawsuits spanning more than two decades in New England. From there, we followed the trail of money, tracked down the contractor responsible and asked authorities if he'll be held accountable.
In our three-part series, "To Catch a Contractor," in depth report, we also review the red flags consumers should be aware of before they hire someone for a project. And we take a closer look at the statewide system meant to provide oversight of contractors with a sketchy track record.
Watch the complete series here:
Instead of a pool, a gaping backyard hole
When we visited Huy Pham in late August, an enormous hole was all he had to show for the $60,000 he’d already paid a contractor to install a pool in his backyard in Sharon.
According to the project contract, his three kids were supposed to be swimming by the Fourth of July. But after breaking ground and digging the hole in June, Pham said the project came to a standstill.
Pham had hired Steve Docchio, owner of Xtreme Living Pools and Construction.
According to the web site, the company is “built on quality workmanship, dedication…and keenly focused on delivering breathtaking results.”
The contractor had seemed eager to start the project and knowledgeable about pool installations, Pham recalled. On the day they moved into their home in April, Docchio showed up to collect the deposit. When the timeline started to slip by a couple of weeks in June, Pham claimed the contractor did not take it well when he inquired about the delay.
“He just exploded on me and said, ‘No pool for you! No pool for you!’ I couldn’t believe what had happened,” Pham said.
Having already paid tens of thousands of dollars, Pham said he tried his best to keep the peace and get the project in motion. He later learned the local building department had not approved a permit when the heavy machinery dug the hole, a detail we confirmed with the town.
As the days of inactivity stretched into months, Pham said he bought temporary fencing to place around the hole and make sure his kids didn’t fall into the safety hazard. He purchased a pump to keep the mosquitos from swarming in the giant pit of standing water.
Pham said he’s worried about the deluge of summer rain eroding the hole toward the home’s foundation and threatening its structural integrity.
“It’s very tough because you promised your kids something,” Pham said. “I felt like I failed as someone who’s supposed to protect this family and protect the money. It’s a very tough pill to swallow.”
Court records reveal stack of expensive lawsuits
A review of Massachusetts court records revealed Pham is far from alone.
Charles Legg and his wife dreamed of a beautiful outdoor space at their home in East Falmouth.
When we visited Legg on the Cape, he showed us how his six-figure project remained frozen in state of disrepair.
“It’s a sick feeling,” he said.
Along with some interior renovations, the project called for a wraparound deck with a pergola and swim spa. At first, Legg said the work progressed as expected. However, he claims the timeline slowed and he said Docchio grew unresponsive.
Two years later, the deck is only half-constructed. The swim spa was never delivered. And there is a door Legg has been unable to use because there is a 5-foot drop to the concrete below.
Legg and his wife sued Docchio and won a judgement of more than $388,000, including damages and money they’d paid for work and materials they never received. To date, they have not collected a dime.
Court records show Legg’s attorney has not been able to locate and seize any of Docchio’s assets to recoup the lost funds.
“You want to stop thinking about it every day because you’re angry and that’s not a good place to be as a human,” Legg said.
Kim O’Connor told us she knows the feeling.
Before her family could enjoy a picturesque patio and pool with an ocean view in their Duxbury backyard, she claimed Docchio abandoned the project with a majority of the expensive work still incomplete, according to a lawsuit filed against the contractor.
O’Connor had already paid the contractor $150,000 for labor and materials and then had to find another company to clean up the mess and finish the job. She said the price tag doubled.
“Emotionally, you just feel so violated,” O’Connor said. “You question who you trust and think, ‘Are there really people like this out there?’ Unfortunately, there are.”
O’Connor also took Docchio to court and won a sizable judgement of more than $356,000, but said she has also not had any luck collecting the money.
“The entire thing was horrible,” O’Connor said. “It took such a toll on my family.”
In Marshfield, Frank Davis said he hired Docchio to upgrade his outdated pool so his son with special needs could use it for therapy.
After spending more than $30,000 for the project, Davis showed us a series of issues, including a rickety slide, tears in the liner and cracks in the concrete. He is now looking at thousands of dollars in repair work.
“He knew why we were doing this,” Davis said, explaining that the contractor had met his son. “When he left, the water in the pool was black. He wouldn’t answer our calls and wouldn’t come back.”
Davis also sued and tried to pursue a civil judgement until the case stalled as courts closed during the pandemic. Knowing there are other homeowners who have unsuccessfully recouple lost funds, Davis doubts he will resume the litigation.
“I’m old school. I’m a handshake guy, and he got me,” Davis said. “I was pissed. I work really hard for my money.”
