By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
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In the spring of 2005, Michael Birdman and his wife, Marissa Gautsch, were looking to remodel their Edina home. The couple had purchased the one-story, 1,400-square-foot, Cape Cod-style home three years earlier. They liked the inner-ring suburban neighborhood, but needed more room.
"We wanted to look at starting a family, and the space just didn't fit for that," says Birdman, a 36-year-old insurance sales executive.
A house three doors down had recently been renovated by Sennes Design/Build, a construction firm owned by Waconia resident Scott Sennes that had won several design awards from the Builders Association of the Twin Cities. Birdman and his wife, a 39-year-old account leader at Cargill, attended an open house and were impressed by the work.
Consulting with Sennes, the couple drafted plans to tear down their World War II-era house and replace it with a larger, two-story residence. They made a $45,000 down payment and signed a $15,000, one-year lease on an apartment where they planned to stay once the building project got underway.
Then, one day in June when construction was supposedly imminent, there came a knock at the door. A distraught woman in her mid-30s stood on the couple's front steps. She had noticed the sign advertising Sennes Design/Build in the couple's front yard and had a slew of questions: How long have you been working with Sennes? Have you signed a contract? Have you given him any money?
The woman eventually informed them that Sennes had been paid to remodel her house just a few blocks away. The original home had been demolished weeks earlier, but construction on the new residence had never begun. Sennes had dropped out of sight, the woman said. The family had essentially been rendered homeless.
"That all of a sudden raised a flag for us, a real red flag," says Birdman.
The visitor's tale proved prescient. The couple never heard from Sennes again. They were fleeced for about $70,000.
Birdman and Gautsch are hardly the only homeowners with complaints about Sennes. In recent years, the construction company owner, who has since filed for bankruptcy, left unfinished homes and outstanding bills littered across the Twin Cities. By October 2005, he owed $1.4 million to some 125 creditors, ranging from nearly $10,000 in unpaid bills to Biff's Boxes in Shakopee to $258,000 owed to Community Bank Plymouth, according to a filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. At least 16 lawsuits have targeted Sennes and his company in Hennepin and Carver counties in recent years.
But Sennes's troubles don't stop at the bank. In September, the Edina Police Department executed a search warrant seeking financial records related to his business dealings. The warrant lists at least six instances of the construction firm owner allegedly defrauding clients. Last month, the investigative file was turned over to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office, which is considering whether to file criminal charges and will not comment during an ongoing investigation.
"How much money he took and stole from people is just phenomenal," says Ron Zach, owner of Structural Dimensions, an Eden Prairie construction firm that previously partnered with Sennes. Zach says he loaned his former business partner $40,000 before realizing the scope of Sennes's financial woes. "Needless to say, I'm down about 40 grand."
Clients describe Sennes as an unlikely grifter. A few inches north of six feet, he kept his strawberry blond hair neatly trimmed and often wore shirts emblazoned with his company's logo. "He just had this sort of all-American-boy demeanor that I think made it easy for him to take advantage of people," says Mary Foarde, an attorney with Allina Hospital & Clinics, who was taken for $22,000. "Very slick, very charming."
Sennes could not be reached for comment, despite extensive efforts. Phone numbers for his home and business are no longer in service.
Sennes may no longer be doing business in the Twin Cities, but his former clients continue to feel the impact of his actions. Richard and Kim Groomes hoped to tear down a three-season porch on the back of their home and expand the kitchen and dining room. They'd seen two of Sennes Design/Build's projects on a Parade of Homes tour and were impressed by the quality of craftsmanship.
In designing the addition, the Edina couple worked primarily with Zach, of Structural Dimensions. But when it came time to sign a contract, he suddenly was out of the picture. Unbeknown to the Groomeses at the time, Zach had gotten wind of his associate's dire financial situation and was in the process of severing all ties.
Initially this change didn't trouble the Groomeses. In fact, they were impressed that the owner of the company was so hands-on. But the couple grew worried when Sennes aggressively sought a deposit check at their first meeting. "He seemed really anxious to get the money," Kim recalls. "That did kind of concern me a little bit."
Nonetheless, they put up $40,000 for the project. Construction began in April 2005.
The couple grew more apprehensive after speaking with Michelle Byers, an interior designer who had recently quit working with Sennes owing to concerns about his business practices.