When the phone rings at 3 a.m., it probably means a house is on fire. But the man who dresses and dashes to his car isn't a firefighter. He's called a fire-chaser.
The fire-chaser arrives to find the homeowner searching frantically for children or dashing inside to rescue photo albums and heirlooms. Amid this chaos, the fire-chaser promises to bring order. He offers a contract that will completely restore the burning home. Best of all -- and this is the point he emphasizes -- it will be done at no cost to the homeowner. Insurance picks up the tab.
Desperate to minimize the disaster and in no mood to study fine print, the homeowner may find it hard to resist signing the contract. In doing so, he gives away whatever money he would get from the insurance company. He is investing a great deal of trust in a complete stranger.
Those who sign with Yanesh Brothers Construction are hiring the biggest such firm in Cuyahoga County. But a long list of Yanesh lawsuits suggests a company that shortchanges its customers and sabotages its competitors. Fire-chasing, it seems, is a business that rewards the ruthless.
"Fire-chaser" is a pejorative term, but it's what those in the industry call themselves, much the way personal-injury attorneys might joke about being ambulance-chasers.
If it were a respectable profession, it probably wouldn't have interested Danny Greene, the notorious '70s Cleveland gangster. As legend has it, Greene announced his entry into the industry in characteristically subtle fashion, by having his men gun down a fire-chaser named Joey Kovach as he mowed the lawn of his near-West Side home in August 1976.
"It was the wild West," says Dave Engelson, then a claims adjuster in Cleveland, who has since moved to Columbus. It was Engelson who helped bust Dennis Glendenning, a chaser who admitted to ripping off homeowners in the early '80s and served a prison term for it.
Rival chasers would get into fistfights on the lawn or threaten each other with pistols, just to be the first to approach the homeowner. Kovach's murder was regarded as a message to Carmen Feola, Kovach's boss. An old-world Italian known for his Elvis sunglasses and mobster demeanor, Feola had dominated the industry since the '50s. The new rule, enforced by Greene, was that fire-chasers had to pay him for the privilege of operating in Cleveland.
Fortunately for Feola, Greene was under close police scrutiny and distracted by a turf battle with the Mafia, which was actively plotting his assassination. Before Greene could assert himself in the business, his car blew up. But the mayhem continued without him. Back then, chasers bribed everyone, from firefighters to the next-door neighbors, hoping for an advantage with the owner of the burned home.
"This industry," says one practitioner, "has a history of skulduggery."
By the late 1970s, the Ohio Attorney General opened an investigation, targeting Feola's operation in particular. Those in the business say Feola feasted on Cleveland fires -- especially those in the inner city -- and that he employed chasers who were big, black, and likely to win any contract that came down to a fistfight. Feola himself earned the nickname "Movie" and arrived at fire scenes in a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce.
The attorney general's investigation would lead to stricter enforcement of a rule against renovating a home until three days after a fire. Such regulation weakened Feola's hold on the market. The timing was right for Bill Yanesh, a roofer who worked for Feola, to open his own fire-restoration company. With his two sons, he formed Yanesh Brothers Construction, concentrating their work on Cleveland's suburban fringes, where Feola still wasn't a presence.
First impressions matter most, and at a fire scene the Yaneshes inspire trust. "He seemed friendly and genuine," wrote Twinsburg resident David Porter, speaking of Chuck Yanesh. But in the same document, filed with his city's building department, Porter claims that working with Yanesh Brothers "was a nightmare."
"We're all very slick people," says one competitor. But the Yaneshes, he says, are another breed. "They concentrate not on their own strengths, but on other people's weaknesses."
And a homeowner's weakest point is the anxiety over what a fire will cost. So when a Yanesh salesman takes out a contract that says, in large print, "NO COST TO OWNERS," it's hard to resist. And in the bedlam surrounding a fire, it may not be clear that the contract is not merely for an immediate boarding-up of windows, which the salesman helpfully notes is required by law, but for the entire restoration job.
Bhogilal Patel of Wickliffe signed such a contract with Bill Yanesh Sr. at the scene of a fire in 1987. He would mail the following complaint to the Better Business Bureau a month later: "I was not in my normal frame of mind at that time. I was very excited and was pushed into signing without reading the paper, which I thought was authorization for temporary repairs only."
