Terry and Marta Mangum were desperate. The builder they hired to construct their new three-bedroom house in the sleepy Annapolis suburb of Edgewater had disappeared. And what Blair Gilbert of Axxent Building & Construction Inc. left behind was little more than a shack with roughed-in plumbing and electricity.
The foundation was crumbling.
The walls were out of plumb.
Of the $162,600 construction loan made to the Mangums, which Gilbert had drawn upon, only $20,000 remained.
Tens of thousands of dollars were spent, but the dwelling was estimated to be worth a mere $50,000.
In time, the Mangums found themselves not only paying $1,000 a month on the construction loan, they were also paying $1,200 a month in rent after selling their condominium in anticipation of moving into a new home.
The ordeal was an emotional and financial drain. Their savings were almost gone. Bankruptcy was becoming an option.
Harrison Wetherill, an Annapolis real estate attorney hired by the Mangums, called it the "most extreme" case of a builder violating his contract. "The Mangums have suffered a terrific loss," Wetherill said. "They may or may not be able to recover from it."
What happened to the money? Nobody knows.
Where is Blair Gilbert?
"I don't know," said Robert Hillman, a Rockville real estate attorney who is representing another couple suing Gilbert. "The last address we have for him is on Eagle Hill Road [in Pasadena]. But I've heard that building is vacant."
What is known is that Gilbert filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy March 29.
"It was like we had been robbed, but we were still paying the bills," said Terry Mangum. "We were taken."
Mark Scurti, Gilbert's attorney, said that neither he nor his client would comment on the Magnums.
It seemed that there was little hope for a happy ending.
But hope went a long way in rescuing the Magnums.
Stung by the stigma left by shoddy builders, a group of sympathetic contractors wanted to help the Mangums finish their house.
"There are good builders out there," said Martin P. Azola, president of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "We do care." He cares because Gilbert -- at one time -- applied to become a member of the association.
Tired of hearing people vilify all builders because of a few bad ones, Azola realized that his group could take the initiative. HBAM started a foundation last spring for educational, research and charitable purposes. According to John Kortecamp, executive vice president of HBAM, the foundation wasn't intended to help individual homeowners. But, he said, "this case was so egregious" the Mangums had to be an exception.
'A little plain house'
All Terry and Marta Mangum wanted was a house.
Nothing big or fancy, just a one-story, three-bedroom home with extra-wide hallways, pocket doors and a roll-in shower for Mr. Mangum, a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair.
"A little plain house," Mrs. Mangum said, one in a neighborhood with good schools and a feeling of community. It doesn't sound like a lot. But it meant the world to the Mangums, who had spent years living in condominiums.
The Mangums were convinced that Blair Gilbert was the person to build that house.
"We were sold on the idea that we could design the inside of the house, the size of all the rooms and the hallways," said Mr. Mangum, who works as an equal opportunity officer for the Maryland Highway Administration.
"'Anything you want,'" Mrs. Mangum, remembers Gilbert bragging to her in their first conversation in the fall of 1997. "'I can do anything you want.'"
The Mangums, who found Gilbert through a magazine ad, liked the steel-framed houses he built. Because a steel-framed house is built like a warehouse, Gilbert said, the Mangums could design where the walls would be and could make the modifications Mr. Mangum needed.
They also liked the price -- $165,000 for the 2,400-square-foot house on a three-quarter-acre lot.
And they liked Gilbert, a smooth-talking salesman who said he was Native American and told them he donated much of his free time to counseling alcoholic teen-agers on Indian reservations.
Gilbert, who relocated to Maryland from Pennsylvania in the mid-1990s, began building steel-framed houses in 1995, according to a newspaper interview in 1997. The first steel-framed house he built in Anne Arundel County was his own 3,700-square-foot waterfront home in Pasadena.
"He seemed nice," said Mrs. Mangum, who is 45 and works as a bank teller. "He seemed believable. He seemed like he cared."
Gilbert gave them three references -- one of whom was his former sister-in-law -- to talk to about his work. They checked the references and were satisfied.
They were impressed by the pictures displayed on the Axxent Homes Web site -- a site that is no longer active. But they never asked to talk with the people who lived in the homes pictured.
His business card said he was a member of Home Builders Association of Maryland. But the Mangums never called the association to check.