Operation Freelancer III Nabs Unlicensed Contractors

NEWS RELEASE #: 16-104

The Sarasota County Sheriff's Office arrested nine people on multiple charges during Operation Freelancer III, an investigation to protect citizens from unlicensed contractors.

Detectives worked with the Sarasota County Building Department, the Florida Department of Financial Services Division of Insurance Fraud and the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) to contact individuals advertising home repair services that require a license to complete. As subjects arrived at the target residence last week, the DBPR database was checked to determine if they were licensed, registered as a contractor, and/or had the required workers compensation coverage or exemption to perform the work they proposed to do. 

In all, the operation resulted in nine felony charges and 14 misdemeanor charges. Those arrested have a combined history of 91 prior felony charges and 32 convictions. One of the defendants, Charles Duff, has an extensive criminal history including a conviction for Armed Robbery in 2006 where he entered a bank claiming to be armed with explosives. Another defendant of note is Eric Larson, who was arrested for the second time while trying to contract without a license. The following individuals were arrested during the three-day operation:

- Patrick Merchant, DOB 02/11/86, 5222 47th Street E., Bradenton
- Edilson Dos Santos Pereira, DOB 03/16/67, 2842 Dumont Lane, North Port
- Robert Wieselman, DOB 08/31/54, 3120 Elmer Street, Sarasota
- Alejandro Ventura-Blanco, DOB 10/08/62, 5860 Pauma Street, Sarasota
- Charles Duff, DOB 03/20/44, 1109 Dona Way, Nokomis
- Moises Gonzalez, DOB 08/05/72, 2911 N. Lockwood Ridge Road, Sarasota
- Michael Maggio, DOB 06/08/62, 1953 Neptune Drive, Venice
- John Yoder, DOB 05/02/48, 1832 Worrington Street, Sarasota
- Eric Larson, DOB 10/28/66, 3105 Gatun Street, North Port

Since 2012, the sheriff's office has assigned detectives to investigate claims against people who engage in contracting work without proper licenses, permits or certification. A first offense usually results in a civil citation by code enforcement but subsequent violations lead to misdemeanor or felony criminal charges. The defendants also receive a cease and desist order from the State of Florida.

"This is a good reminder why consumers should always seek licensed contractors to perform work on their home or business," said Sheriff Tom Knight. "Consumers are exposing themselves to financial and physical risk by allowing these people to enter their home, unlicensed, and in some cases, with criminal histories. Not only does this illegal activity pose a threat to consumers, but it also directly effects legitimate business owners operating within the parameters of the law."

"Our partnership with the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office is just one step we can take to proactively stop unlicensed contractors in the area," DBPR Secretary Ken Lawson said. "The first step consumers can do to protect themselves is always verify the license of a contractor before allowing them to do any work on their home or business. At DBPR, we aim to ensure that Florida's consumers receive top-notch services from professionals who are licensed and trained to do the job, and we also aim to empower consumers to make well-informed decisions when hiring those professionals."

Florida law sets specific rules and guidelines for obtaining professional licensure, and the people who have met these requirements are held to professional standards. Consumers can verify licenses with the DBPR online at www.myfloridalicense.com, by calling 850-487-1395, or downloading the free DBPR Mobile app through iTunes or the Google Play store.

To check a Sarasota County license, call the Customer Service and Permit Center at 861-6678 or 861-3029. To report someone you suspect is acting as an unlicensed contractor or performing work without a permit, call 861-5000. For more information visit www.scgov.net/DevelopmentServices/Pages/ContractorLicensing.aspx.