Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles involving a possible arson fire in Sterling, questionable business practices by a home builder and the alleged swindling of millions of dollars in property from an elderly Sterling couple.
Eddie Byford is not hiding from anything. He’s not trying to run from anyone and he does not even have an attorney.
The owner of the prefabricated log home-building business that burned to the ground in Sterling on Aug. 7 has had a number of lawsuits decided against him over the years, but he said he is trying to do right by his customers.
Byford claims he is the victim of circumstances, of misunderstandings, and possibly of slanderous statements being made against him in the community.
At the time of the fire, a lawsuit was pending against Byford in Kenai Superior Court, alleging that he owed Sam and Joyce McDowell nearly two years of back rent for the commercial space he occupied in a former fish processing plant on the Sterling Highway across from Cook’s Corner Tesoro gas station.
The McDowells claimed the rent was to have been $4,000 a month.
Byford also has been charged in criminal court with working as a contractor without registering and failure to insure a business.
In the civil case, he claims he never made a deal with Joyce McDowell, that he had an agreement through their financial advisor Craig Walstad to use the commercial property in trade for building them a $75,000 log building on property they owned on the Kenai River.
“I did sign a lease with that building,” he said. “Three weeks later I told Craig I wanted out of that building.”
Byford said when he first walked through the building, everything seemed fine, though it would need some work before he could move his business in.
When he began looking more closely he said he found rotting timbers in many parts of the 13,000 square-foot building.
“That building was not usable,” Byford said.
He said Walstad flew up from Colorado three or four different times and the trade was worked out with Joyce.
He said Walstad took Joyce to look at two other log houses Byford built on the river “and everything was fine.”
Following the McDowells’ move from riverfront property upstream from Bing’s Landing in the 2004-05 winter, Byford said Joyce changed her mind and wanted a home built on property they owned just east of the former fish processing plant.
“I was OK with it,” Byford said.
“Then her kids get involved. Dan (McDowell) stops by and says Craig is taking advantage of his parents,” he said.
“Then she says she’s not going to have me build a house ’cause Craig gets 60 percent of everything.
“I’ve tried to work this out with Joyce,” Byford said.
“If Joyce didn’t like this arrangement, why not take action in the first month of not getting rent? Why wait ’til now?” Byford asked.
A court order issued by Kenai Superior Court Judge Harold Brown on Aug. 2 states the McDowells filed suit to have Byford evicted, but as the case involves commercial property, it is a contract dispute and statutory eviction provisions do not apply.
Byford has been accused in other civil suits of not delivering on promises.
He said he had been in partnership with his brother, Billy, who has since died from a terminal illness.
“We had jobs out all over,” he said.
In one case, in 2005, Karl E. Kock was awarded $77,000 from Byford.
“He didn’t like the judge’s award,” Byford said. “I did not pay him anything until I get other people’s jobs done first.
“He has gone around saying things and severely damaged me,” Byford said.
Matthew Leadens said Byford told him he needed $13,500 down to build a log home near East Redoubt Avenue and Boundary Street in Soldotna.
He said Byford did not build the home.
“I still have a foundation at East Redoubt,” Leadens said.
“He gave me excuses ... once in a blue moon he returned a phone call ... I finally gave up,” he said.
Byford said Leadens changed the deal.
“Matt told me him and his wife were getting divorced and he didn’t want a cabin anymore,” Byford said.
According to court records, others who have been given awards against Byford include Greg Diehl, Dave and Sharon Sell, the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Raven Contractors.
“I’ve got just over $300,000 paid off (in other cases),” Byford said.
“I’m trying to finish the homes. If they want their deposits back I’ll give ’em back,” he said.
He said he is now working off Thunder Road in Kenai.
When the fire destroyed the building where his business was in Sterling, the building was full of materials.
“My entire office was in there,” he said. “I had about 6,000 feet of logs in there.”
Byford’s criminal trial for working as a contractor without registering and failure to insure is slated for trial call Oct. 5.
A civil trial in the McDowell versus Byford matter is pending.
An investigation into the cause of the fire at the old fish plant is ongoing with Central Emergency Services and the state fire marshal’s office.
It is being looked at as suspicious.
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