PHOTOS: Projects Homeowners Say Contractor Didn't Finish
Contractor's criminal past spans two decades in New England
Our investigation revealed Docchio has a criminal history spanning more than two decades in New England.
Court records we reviewed show a list of home improvement-related convictions in Connecticut dating back to 1995. The offenses include larceny, issuing bad checks, violating probation, violating home improvement contracts, and failing to refund consumers.
More recently in Massachusetts, we found larceny charges in Stoughton, Millbury, Duxbury, and Orleans. Court records show those charges were dismissed or will be dismissed once Docchio pays restitution to the victims in those cases.
We also found a current felony case in Rhode Island for failing to pay back a $25,000 amount ordered by the state’s contractor licensing board.
We caught up with that consumer, Jeff Lemler, in Portsmouth.
“He always had 50 million excuses why he couldn’t come and work on a project,” said Lemler.
Lemler said he hired Docchio to tear down and rebuild a cottage. When the contractor allegedly abandoned the project, there were stacks of cinderblocks, but no roof, doors, windows, or interior finishing.
Lemler spent double to hire someone else and finish the project. He also lost months of rental income on the property, money he says helps pay for his mother’s dementia care.
“I felt downright panic and rage. I also felt disappointed in myself for letting my mother down,” Lemler said. “Justice served to him would be a real great relief to me.”
After arrest on warrant, contractor confronted
We contacted Docchio to get an explanation for the long list of lawsuits, criminal charges, and angry homeowners. He never responded.
However, we got a tip that Docchio was pulled over for erratic driving in late October. During the traffic stop, a Plymouth police officer spotted the warrant out of Rhode Island for Lemler’s case. He arrested Docchio and the contractor was charged as a fugitive.
We were waiting outside a courthouse in Warwick when Docchio showed up for his arraignment.
We asked about the criminal charges and owing consumers hundreds of thousands of dollars from civil judgements.
“False,” Docchio responded, while later adding, “For a journalist, you don’t know the truth.”
When asked to explain, Docchio remained tight-lipped until he entered the courthouse. Inside the courtroom, Docchio pleaded not guilty.
The judge gave the contractor an earful before ordering him held on a $30,000 surety bond.
Law makes it tough to prosecute contractors
When speaking with homeowners, a common theme emerged: How does someone seemingly get away with this so long?
“I don’t know how he sleeps at night,” said Greg Fly of Hanover.
Fly said he hired Docchio to complete an addition in 2018, but claimed the contractor walked away after pouring a foundation and leaving it exposed to the winter elements. Fly said water puddled in the foundation hole and started penetrating the basement.
Already out nearly $50,000 to Docchio, Fly said he then had to spend another $65,000 to get someone else to finish the space where they gather as a family.
“The most upsetting part was the kids,” said Fly, growing emotional. “Realizing he took a lot of our money right before Christmas. It was sleepless nights and was just eating at my wife and me.”
Court records show civil judgements against Docchio are simply ignored and attorneys hired by victims struggle to find any assets that can be seized for repayment.
When his attorney informed him of several other pending lawsuits, Fry decided pursuing his own litigation would only end up costing him more money. He submitted a complaint to the Massachusetts Attorney General, the Better Business Bureau, and wrote online reviews on sites like Yelp.
“I can’t imagine what they go through because it’s not just that victim. It’s families that are involved, it’s children that are involved, and it’s finances that are involved,” said Detective Andy Mclaughlin, a 16-year veteran of the Orleans Police Department.
Mclaughlin pursued a criminal case against Docchio after an Orleans couple had paid almost $90,000 for a pool project that was never finished. Photos show a hole with some rebar, but that was as far as work progressed. The family had to hire a different company to tear out the material and start the job from scratch.
After speaking with the victim, Mclaughin researched Docchio’s history in Connecticut and discovered a pending larceny charge in Stoughton.
“I felt there was a pattern of behavior,” Mclaughlin said.
The detective explained that’s important because Massachusetts law states prosecutors must prove a contractor never intended to complete a project, a needed element to pursue a charge of larceny by false pretenses. That is why so many cases end up being handled in civil court.
“It’s a challenge,” Mclaughlin said. “How do you show someone did not intend to complete a job? If they start it, they can always say they were going to come back and finish it.”
The Orleans homeowner in Mclaughlin’s case eventually agreed to accept a settlement. If Docchio pays back a portion of the money by a deadline later this month, the criminal charge will be dismissed.
Pham, the Sharon homeowner with the giant hole in his backyard, did not go to police about the $60,000 he’d paid Docchio. But after a lot of persistence, he said he managed to secure a refund of nearly half that amount.
