Ed and Donna Kock lost a lot to Ed Byford over the last six years, but Wednesday evening they didn't mind giving up a Chinese dinner on his behalf.
The Kocks left the China Sea restaurant mid-meal to rush back to the Kenai Courthouse when they learned the jury had delivered a verdict on the scheme to defraud, theft, and deceptive business felony charges leveled against Byford: guilty on all counts.
The jury found Byford knowingly schemed numerous clients, including the Kocks, out of hundreds of thousands of dollars when he promised to build them houses through his company Prefab Log Homes and then neglected to do so.
"I am overwhelmed," said Donna Kock, who cried when she heard the verdict. "He will not put anyone else down to nothing when they're ready to retire. We have nothing. He got everything. He isn't going to do it to anybody else."
The jury returned its verdict after less than an hour of deliberation.
The minimum sentence Byford can receive for the scheme to defraud and theft charges is one to three years for each count; the deceptive business conviction carries a minimum sentence of zero to two years. Byford has no previous felony convictions, which is why he faces the minimum sentence, but the state is pursuing certain aggravators. If the state proves these aggravators -- for example, that Byford's conduct reached a particular degree of severity -- the judge can impose additional penalties.
Ed Kock testified during the trial that he contracted with Byford in October 2004 for the purpose of constructing a two-story log home -- the upstairs for his daughter, son, and grandson, and the downstairs for he and his wife. Kock explained how Byford took $54,750 from him supposedly to pay for logs to build the home; Kock never received any logs, nor did he receive a log home from Byford. What he did receive was a shoddy foundation laden with cracks and other structural abnormalities, which he had to pay an additional $3,600 out of his own pocket to have removed due to its uselessness.
The Kocks ultimately downsized to a one-story home later when they had the house constructed by another company. They are still paying interest on the loan they took out in order to write Byford the $54,750 check. They have not received any of the money back.
"I had a feeling we were going to get a verdict of guilty all the way though," said Kock, stating he was confident that the tireless efforts of prosecuting attorney Dan Cheyette and Investigator John Papasodora would bring Byford to justice.
The Kocks' story was echoed among the other victims who testified, with slight variations: Byford promised to build them a home, took their money, failed to deliver, and refused to give them a refund.
In addition to the victims, Byford's son, friend, and fiancee testified throughout the trial, which began on May 10.
Cheyette harped on the victims' anecdotes during his closing statement on Wednesday. He also pointed to Byford's bank records as a testament to the fact that Byford rarely, if ever, spent money on building materials; rather, he used the money for personal expenses, such as trips to McDonald's and Blockbuster. When his funds ran low, he found another victim to prey on.
Defense attorney Andrew Haas argued during his closing statement that Byford was merely a bad businessman who let lofty ambitions get ahead of the realities of running a business. Haas maintained his client was a people-pleaser who wanted to promise a cheap, fast, high-quality product, but that Byford lacked the business smarts to take into consideration the restraints of time and money when engaging in those promises.
Haas also said that Byford's Prefab Log Homes was a "cash operation," for better or for worse, and that this fact explained the lack of a paper trail when trying to account for Byford's purchases of materials, supplies, and other business-related equipment.
"It's been a long case, it's been a long process, and there's been a lot of people who put a lot of effort into it," Cheyette said. "Not just myself, but retired Trooper Papasodora who started this investigation and completed most of it."
Cheyette tipped his hat to the other troopers who participated in the investigation, and to the staff of the Office of Special Prosecution and Appeals, for which he works. He said he also greatly appreciated the cooperation of the victims and the attentiveness of the jury.
"Justice has been done," he said, "and I believe that the jury considered all the evidence and came to a just verdict.
"I'm tired, but I'm satisfied with the outcome and I am appreciative of both the effort that the jury made -- the sacrifices they made for the past three weeks -- as well as to the court system for accommodating such a long trial and our travel schedules and such."
Cheyette added he thinks the defense will probably appeal the jury's decision, but noted that appeals are not usually submitted until after the sentencing hearing.
Byford's sentencing hearing is scheduled for a two-hour time slot on Sept. 2. At the hearing, Byford's victims will be allowed to address the court and speak their minds on the potential sentence.
Byford waived the right to have the jury decide on whether or not his conduct warranted the application of aggravators, allowing Judge Peter Ashman to make that decision.
A continued trial to determine the aggravating factors is scheduled for Friday morning.
Karen Garcia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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