By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
Kamal Hirabe wanted to get into the office-cleaning business. It was August of 2001 and the Somali native had lived in Minnesota for a year, working as a cab driver. He'd heard through a friend about a company named Vend Pro that could hook him up with a contract to clean downtown Minneapolis offices.
After meeting the owner of Vend Pro, Gabriel Francois, at his Bloomington office, Hirabe agreed to pony up $6,700. In return, Francois assured him that within a month he would receive a one-year contract to tend to a building. If Vend Pro didn't follow through, Francois pledged, he would return Hirabe's money.
The deal, Hirabe believed, would be worth some $3,000 monthly. In order to come up with the cash, Hirabe emptied his savings account of $5,000 and borrowed the remainder from friends.
The entrepreneurial plan proceeded reliably from there. Hirabe had a signed contract laying out the details of the arrangement. He reported to a class with about 10 other Somali immigrants to learn about the cleaning business. His picture was snapped to make an identification badge.
But after a month had passed, Hirabe was still without a cleaning contract. At one point, Francois told him that he'd lined up work for him at the Medical Arts Building. But when Hirabe contacted building management, the story didn't hold up. "I tried to check and nobody knew him," Hirabe recalls.
Hirabe then demanded his money back, but Francois continued to make excuses. In a letter dated October 22, 2001, he blamed the delay on the attacks of September 11, claiming that "obtaining clearance and a contract for cleaning services has been nearly impossible."
By that time Hirabe had retained a lawyer. In 2002, he and six other Vend Pro clients represented by Minneapolis attorney Mick Spence filed suit against the company and Francois in Hennepin County District Court, alleging fraud.
Last November the clients were handed an unequivocal victory: Judge George McGunnigle awarded them just over $100,000 in damages and attorney fees. In Hirabe's specific case, it was determined that he was entitled to $18,956.17, or almost three times his initial investment.
Unfortunately, it may be a long time before Hirabe sees any money from Judge McGunnigle's decision. That's because the man that gulled him has a very, very long line of creditors. Over the last decade, Gabriel Francois, who is originally from Eritrea, has bilked a lot of people out of money. According to court documents, he has operated under at least 16 different business names---Bella Italia Imported Foods, Adventure Travels International, One World, Inc., Pueblo Latino--and has been the subject of approximately 186 lawsuits in Hennepin County alone. (Francois disputes this number.) He's ripped people off on everything from phony vending-machine deals to bogus property transactions.
"Gabby's a guy that's been hiding behind the civil system for years," says detective Brandon Deshler, of the Edina Police Department, who's been investigating Francois's schemes for the last two years. "A lawsuit lands with his name on it just about weekly. He's not a businessman; he's a freaking crook."
Francois has apparently funneled his ill-gotten gains into a pleasant lifestyle. He drives a black Mercedes, dresses in expensive suits, and owns, with his wife Lom Francois, a $378,000 house in Bloomington.
"He hits you like a member of the board of directors for the Pillsbury corporation," says Glenn Grieder, who leased commercial space in northeast Minneapolis to Francois. "He pulls up in his new Mercedes and he's smoking his cigars and he looks like he's in charge of the world."
Until recently, Francois has operated with relative impunity, facing minimal repercussions for his exploits. His only criminal record prior to this year was a 1998 conviction for bankruptcy fraud and making false statements, for which he was sentenced to five months in prison and five months of house arrest.
In June, however, Francois pleaded guilty to two counts of theft by swindle stemming from three separate criminal complaints filed by the Hennepin County Attorney's Office in the last year. Unless he can come up with restitution money for his victims, he faces 37 months in prison. If Francois can gin up the funds in time for his October 27 sentencing, he would face just six months in the workhouse and five years' probation.
Despite the guilty plea, Francois remains defiant. When a reporter rings the bell at his Bloomington residence on a recent Monday afternoon, the 41-year-old felon answers the door wearing khaki shorts and a blue-and-white polo shirt emblazoned with the miniature likeness of Scooby Doo. He stands roughly 5-foot-6, with a shaved head, fleshy face, and three-day beard.
During a 15-minute conversation, he's alternately charming and threatening. Francois refuses to answer specific questions for the record about the allegations that have been made against him. At one point he pledges to show up at the Hennepin County District Court building the next morning to document the inaccuracy of the cases against him. He later cancels that appointment, however, and fails to reschedule it.
Ultimately, Francois blames his troubles on Detective Deshler, whom he labels a "racist" and a "redneck," and makes it clear that he's not interested in publicity. "If you print something that is not correct, I will sue your ass," he declares.