However, he said Docchio would only hand over the check after Pham signed a document agreeing not to post any negative online reviews. Pham shared the agreement with NBC10 Boston.
The document, dated Oct. 8, also stipulated that Pham could not file any legal claims or submit a complaint to the Better Business Bureau and any Massachusetts regulatory agencies.
Consumers share red flags they missed
Before losing thousands of dollars, consumers told us the online reviews tied to Docchio and his company seemed so positive.
It’s a lesson there is no one-stop shopping to fully vetting a contractor’s background.
“It’s a really big problem. We’re talking about somebody’s home,” said Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey.
Healey’s office also receives a heavy volume of contractor complaints and said consumers really need to do their homework before handing over their money.
Among her tips for homeowners:
- Get three estimates for a project
- Get references from friends and family
- Ask for proof of insurance
- Search a variety of online resources, including the Better Business Bureau
- Get a written contract, even for small projects
- Never pay more than a third of the cost upfront, and don’t pay the balance until a project is completed to your satisfaction
- Do a Google deep dive for the company and contractor’s name. Check different variations, too. For instance, if the contractor goes by “Bill,” make sure to also search “William”
- Check a contractor’s registration status with the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation
If you’ve been swindled by a registered contractor, you might be able to recoup some money from the state’s Home Improvement Arbitration and Guaranty Fund, but that amount is capped at $10,000.
Davis, the Marshfield homeowner who is facing thousands of dollars in repairs to his pool, said he learned a lesson about trusting photos on a web site.
“One of the things that galled us the most is that he used our pool as a success story,” Davis said. “He shot it from angle that didn’t show any faults. It was the day he put the water in and it looked perfect. Two days later, the water was black.”
When we first spoke to him in August before he signed the non-disclosure agreement, Pham said he wished he paid more attention to the fact that Docchio was available immediately and other pool companies weren’t booking new projects until 2022.
“That should’ve been a red flag,” Pham said.
Revoked in one state, working in another
A search of the state’s Home Improvement Contractor web site shows Docchio still has a current registration in Massachusetts.
According to OCABR records, the agency has received two complaints, which resulted in a combined $5,700 in fines and a five-month suspension in 2017. An agency spokesperson said there are no current complaints against Docchio.
“I can’t describe the damage, pain and suffering this guy caused me,” said a Hyde Park homeowner who filed the 2020 complaint against Docchio’s HIC registration.
In Connecticut, Docchio’s most recent attempt at an HIC registration was denied because he owes about $3,400 to the state’s guaranty fund and he did not respond to inquiries related to his background check.
In Rhode Island, Docchio’s registration was suspended when Lemler filed his complaint for the unfinished cottage project in Portsmouth.
“In short, Mr. Docchio can no longer work in the state of Rhode Island as a contractor,” said a spokesperson with the Department of Business Regulation.
When asked about a previous history of contractor-related crimes, OCABR told us it does not have the statutory authority to conduct criminal background checks as a prerequisite to issuing an HIC registration.
Rhode Island also does not perform any background check. In Connecticut, contractors are supposed to disclose when they apply for a credential if they have a criminal history.
“If they do indicate that, we look into it, but we do not run a comprehensive criminal background check for everyone who applies,” said a spokesperson with the Department of Consumer Protection.
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Will contractor be held accountable?
After weeks of research on Docchio’s background, we took our findings to the Massachusetts Attorney General.
Since our investigation began, Healey’s office has received six consumer complaints about the contractor. There have been 14 total complaints dating back to 2015.
“This is egregious activity,” Healey said. “This is a person who has victimized people across the state. I’m aware of this now. My office is looking into it. This is the kind of practice and the kind of person that we need to absolutely hold accountable under the law.”
Meantime, Docchio posted the $30,000 bail from his criminal case in Rhode Island and is apparently still landing new jobs. In court, his public defender told the judge he is actively working at sites in Kingston, East Bridgewater, and West Boylston.
A Milton homeowner hired Docchio this year to build a pool so his son with special needs could use it for therapy. However, $20,000 and months after the hole in his backyard was dug, the homeowner told us he gave up. He had someone fill in the hole and install an above-ground pool instead.
“My backyard looked like a scene from Saving Private Ryan,” the homeowner told us.
We also found Docchio had applied for a permit to install a pool at a West Roxbury home last March. A spokesperson with Boston Inspectional Services confirmed the permit had never been approved.
We contacted the homeowner in late October to see if Docchio had installed the pool.
“Not yet,” the homeowner replied, wondering why an investigative reporter was inquiring about his backyard project. “He’s supposed to be coming next week to dig the hole.”