Maritza and Scott Chesney met Antonio Bicca last summer when they were looking for an architect and contractor to demolish their Woodbridge home and build a new one.
Bicca brought the blueprints for the home they imagined. His architect’s seal seemed real, his work plan, serious. He asked for half the $194,000 budget up front and demolition started before Thanksgiving, the couple said.
“We have a debt, we don’t have a house,” Scott Chesney said recently as he and his wife paced the frozen ground where their home once stood in the township’s Colonia section.
The couple and their 8- and 6-year-old daughters now live in a relative’s basement.
The Chesneys, whose case is being investigated by the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office, are not the first homeowners to claim Bicca — also known as Anthony Cezar Bicca or Cesar Bicca — ripped them off.
Bicca, 49, whose last known residence was in Summit, has been wanted in Florida since 1995 on charges he did not complete home improvement work for which he was paid. Four more New Jersey homeowners — including the wife of Byron Scott, the former Nets coach — have accused Bicca of similar scams in lawsuits or formal complaints. A similar claim by an Orange County, N.Y., man put Bicca in jail for a few days in November. And Clifton police want Bicca on identity theft and forgery charges.
In all, Bicca is accused of taking more than $218,000 for unfinished jobs since 2001.
Bicca’s attorney, Filipe Pedroso of Newark, said in a written statement that Bicca would not comment due to ongoing litigation.
“However, Mr. Bicca does state that he has been in business for many years and has always provided a high degree of quality service to his customers,” the attorney wrote.
Home improvement generates the fourth-largest number of complaints, after financial, auto- and Internet-related cases, state officials said. The state received 2,600 complaints last year, according to the state Division of Consumer Affairs.
Home contractors are not required to be licensed in New Jersey.
But a contractor demolishing a house and vanishing was new territory for Madeleine Houston, an attorney who has worked on home-fraud lawsuits for two decades, and Patrick O’Keefe, director of the New Jersey Builders Association.
“I’ve never heard something as bad as this, where a house was knocked down. That’s incredible,” O’Keefe said.
Near the end of January, Summit police went to Bicca’s split-level house, intending to arrest him on charges he had stolen a former employee’s ID and used it to buy an SUV and a truck in Clifton, police said.
But all they found was a “For Sale” sign on the snow-covered lawn.
Investigators later questioned some of Bicca’s relatives, but do not know where he is, Clifton
Police Detective Robert Bracken said. “We think he might have fled the country,” Bracken said.
Pedroso last week declined to disclose Bicca’s location. Several of Bicca’s alleged victims said they believe he is from Brazil.
Bicca earned the trust of his clients with pictures of his work and a flashy Web site, several people who sued him said. “Do you want beauty, do you want durability, do you want the best?” the Web site reads.
“He was very nice, professional,” said Michelle Widman, 29, of South River, who hired Bicca in June 2002 to build a concrete patio and paid him almost $5,700 in advance. Widman and her husband, Christopher, sued because the work was incomplete and what was done was done “so terribly I had to rip it up … It was just a disaster.”
Bicca always visited homeowners instead of having them go to his Summit office, his clients said. When Scott and Maritza Chesney drove to his office address, they found a condo complex instead, they said.
They soon found out, as well, that Bicca was not an architect. Jeff Lamm, a spokesman for the Division of Consumer Affairs, confirmed Bicca has never been licensed as an architect in New Jersey.
Bicca’s clients said the problems started when workers stopped showing up at their homes or the work proved to be defective.
Anita Scott, wife of recently fired Nets coach Byron Scott, hired Bicca in 2001 to build a new front entrance for the family’s Livingston home, according to a lawsuit she filed. But he did an unprofessional, incomplete job, Anita Scott claimed in court documents.
“I was forced to hire a new contractor … to repair my property,” she said in court papers, adding that she paid Bicca $4,500 and had to come up with $2,500 more for the repairs.
Bicca never responded to the complaint and final judgment was entered against his company, Builder Corp., in January 2003. The Scotts and their lawyer declined to comment.
The most recent accusations against Bicca involved larger amounts of money.
Maritza Chesney’s brother, Cesar Bartolo, told the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office that Bicca defrauded him out of $60,000. Bartolo’s wife, Berkys, said they hired Bicca based on the recommendation of their relatives, who, at the time, were happy with the demolition work he was doing for them.
Bicca was arrested in Summit on Nov. 16, 2003, after Alfonso Macera, of Monroe, N.Y., went to police claiming the contractor vanished with $18,000 he had paid him. Monroe Police Detective Robert L. Compasso said Bicca was accused of grand larceny and using a forged New Jersey architect’s seal. He was later transferred to the town of Haverstraw in Rockland County on charges of writing bad checks, an Orange County jail official said. He was released near the end of November.
The second time Summit police tried to pick him up, Bicca was gone and his house was on the market for $589,000.
Both the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office have confirmed Bicca is under investigation, but declined further comment.
Bicca’s former clients have either hired private investigators or tried tracking him down themselves. Having paid Bicca $5,300 for a driveway that “is falling apart,” Nicholas Matarazzo of Montville said he tracked Bicca to Summit last year and confronted him, demanding repairs.
“He promised to come,” Matarazzo said, “and disappeared on me.”