VERO BEACH, Fla. — State and local law enforcement officials on Wednesday announced the arrests of a Vero Beach couple and pool business owners accused of stealing more than $2 million from upwards of 150 customers in South Florida and along the Treasure Coast.
Chrystal and Brian Washburn were arrested Tuesday on felony charges including false information on an application for contractor’s license, working as an unlicensed contractor, organized scheme to defraud, identity theft, money laundering, concealing information to avoid workers compensation premiums, and insurance application fraud.
The Washburns are the owners of Amore Pools, Inc., based in Vero Beach, which has been in business for just over two years.
“This was a sham company that had one goal in mind. That was scamming victims,” said St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken Mascara at a news conference on Wednesday.
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The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said customers would pay large upfront deposits to Amore Pools — sometimes up to 25% of the total cost of the project — thinking the company was going to build them a pool.
“After paying the deposit, some of the victims never heard from Brian and Chrystal Washburn again,” said FDLE Special Agent Lee Massey. “But others were victimized yet a second time.”
Massey said that in some cases, Amore Pools would begin construction, digging large holes in backyards and sometimes making the foundations of homes unstable. Then, the work would suddenly stop or slow down dramatically.
“Often, they left dangerous debris around these holes, making backyards both unusable and unsafe before abandoning the homeowners altogether,” Massey said.
Calling it a “calculated” operation, Massey said the Washburns would use a third-party check cashing store to convert illegal funds from checks to cash.
Authorities said the Washburns defrauded more than 100 customers in Palm Beach, Martin, St. Lucie, Indian River, Okeechobee, and Brevard counties.
“This was not a business that was struggling to fulfill or meet a strong consumer demand during a pandemic,” Massey said. “They systematically set out with a plan to defraud homeowners.”
The FDLE said the Washburns forged signatures on some permits or even signatures of subcontractors, and also forged signatures to become a registered pool and spa contractor.
WPTV started hearing complaints from customers in June about Amore taking too long to finish projects, or that the company did work that regularly failed inspections. FDLE got involved in July.
Now investigators confirm that their mistakes and delays were not incompetence, but organized fraud, in a scheme that started before Amore Pools Inc. was ever officially in business.
FDLE Resident Agent in Charge, Mike Bartus, told WPTV they acted fast to arrest Chrystal and Brian Washburn before they could target more victims.
The Florida Attorney Generals Office, Florida Department of financial services, FDLE, and numerous local law enforcement agencies on the Treasure Coast assisted in the investigation.
“I do believe it is shameful and disgusting that there are people in this world that take advantage of good, honest, hard working citizens for their own personal greed,” said Bartus, who helped lead the investigation.
“They never had a desire to build a small business. Their only goal was fraud,” said FDLE Special Agent in Charge, Lee Massey.
Investigartors say Chrystal Washburn lied on her application to become a registered pool builder, forging references and lying about her experience and credentials.
However, the City of Port St. Lucie approved her application in 2017.
Since June, contracting and licensing boards in Indian River County, Martin County, and St. Lucie County have voted to suspend or revoke Amore’s privileges to build any new pools until they could catch up on a backlog of projects following complaints from customers.
The City of Stuart followed Martin County’s lead.
As a result of being unable to get new customers on the Treasure Coast, Bartus says he tracked them seeking out new customers in the Orlando Area, Seminole County, and Palm Beach County.
“We wanted to stop the bleeding. We did not want anymore of our Florida citizens to become victimized by this company,” said Bill Salidrigas, FDLE special agent.
WPTV spoke with at least 50 individual victims, who shared the same story that was confirmed by law enforcement.
They would pay large upfront deposits, and in some cases, write checks for ongoing work.
The checks, according to FDLE, were never deposited in a business account, but cashed at a third party check cashing store, making it harder for FDLE to track where the money went.
“We’re never going to stop looking for the money,” Salidrigas said.
Customers say a big selling point was also a flashy video Amore would produce as a depiction of what the finished product would be.
“They would hook victims with a timeline of 8-10 weeks to complete a pool, they would be 20 % to 30% or 40% sometimes lower in costs [than the competition], as well as promising them they had the ability to get them travertine, for example, at a really low cost.”
Deb and Dan Neger were some of the victims.
They told WPTV Amore’ Pools designed a pool for them that checked all of their boxes.
“Since we are of that age to retire, we’ll do all of our big ticket items while we’re still working,” said Deb Neger. “We found nothing on the BBB, on any website, nothing that would say this was not a great company.”
They say they lost $40,000 to Amore, and have had to spend even more money hiring someone to not only finish the pool, but repair and redo work done by Amore.
“I mean I can’t even sit in this back yard, it’s a dirt heap. I can’t have people here, I can’t BBQ here, I can’t hang in my pool,” Neger said. “They stole my joy. They stole my joy.”
Customers also said they would stop hearing from the Washburn’s after they made a payment.
“After paying their deposit, some of the victims never heard from Chrystal or Brian Washburn again,” Massey said. “For some homeowners, Amore pools dug large holes in backyards sometimes making the foundation of the residence unstable. Sometimes digging outside the property lines.”
FDLE also confirms liens had been placed on some homes by subcontractors who also weren’t receiving payment from Amore for products from CEMEX and Prestige Gunite.
Court records show at least 17 liens on Amore Customer’s homes, worth more than $70,000.
The Washburns are currently in the Indian River County Jail. Records show Chrystal Washburn’s bond is $1,275,000, while Brian Washburn is being held without bond.
FDLE says because Brian Washburn has a criminal history “involving this kind of activity,” he was out on parole for charges related to contracting without a license. As a result, he has been given no bond.
Investigators said there may be additional victims. If you know the Washburns or had business with them, call the FDLE’s Fort Pierce Field Office at 772-216-0301.