Sofa store owners allegedly skip town after sales

Several Peninsula residents are suing the owners of a Burlingame sofa company they say scammed its customers out of tens of thousands of dollars.

The alleged victims are accusing the owners of using similar tactics two years ago to defraud customers at a San Francisco furniture store.

Bay Area Sofas allegedly began delaying orders of furniture to at least 18 customers in spring after the patrons paid a full deposit on the purchases. The owners allegedly cashed checks and waited for credit card dispute periods to pass before skipping town the weekend of Sept. 7 and haven’t been heard from since, victims allege.

“The retailers nearby said they had packed up the night before,” said David Birdsong, one of the victims.

When customers would become suspicious after the furniture failed to arrive, they said the owners would come up with several excuses to assure the victims their products would arrive on time.

During at least the last six months, owners provided excuses that ranged from shipping delays to couches falling off trucks in order to convince customers that their products would eventually arrive, Birdsong said. The furniture store owners originally told victims their products would arrive in six-to-eight weeks.

Burlingame police launched an investigation late last week to pursue potential fraud charges and have set up a separate online report form for those victimized by the company, police Chief Jack Van Etten said.

The company did not supply order invoices to the victims, only handwritten notes. They also offered a 10 percent discount on all purchases if customers paid cash.

Right before the furniture store owners abandoned their warehouse, owner-manager Monte Butler left a note on the empty store and sent letters to the victims that told them only to contact attorney Darrel Horsted, who used to be a lawyer for Butler’s business partner.

Horsted, who has been contacted by dozens of victims, said he has nothing to do with the incident and has never even met Butler, who allegedly bought the sofa store from Horsted’s former client in July.

Butler told victims he bought the business after being a manager at the store while his partner T.J. Woodward owned it. Butler then sent a letter to all victims on Aug. 31 telling him he wasn’t the owner and again the only assistance he provided customers with was to contact Horsted.

The same pair filed for bankruptcy for the home furniture store in San Francisco and disappeared overnight with customers’ deposit money in November 2005. Woodward recently opened a shop in Dallas.

The store was never licensed to do business in Burlingame. The city only became aware that the store didn’t have a business license in August, Burlingame’s Finance Department said.

The gathering of victims started when Birdsong posted an ad on Craigslist looking for others duped. He had six responses withinthe first few hours and had identified 10 other victims within two days. Birdsong has filed a small claims suit against the owners that is scheduled for October. The lawsuit may include the other victims.

mrosenberg@examiner.com

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