Slow dig: When the Leyland cypress didn't show

 Michael Vlasis, owner of Mulch Monkeys in Palmyra, was distressed when he saw my recent column on a Lake Monticello landscaper who'd collected a customer's $320 deposit but declined to deliver the mulch she'd ordered ["Mulch Ado," October 30, 2002].

Vlasis' distress was understandable: I had broken my usual policy and refused to name either the landscaper or his business, and Vlasis felt that my doing so had compromised other landscapers in and around Lake Monticello who are now being eyed nervously by customers.

So let me begin by saying that I was writing about Steve Adkins and Lakeview Landscaping; I withheld that information because Adkins had claimed to be going through some distressing personal circumstances. Whether he is or not, however, I now believe that I was wrong to leave readers to wonder. That belief got stronger when I learned that Adkins had done the same thing– collected a deposit without delivering the goods or services– to another customer last year.

Donald Collins, who lives at Lake Monticello with his wife, saw a Lakeview flyer and hired Adkins to plant an evergreen screen along one side of his property.

On November 22, 2001, Collins says he gave Adkins a deposit of $522, which was half the total. The plan, according to Collins, was that Adkins would dig the holes on November 28 and plant the trees, Leyland cypress, on November 30.

Instead, he claims, nothing happened. According to his records, he left messages for Adkins on December 24 and again on January 2. He claims that on January 4 Adkins promised to do the project by the end of the month and said that things had been tough because he "wasn't getting work."

At this point, Collins says, "I still felt he might eventually show up"– but that didn't happen. Finally, on February 5 Collins left a message asking that his $522 deposit be returned; more calls ensued.

During one, according to Collins, Adkins said he was "having trouble getting the plant material," but he said he thought he could get some Leyland cypress in Richmond. That's curious; the fast-growing species has become a stock item at almost all nurseries.

In a later call, he offered to "come out and dig the holes," but Collins said no. In the end, on February 13, Adkins agreed to refund the deposit.

A check arrived on February 20, and Collins deposited it into his Guaranty bank account– but a week later it came back, marked "NSF"– insufficient funds.

As I knew from interviewing Fluvanna County Commonwealth's Attorney Jeffrey Haislip for my earlier column on Adkins, to accept a customer's money and not deliver the goods or services is considered construction fraud, which is a criminal offense.

Collins consulted an attorney, who told him the same thing. Of course, he could always go to small claims court– but if there's no money to collect, it's an empty victory. In the end, Colllins got lucky: He took the check to a branch of Adkins' bank and, to his relief, was able to get his $522.

Collins did one other thing: He began making what he calls "public service announcements" at the newcomers' club his wife, Judy, has started at the Lake, in which he holds up the flyer for Lakeview Landscaping and "lets them benefit" from his experience.

I spoke to Adkins, who claimed that he had had to special order the trees from a tree farm, and that when they came in, Collins "wouldn't take shipment."

When I stated that Corbin Snow of Snow's Garden Center in Charlottesville describes the shrub as so common that "If you're having trouble getting Leyland cypress in this area, you're not looking in the right places," Adkins countered by claiming that Collins had wanted the trees a certain height, which complicated things. Collins confirmed that he had specified a height; even so, he maintains that the cypress should have been easy to find. He says that Adkins "could have gone to the Home Depot in Short Pump."

Adkins asserts that Collins and the woman I wrote about last month are the only two Lakeview customers who have ever had trouble getting deposits refunded. When I pressed him on that, however, he wavered and changed his assertion to "I wouldn't say it's never happened."

Before we hung up he declared, as he had back in September, that he intends to refund the earlier customer her $320. Will he? I'll follow up and let you know.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer, write her at 100 Second Street NW, 22902, or call 295-8700 ext. 406.