A month after the fire, the Yaneshes still hadn't begun work on the home. Yet they refused to release the man from his contract, meaning he couldn't hire another company. Having no other choice, his family lived in their boarded-up, fire-ravaged home for weeks, waiting for a resolution.
Some in the industry say that such contractual snags happen by design. Wanting only to have their home back, most owners take the path of least resistance, which is to stick by the original contract and hope the job gets done.
It also gives the restoration company heavy leverage for naming a high price. "You have restoration companies that get there very quick and try to wrap it up before an adjuster [for the insurance company] gets there, and that can make it very difficult," says Brian Maze, a spokesman for State Farm. The company warns its policyholders not to sign a contract immediately after a fire.
In addition, the Yaneshes allegedly practice a method called "spiking the job." A Cleveland-area family who requested a pseudonym, the Joneses (they're familiar with the Yaneshes' reputation for lawsuits), provide a textbook case. Roughly a year ago, they hired the Yaneshes to restore their home after a fire, partly because Chuck promised to take care of smaller tasks -- such as sending the family's smoky clothes to a dry cleaner and picking up the tab. "The dry-cleaning bill was a couple thousand," says Mr. Jones. "Do you think Chuck paid it? No way."
Still, by taking momentary possession of those clothes, Yanesh had his customers artfully entangled. By state law, the customer has three days to cancel the contract, after which he or she is bound to whoever obtained the signature. So within that three days, competitors say, Yanesh Brothers may take dry cleaning. They may move tons of heavy equipment into the yard. Or they may simply show a great deal of initiative in beginning the repairs -- anything to appease the homeowner until the deadline passes.
"I've seen times when they've boarded the house without even talking to the homeowner, when there's smoke still coming out of the windows," says Bill Bridge, a former rival. "They'll just tell the homeowner that 'The insurance company told us to come.'"
Ohio law bars contractors from working on a home during the first three days after a fire. But according to industry sources, that law is rarely enforced and routinely violated.
For his part, Chuck Yanesh says his company only works within that three-day period if the homeowner and insurance company request it. He claims that the delay gives prospective customers the time they need to recognize his company's superiority over the competition.
"The more people research my company, the better chance I have of doing work for them, because I have a blue-ribbon reputation," says Yanesh.
The company does have a long list of referrals, and those contacted by Scene spoke highly of Yanesh Brothers. "I have a 15-room house, so they had to do quite a bit of work," says Jocelyn Johnson of Cleveland. "They did an excellent job. I don't have anything negative to say about them."
But the Joneses came to a different conclusion.
"Once you sign a contract with them, once you get so far into the process, it's just too difficult to get out," says Jones. "After a week I wanted to kill them, and I wanted out, but I couldn't."
After a tornado touched down near their Twinsburg home in November 2002, David and Sharon Porter needed a contractor. David Porter first encountered Chuck Yanesh "cruising the tornado-torn neighborhood, looking for business."
The Porters would give the job to Yanesh, but according to the couple's filings with the Twinsburg Building Department, they were leery of signing a contract until the Yanesh estimate was approved by their insurance company.
Frank Kasulones, the Yanesh foreman, "harassed me continually for the next week and a half, trying to get me to sign the agreement," wrote David Porter. "During this time, Frank couldn't (or wouldn't) explain what the agreement was for and also couldn't understand why I refused to sign it without first having a written contract stating what work was to be done."
The Porters finally signed the contract on December 16, 2002, immediately after the insurance adjuster signed off on the Yanesh estimate. But it wasn't till January 10 that Yanesh workers showed up, and even then they worked intermittently; whole weeks would go by without signs of progress. Kasulones told the Porters it was too cold to work outside. David Porter was furious, noting that "when I looked out my front and back windows, I saw crews working on virtually every one of my neighbors' homes."
One month into the repair, Kasulones asked the Porters to turn over the check they had received from the insurance company, which represented Yanesh's full payment. "This flabbergasted me," wrote Porter, "because unlike Frank I had been paying attention to what had been completed, and what items in the estimate -- our contract -- remained unfinished." The Porters counted 29 repairs in the estimate that had yet to be completed.
