A Grand Prairie woman spent thousands of dollars to create her dream backyard. But when it was time for the contractor to start the job, she said he was a nowhere to be found.
"We wanted to get a pergola set up in the backyard," Sophia Gray said.
It's exactly what she was looking for to make her dream backyard come to life.
The latest news from around North Texas.
"We love entertaining. We thought this would be a nice area in the back to have a patio," she said.
So when she saw an ad on Craigslist in July from a contractor named "Dino Multinovic," she called him up.
"He said it was going to be a total of $8,000. There was a $4,300 deposit, I wrote him a check for $4,300 and just waited and waited," Gray said.
She waited on him for weeks, and that turned into months.
"I was sick to my stomach. He refused to give a refund because he said he already bought the materials, so I said, 'OK, I want my materials,'" Gray said.
But, that didn't happen. There were no materials, no patio, no pergola, and no "Dino."
"We've been scammed," Gray said.
He disappeared, so Gray went online to see if there were other victims.
"Oh, my goodness, we're not the only one," Terry Hill said. "We put a $2,500 deposit down."
Hill and Gray were among several people who say they lost thousands of dollars to "Dino Multinovic" this year.
Folks from Tarrant, Dallas, Parker, and Ellis counties all say they were cheated by the same man. But NBC 5 Responds tracked down "Dino" and it turns out "Dino" isn't even his real name.
NBC 5 Responds called the contractor, and he admitted his real name is Mario Vila. He said the name "Dino Multinovic" was made up because his real name was smeared by bad reviews online.
He sent NBC 5 Responds an open letter to his customers, saying in part:
"I know it is hard to believe that I am anything but some cold hearted monster, but if you could find it in your heart to meet with me … I would be beyond appreciative."
So we gathered his customers for a meeting with Vila, but he was a no-show.
"Within this group we have (people scammed out of) $8,000, $7,000, $4,300, $2,500, $2,000, and $2,200, and that comes to $26,000 in a very short period of time that this man has taken away from us," Hill said.
Vila said he took deposits from new customers and used the money to finish other jobs and pay back loans.
"It's still stealing, it's still stealing. We all need money but I don't steal from people," said John Cole.
Seven of the victims with whom NBC 5 Responds spoke tried to file charges with their local police or sheriff's office. Five of them took it a step further, contacting their district attorney. They say they were told the issue is civil, not criminal, more of a contract dispute.
"No matter what avenue we go, we keep getting told, "it's civil, it's civil, it's civil." Well then if he files bankruptcy, he's protected," Hill said.
Vila filed for bankruptcy in 2015, where creditors claimed he owed more than $140,000.
"How can he get away with stealing thousands of dollars, and not be charged criminally?" Gray said.
In addition to no charges, his debt is wiped clean.
"The law protects the criminals and not the victims, and it makes me sick," Hill said.
"He's just found a perfect little loophole, that he's in a specific gray area, that he can manipulate the way the law works," Gavin Hill said.
And to the group of victims, it's no longer about the money.
"He needs to go to jail so he doesn't do this to anybody else," Gavin Hill said.
"Not jail, OK, prison! Not the county jail, he needs to go to prison," Desiree Cole added.
The group is banding together to see their case through, determined to hold him accountable.
"Did you honestly think you were going to take my money, and I wasn't going to do anything about it? Did you really think that about me? Seriously? Wrong," John Cole said.
It looks like there's a possibility he may be held accountable. NBC 5 Responds has heard back from the Tarrant County District Attorney's Office, which says its White Collar Crimes Unit is investigating the cases against Mario Vila.