ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – Bernalillo County Sheriff’s detectives say a subcontractor for a reputable Albuquerque business has defrauded more than a dozen customers.
Thirteen people have come forward so far. BCSO Detective Russell Telles said there may be 20 to 30 more victims.
“I’m expecting there to be a lot more than who I’ve talked to so far,” Telles said.
Gary Mares, 63, was working as an independent landscape designer for Milligan Scapes. Telles said Mares responded to inquiries representing himself as a co-owner of the company, then asked customers to write a check in his name equal to half the cost of the project as a down payment.
According to several alleged victims, Mares never completed any of the work. Owner Gary Milligan also didn’t know about most of the contracts Mares was signing.
“(Mares) was very friendly, very congenial,” said Jeff Strain, a businessman who recently relocated to Bernalillo from Phoenix. “He came out here, and he seemed to really know what he was doing.”
Strain said he signed a contract with Mares and Milligan Scapes last December, writing a check for $8,000 to Mares. But four months later, countless excuses and no start date in sight, Strain said he called the company to talk directly to Milligan.
“That’s when I found out, ‘Hey, he never told me about this contract. He never gave me the check, the down payment, so this is the first I’m hearing about it,'” Strain said.
It was the same story for Melanie Hubka, a new foster mom to three kids.
“I never even thought about it when (Mares) said I needed to write the check out to him,” Hubka said. “The reason I didn’t think anything is because his name is Gary. You know, Gary Mares, Gary Milligan. In my eyes, you don’t need to be the owner of the company.”
Hubka said she cut Mares a $1,500 check.
“I got a call from Gary Milligan saying, ‘I’m not sure who you are, but I have paperwork with your name on it. Did you write a check out to someone named Gary Mares for a landscaping job?’ and I said, ‘yes,’ and (Milligan) proceeded to tell me what was going on with Gary and how they’re being scammed.”
Both Strain and Hubka said they never saw it coming.
“(Mares) was very nice and open. He told me what would be better for the kids because I told him I wanted a kid-friendly backyard,” Hubka said.
“Most burglars will come in while you’re asleep or away from home and steal your things. It’s cowardly, but it’s human,” Strain said. “Whereas, Gary Mares comes into your home and shakes your hand, acts friendly, talks about his family, you know, maintains this rapport with you, gets to know you and still will rip you off for thousands of dollars.”
Detectives said Mares has had a lot of practice perfecting his con.
A search of court records turned up a slew of arrests and convictions for fraud, embezzlement and contracting with a license since 1987. According to published reports, the state’s Construction Industries Division put Mares on a top-ten list of unlicensed contractors. The stories of his victims are similar to Strain’s and Hubka’s.
In February, Mares got off probation that stemmed from a 2010 case.
“As soon as they’re released, they do the same exact thing. By the time their case goes forward, they’ve probably done it 20 more times,” Telles said.
Milligan, who denied KRQE News 13’s request for an on-camera interview because of pending litigation as a result of Mares, said he did not do a background check on the subcontractor. Milligan called Mares a “talented con artist,” who was rewriting contracts in his favor.
“I feel horrible. It’s very embarrassing. He hurt my name. I was too trust as a young, naïve business owner,” Milligan told News 13 on the phone.
Milligan confirmed Mares worked for the company for about a year before he was fired last month. The termination followed calls from customers about unfinished work. Milligan estimates Mares may have embezzled tens of thousands of dollars from him.
Milligan said he is trying to honor all the contracts Mares signed without asking customers for more money.
“Gary Milligan has been fabulous,” Hubka said, adding that Milligan Scapes completed her landscaping project last week.
But for other customers, like Strain, the job isn’t so easy. Strain was quoted $16,000 for the project. According to Strain, Milligan said he could not complete the job for the remaining $8,000. Strain has taken the first steps in filing a lawsuit against the company.
No charges have been filed against Mares, but Det. Russell Telles said fraud and embezzlement charges are coming.
“If I was to stop (the investigation) now, and there were no other customers out there, I would have enough (to charge), but I don’t want to leave anyone out of it,” Telles said.
KRQE News 13 called Mares and visited numerous residences in an attempt to get his side. He has not returned calls.
Telles is warning customers that Mares may still have Milligan Scapes contract forms. If you have additional information, you’re asked to call Det. Telles at (505) 468-7333.u