And some of the work that had been completed was poorly done. The Porters hired another roofer to analyze the shingling work. "The roof installation you have in place is substandard," the roofer concluded in a letter submitted to the building department. "You purchased a superior grade of shingles and did not receive a superior grade of workmanship."
The Joneses had similar complaints. They claimed to have watched expensive wood being replaced with cheap wood. Walls that should have received three coats got one. Having done some of the renovations in their home, they knew how much it should have cost to replace materials. "If I didn't watch them like a hawk, they would have screwed me so bad," says Mr. Jones. "I busted them on so many shortcuts. I'd hate to see what they would have done to somebody that isn't familiar with the construction business."
Even so, the couple feels cheated by Yanesh. They signed over the insurance check to Yanesh before the restoration was complete, but they claim it took months to persuade the company to finish the job.
Sam Qasam saw his supermarket burn nearly to the ground in 1986. He met Chuck Yanesh at the fire scene.
When Qasam hesitated to sign the contract, he alleges that Yanesh claimed to know an adjuster who would provide an inflated estimate of the damage to Qasam's store. "They say, 'Sign here. Give us the job. Let's assume your insurance settlement is high enough, and we can kick you back $20,000 or so,'" claims Qasam. He signed the contract, but refused a kickback, he says.
In a 1996 civil case, other homeowners testified to being offered payoffs. The transcripts of that testimony are not available, but the case summary, prepared by the judge's law clerk, states the allegation: "Yanesh would repair fire damage to residences and subsequently give kickbacks and bribes to insurance adjusters and owners who had fires."
But industry insiders say that the money isn't as easy as it seems. "People need to realize that when Yanesh offers you $1,000 to $5,000 -- which is typical -- it's coming out of the claim, and there is work that will not be done in at least that amount," says Bill Bridge, who competed with the Yaneshes for nearly 20 years.
A former Yanesh employee says that such procedures were common. "It winds up on the table pretty regularly," claims the man, speaking of bribery. "But never a paper trail."
The reward outweighs the risk, says the worker. "If it went to court, I was told that it was his word against mine," he says. The Yaneshes were confident they could win that legal battle.
Including foreclosures, the Yanesh name appears on 15 Cuyahoga County cases filed over the last 10 years, plus nine more in Lake County over the same period. So the company is no stranger to a courtroom.
In Qasam's case, he was to pay Yanesh not with insurance money, but from his own pocket. "They did $3,000 to $4,000 worth of work, and they sent me a bill for $30,000 to $40,000," Qasam claims. He called a halt to the restoration and filed suit. According to Qasam, it took a year of legal wrangling to get out of his contract.
The company also throws Christmas parties and golf outings for suburban firefighters, complete with free alcohol and door prizes. According to competitors, it's a shrewd way to curry favor with the guys who can help a chaser find a fire or recommend him to a homeowner.
Chuck Yanesh denies using bribery to land contracts. He also denies chasing fires, saying that his company gets its business entirely on referrals from insurance companies, lawyers, or satisfied customers. "I don't prey on people like that," he says, speaking of fire-chasing. "That's just not in my nature."
Last June, Hillman Hanley had locked up a contract to restore a burned Oakwood Village home. Hanley was getting an address book out of the trunk of his Chevy Monte Carlo when an SUV came down the road. It was Chuck Yanesh, riding with his brother-in-law.
The rivals exchanged some unpleasant greetings. Then the Yanesh crew went to solicit the homeowner Hanley had just signed.
The next week, Hanley learned that Chuck Yanesh had filed a criminal complaint, accusing Hanley of pulling a gun and threatening to kill him. Hanley was arrested. But since no police official signed off on the complaint, it was dismissed before Hanley could be prosecuted.
Then he went on the offensive, phoning Bill Summers, a Beachwood attorney who had won lawsuits on behalf of another Yanesh competitor claiming harassment. Hanley's suit, filed December 11, accuses Yanesh of malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and infliction of emotional distress.
Summers says he can show a distinct pattern of intimidation. "That's Yanesh's M.O.," he says. "They'd be out of business without it."
No one knows this better than Bill Bridge, who was a salesman for Farrow Fire Restoration Services when he clashed with Yanesh Brothers.
The rivalry started harmlessly enough. When Bridge beat Yanesh for a client, that homeowner might receive an envelope in the mail containing Bridge's legal history -- including 14-year-old convictions for breaking and entering, as well as for not paying taxes on an unregistered machine gun. Bridge retaliated by showing Yanesh customers the long printout of the family's court cases.
