The woman convicted of defrauding the victims of two devastating wildfires — the 2008 Tea Fire and subsequent Jesusita Fire in 2009 — could spend more than 35 years in state prison for the multitude of crimes related to the fraud.
Penny Art Estes, 64, was charged with more than 25 felonies, including diverting construction funds, grand theft, theft by false pretenses and theft from an elder or dependent adult, in connection to the fraud aimed at wildfire victims.
Estes, a former Rialto resident and CEO of Green Building America, came to Santa Barbara after the Tea and Jesusita fires and entered into building contracts with numerous individuals who had lost their homes in the blazes.
She claimed to have a “green” building block that was better than conventional building methods, allowing her to gain the confidence of her clients. Estes then stole their insurance money, as well as funds from other sources, according to the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office.
Estes failed to complete the rebuilds of the homes as contracted, and, in the most extreme cases, she took hundreds of thousands of dollars from homeowners and completed no construction work at all.
She stole close to $4.8 million from victims of the Tea and Jesusita fires, which destroyed 210 and 80 homes, respectively.
Bank records show Estes used most of the money for shopping excursions, travel, hotels and expensive dinners and other extravagances unrelated to the rebuilding of fire-ravaged homes, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
On Thursday, Estes, pleaded guilty to 28 felony counts and 21 special allegations, including defrauding victims of a natural disaster and theft in excess of $500,000, in connection to the fraud.
She also entered guilty pleas to three felony counts stemming from charges in Riverside County that involved the theft of money from an 82-year-old victim, who contracted with Estes to construct a commercial building in Cathedral City, officials said.
In that case, the unidentified victim paid Estes $536,000 for the project and was left holding a vacant lot. Investigators said Estes used the money stolen from the Riverside County victim to begin funding her criminal activities in Santa Barbara.
She faces a maximum sentence of 36.6 years in state prison, and will be sentenced Nov. 26 in Santa Barbara Superior Court, Department 12. Estes remains in custody at County Jail in lieu of $4.5 million bail.