MODESTO — A Florida man who took nearly $50,000 from Modesto Christian School for a construction project that never materialized is going to jail for fraud and grand theft.
Fort Lauderdale resident Jason Anthony Grillo, 31, was convicted by a jury July 24 of felony diversion of construction funds and grand theft and sentenced last Friday to two years in the Stanislaus County Jail.
The charges stem from an August 2012 contract he signed with Modesto Christian School to build stadium bleachers for the campus football field. Grillo was paid for the project, but instead of doing the job gambled away the money in Las Vegas.
Marisa Meeks, development director for Modesto Christian School, said the school was happy to have the incident behind it. "We feel the situation is unfortunate but seems to be a more common practice in today's economic environment," she said. "We are pleased with the swiftness of the judicial system and ultimate outcome in this case."
Meeks said the school began researching contractors to build an additional 800 seats for the stadium late last summer. Officials hoped to have the project completed by the school's 50th anniversary celebration in September 2012.
In their online research, school officials found Grillo's website for JOGO Equipment. A press release on the verdict and sentencing by Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager noted that the site was "designed professionally with great attention to detail" and used "brightly colored graphics, several links, photos and language that would lead anyone reading it to believe that JOGO Equipment was in fact a real construction company."
Meeks said the school contacted Grillo and spoke with him by phone. He sent a bid for the project. When compared to other bids solicited, his was chosen because he committed to completing the job on Modesto Christian's tight time line.
School officials signed a contract with Grillo, agreeing to pay $49,533 for materials and an additional $12,200 for labor last August. Shortly after, the school received an invoice for the $49,533, which it paid.
After that, Meeks said Modesto Christian had limited communication with Grillo. He informed the school the project could not be completed by September after all and arranged for a company to install temporary bleachers for the anniversary celebration. The school continued to rent the temporary bleachers for the remainder of that football season.
But Grillo never began work on or installed any of the permanent bleachers.
In October 2012, school officials contacted law enforcement about Grillo.
The Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department investigated the case and found the Vallejo address listed on the website as the JOGO Equipment headquarters was fake, and the Ohio address Grillo had school officials send the check to was actually for his mother's apartment.
According to the district attorney's office, Grillo deposited the money into his business account the day it was received and quickly transferred it to his personal account. He then took the funds to Las Vegas, where he spent all $49,533 at Caesars Palace over the span of five days.
The Sheriff's Department investigation uncovered that Grillo's JOGO Equipment was a sham company and Grillo was not and had never been a licensed contractor in the state of California.
Meeks said she did not know if school officials checked Grillo's contractor license before hiring him.
The case was filed with the Stanislaus Superior Court this February, and Grillo was arrested in April while flying into the San Diego Airport. The district attorney's office said Grillo was in the state to "visit one of his girlfriends."
Grillo told sheriff's detectives that he was attempting to "get back to where he was before the financial crash of 2008" and trying to accomplish that by gambling.
Deputy District Attorney John Goulart prosecuted the case. During the trial, it was revealed that Grillo purported to do business as several other companies, including JAG at Wilmington, Cutting Edge, Milano Group and Planet Safety.
Grillo testified he has spent his life in the construction industry and done roofing, siding and concrete work. But during cross examination, he could not identify the dimensions of a piece of two-by-four lumber or how many yards of concrete a standard concrete truck carries.
He also claimed to be previously licensed as a contractor in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina, but representatives from each state verified he never was licensed there, either.
On Friday, Superior Court Judge Dawna Frenchie Reeves sentenced Grillo to two years in prison, which he will serve in the Stanislaus County Jail. He also was ordered to pay back Modesto Christian in the amount of $50,533.
The state of Florida has a hold placed on Grillo, and authorities there are expected to extradite him to answer to similar fraud and theft charges.
The district attorney's office urged consumers entering into construction contracts of $500 or more to first check the California Contractors State License Board.
Meeks said school officials have learned from their mistake with Grillo and made changes to their policies. "At the initial viewing, it didn't look like anything that was out of sorts. There was a professional website, professional correspondences, professional contract, professional invoicing," she said. "We have a completely new set of operating procedures associated to capital purchases now."
Meeks declined to say how the $49,533 paid to Grillo was funded by the school. Last month, Modesto Christian completed its bleacher expansion project.
While the jogoequipment.com website no longer can be found, an online search of JOGO Equipment still turns up Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as YouTube videos and Yelp reviews.