North Huntingdon businessman ordered to trial for allegedly ripping off customers
Leaning on a cane, Michael J. Free walked silently past a dozen former customers Tuesday, all waiting outside the office of District Judge Douglas R. Weimer Jr. to testify against him.
Free, 63, of North Huntingdon waived his right to a preliminary hearing and will face trial on felony charges of theft, theft by deception and deceptive or fraudulent business practices.
Free, the owner of Electra Lighting and Electric Co. along Center Highway, is accused of accepting payment for merchandise that customers say they never received.
Assistant District Attorney Pete Flanigan said a list of alleged victims has grown to 25, with losses of more than $7,000.
After a hearing in February before a Westmoreland County judge, Free was ordered to stop operating his home furnishing business or any similar business in Pennsylvania.
Free owes thousands in state penalties and costs, according to the state Attorney General's Office, which investigated numerous complaints against him.
On Tuesday, some of Free's former customers, several of whom have befriended each other, joked about the stories Free allegedly gave them.
He always wanted full payment up front, a violation of an earlier Westmoreland County court order, then refused refunds when their merchandise failed to arrive, several said.
Some were told their orders were coming from New York or Boston, and Free blamed the delay on winter weather, several said.
“I would like to have my money back. I got ripped off,” said Janet Fairfull, 65, of North Versailles.
She never received the Tiffany lamp she ordered in November, she said.
“I even took a picture (of the lamp) because I liked it so much. He said, ‘Could you give me anything to put down?' I said I had $50. He said he would need the rest of the money (the next day),” she said.
Fairfull said he declined the credit card she offered, and she paid the rest of the money — $424 — in cash.
“He's bold, real bold. ... Remember The Beatles' song, ‘Instant Karma'? What comes around gets around,” she said.
Free's attorney, Martin Dietz, said he was hopeful that in the “next couple of months,” Free can raise the funds to make restitution.
He said the charges against Free were less indicative of theft and more the result of “tough business times.”
“He is in bankruptcy. He can't operate his business,” Dietz said.
He remains free on $10,000 unsecured bail.
Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or email@example.com.