Photo: John Downing
A former Mountain Home roofing contractor was due in Baxter County Circuit Court Thursday to be sentenced on charges in three criminal cases in which he was accused of taking money for jobs and never doing the work.
But, he didn’t show. His lawyer, Sam Pasthing, said his client had taken another test to determine if he was positive for COVID-19. According to court records, 31-year-old John Downing has already had at least two such tests — one on Aug. 26 and another just 13 days later.
The latter test was done just 48-hours before he was due to appear for his sentencing hearing then set for Sept. 10. He has supplied “excuse slips” to the court related to the growing number of COVID-19 tests.
Thursday’s no-show by Downing and the announcement he had presented himself for another test did not go over well with Prosecuting Attorney David Ethredge.
He said Downing “is playing games and this is just one more chance for him to poke us in the eye.” Ethredge told the court, “You can walk into a clinic, pay for a test and you get a test. It doesn’t mean you have anything but a credit card.”
Ethredge asked the court to issue a failure to appear warrant “so Mr. Downing can set in jail until his next appearance.”
Circuit Judge Gordon Webb said it certainly appeared Downing “was milking” the COVID-19 test excuse.
It was decided that a failure-to-appear warrant (FTA) would be issued, Downing would be picked up, taken to jail and then released to go home until his test results were available. If he is not positive, he goes back to jail.
The judge said the only thing that made him hesitate on issuing the FTA was possibly putting a COVID-19 positive person into the facility where others could be infected.
Downing pled guilty to the charges against him Feb. 20. The initial date for sentencing was set for March 19 but has been put off several times. The most recent delays were approved based on the restricted activity of the courts due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Formal sentencing for Downing was initially delayed to allow him time to gather funds to be used to pay as much victim restitution as possible, according to his defense lawyer.
The case was then continued in March, May, twice in August, September and again on Thursday.
With all of the continuances granted, Downing has had almost eight months to accumulate money to repay his victims. If the original schedule had been met, he would have had less than 30 days to come up with as much restitution as he could.
Prosecutors have told the court Downing’s sentence might be modified, depending on how much money is returned to victims.
According to the probable cause affidavit in the initial case filed against Downing, it is alleged that in late May 2018 he entered into a contract with a homeowner to put a new roof on the man’s residence. The victim paid Downing $2,250 in advance for the job.
After the agreement was reached, Downing was reported not to have returned to the victim’s house to install the new roof.
The victim told investigators, he made several calls to Downing and heard a number of excuses as to why the work had not started. Downing told the victim at various times work on his house would start the next day, or the victim’s house was the next one in line to be done.
After several calls, Downing stopped returning the victim’s calls. The victim told investigators no materials had been delivered and no work done.
In early August 2018, occupants of a residence in Mountain Home told authorities they had contracted with Downing and his company, Highbridge Roofing and Construction, to do repairs on their roof for $1,700.
The victims told investigators, they went to their bank, obtained a cashier’s check for $1,700 and gave it to Downing, who was alleged to have cashed it the same day.
Again, the victims were told a number of stories as to why the work had not started. Downing said rainy weather had put him behind. On another date, he said the work would be completed in two weeks.
Finally, Downing called the residents saying he did not have time to take on their job and would refund the $1,700 they had paid him. He did not keep that pledge, according to investigators.
Further attempts to contact Downing were unsuccessful.
In late October 2018, a homeowner reported he had contracted with Downing for roofing work. Downing told the victim a down payment of $4,700 would be required. The victim paid Downing, but no work was ever done.
The homeowner required Downing’s company to have a current contractor’s license, general liability insurance and worker’s compensation coverage during the life of the contract.
The victim found Downing’s contracting license had expired, and insurance coverage had been canceled due to non-payment. He contacted Downing and said he wanted his money back.
While Downing promised to have the money back to the victim in a few days, he did not make good on that promise either.
As additional cases began to pile up, Downing was ordered by the court not to solicit new business. He was permitted to do warranty work, as long as it did not require customers to put up any money to have repairs made.
Downing and his company filed a $5 million slander suit in late June 2018 against a Baxter County man for allegedly damaging the reputation of his business. Downing had reportedly done work on a pole barn for the victim, but did not complete the job, forcing the customer to have another contractor redo the work.
In the slander suit, Downing said the former customer was spreading allegedly false statements about unscrupulous business practices by Highbridge and Downing.
Downing’s suit contended the false statements would cost his company millions of dollars in sales during the next 10 years.
A hearing was held in early January last year. The defendant and his attorney attended. Downing was a no-show. His suit was dismissed for lack of prosecution, and a judgment was entered in favor of the customer for $17,900 to cover damages and attorney fees.
Downing is now due to reappear in court Oct. 29.
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