It escalated in November 1993, when Bridge encountered Bill Yanesh Jr. and Chuck Yanesh at a burning duplex on the near West Side. Bridge says the residents were "drunken hillbillies," who argued furiously among themselves about who started the fire. Yanesh inked that contract, but Bridge says it didn't look like a promising job in the first place. So he was shocked when, a week later, a warrant was issued for his arrest.
In a complaint filed with Cleveland Police, the Yaneshes said that Bridge told them at the fire scene, "You'll never live to enjoy the money you're getting from all these fires . . . I'll kill both of you motherfuckers."
Bridge, who was on federal parole relating to the unregistered machine gun, was locked up, pending a hearing before the Ohio Probation Department. He spent three months in jail. At the parole hearing, two Cleveland Police officers testified that they had been in Bridge's company at the fire scene, but never heard him utter a threat. Bridge was acquitted.
His odyssey wasn't over. The Yaneshes filed criminal charges in Common Pleas Court. Bridge was cleared again, but he wasn't going away. He sued the Yaneshes for malicious prosecution, eventually winning a $25,000 judgment.
The former Yanesh employee says that his bosses may have wanted to lure Bridge into an altercation that would violate his parole. "It's games by certain people to eliminate their opposition," says the worker. "You get to be so high and mighty that you can wave your wand and make things happen. 'I don't like this guy. He's a thorn in my side.'"
The Yaneshes would continue to butt heads with Bridge. In September of 1995, Bill Yanesh Sr. and Chuck encountered him at a home at 160th and Puritas, where he had just landed a contract. The Yaneshes arrived to talk the homeowner into going with Yanesh instead, says Bridge.
As the father and son walked toward the house, Bridge opened his car door so that they couldn't pass.
"The Yaneshes chose to confront me, rather than to walk around the car and speak to the homeowner," says Bridge. "I saw them approaching in my driver's side mirror and opened the door, bracing it with my leg against the fence.
"Chuck Yanesh said, 'Move your fucking leg,' and I responded with the standard 'Fuck you Yanesh. Go around.' The father was dumb enough to reach in and grab my left leg at the knee to try and bend my knee. I couldn't help it. I instinctively broke his nose.
"When Chuck saw Daddy got bloody, he did what any son would do, and he attacked me. That's when they dragged me out of the truck." Bridge had bruises on his face, plus a chipped tooth, but his chief concern was another police report. While Bill Yanesh went to the hospital, Chuck Yanesh went to a prosecutor's office. Bridge had more witnesses on his side, however, and prosecutors would charge Chuck Yanesh with misdemeanor assault. The court ordered him to attend a violence-intervention program. Later, Bridge filed a civil suit against Yanesh and won another $8,000.
Another veteran of the business says that while the Yaneshes stand out as slicksters, few in the industry are completely straight. "There are no Snow Whites here," he says. "It's just a business where there's a very fine line between what is illegal and what is just strong marketing tactics."
Most say that the industry has been tamed since the days when it attracted thugs like Danny Greene, but they also admit that it remains haunted by that legacy. "We didn't invent these tactics," says one fire-chaser. "They're handed down to us from generations."
Carmen Feola retired, not long after serving a brief prison sentence in 1998 for stealing from a homeowner who hired his firm.
This generation of fire-chasers is just as vulnerable to legal action, though it's usually civil rather than criminal.
Fire-chasers are governed by the Ohio Consumer Sales Practices Act, which narrowly proscribes a salesman's conduct. Attorney Bill Summers is currently gathering plaintiffs for a potential class-action suit against Yanesh and other major players -- he refused to name them -- who violate the OCSPA. "They start work without giving the three-day cooling-off period, and that can be proven again and again," says Summers.
If he proves that Yanesh broke the law, Summers says, each homeowner who joins the suit would be entitled to a complete refund -- even if the restoration job is done.
That spells danger, not just for Yanesh -- whom Summers identifies as the chief culprit -- but for others in the industry. In his view, the fire-chasers of Cleveland need a thorough purging.
"These are people who start with a tragic situation that's happening to a family, and they feed off that," says Summers. "They are void of human decency."