In the evenings, at seven months pregnant, Brooke Crawford would steal herself away from the mouse-infested trailer where she and her family had been living for more than year, crossing her yard to lay vinyl flooring on her hands and knees.
As their first child slept, she helped her husband, Phil, in the piece-by-piece construction of their new home in the rural community of Clarendon Station, about an hour’s drive north of Kingston, Ont.
They had little other choice.
The nightmare of their first house burning down in July 2019 — Crawford waking to a blaring alarm and fleeing smoke with her baby in her arms — had been bad enough.
But it was when a smooth-talking Nova Scotia contractor named Shane Ross entered their lives soon after, the unimaginable financial and legal horror show began. Instead of rebuilding their home, he walked away with nearly $140,000 of the family’s insurance money, leaving a trail of deception so brazen a judge would later call it “almost unbelievable.”
“He intentionally hurt my family,” Crawford said in an interview. “We’re still trying to get out of the hole with the havoc that he’s caused in our lives, and we just don’t want that for anybody else.”
Over the last five years, Ross has been charged with fraud, his companies have been fired from numerous construction jobs in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and he’s been embroiled in legal actions with more than 30 contractors, property owners, towns and a Halifax university.
He has flagrantly disobeyed judicial orders and was even sent to jail for contempt of court. This week, he appeared in court on forgery charges related to a Halifax Regional Municipality tender.
Yet astonishingly to many who have crossed paths with him, Ross has managed to keep operating during much of this period, hired by unsuspecting builders as he remained beneath the public radar.
His latest company, one of numerous businesses he has created or controlled over the years, is even backed by one of the largest home warranty providers in the Atlantic region.
CBC has tried to catalogue the saga through more than 20 interviews with those who have dealt with Ross and a review of more than 1,000 pages of court, municipal, banking and business registry records.
As the lawsuits over unpaid bills and contract defaults piled up, Ross has boasted of his expensive watch, huge restaurant bills and taken vacations to Las Vegas and Scotland. He lives in a lakeside home in Lake Echo, N.S., and owns an Aston Martin luxury sports car.
Some who have encountered him speculate he has managed to survive by exploiting acute labour shortages in the construction industry, with builders desperately searching for anyone to get their projects moving forward.
Others point to how expensive recourse through civil courts can be when things go wrong, and Ross’s knowledge of the legal system. They note his singular ability to talk his way out of tricky situations, a disarmingly gentle demeanour that can flip to aggressive when it suits his purpose.
Still others are frustrated by how little they knew before hiring him.
That’s a “mistake” Kourosh Jahanbiglary acknowledges he made. A project manager at Pinnacle Construction Ltd. in Dartmouth, N.S., he has 40 years’ experience in the construction industry.
Pinnacle fired Ross’s company, Standard Paving Ltd., following repeated delays on a project and suspicions Standard Paving was submitting falsified Workers’ Compensation Board documents — an allegation Ross later called “absurd.”
What was supposed to be a three-month concrete job in early 2020 for a new development on Tacoma Drive in Dartmouth dragged on far longer. One day, Jahanbiglary said, Standard Paving simply left without finishing.
“He tried to manipulate us to pay him extra money because he was getting lawyers involved,” said Jahanbiglary.
Ross subsequently turned around and placed a lien on the property for $416,000 — double the original contract. He claimed Pinnacle was the cause of the delays.
Crucially, the lien threatened to tie up the project’s financing, as banks are leery of advancing more funds if a contractor is owed money and the unpaid bill is registered to the property. Faced with the prospect of the project being stalled by lengthy legal action, Pinnacle president Mike Yari settled out of court.
Standard Paving seemed to check out when he hired them, Jahanbiglary said. But what those checks didn’t reveal was that little more than a month before, an Ontario judge had frozen Ross’s worldwide assets and bank accounts.
And he didn’t know about the Crawford family.
The Crawfords had hired Ross, who was dating Phil’s sister at the time, not long after the fire at their Ontario home. Phil Crawford, who owns a rebar installation company and has trusting relationships with many contractors, said Ross “knew what he was talking about.”
They handed him the first portion of their insurance money — more than $137,000 — to get the project moving. The old house was demolished and a hole dug for the new one.
Little other work would be done.
The first inkling that the rebuild was not going as planned was the delay in getting a building permit. Brooke Crawford said she asked Ross about it, but he gave “one excuse after another” and accused her of “micromanaging.”
When she finally went to the township’s chief building official, Andy Dillon, he told her there was no way he could approve the plans. There wasn’t enough detail, he said, and significant information was missing.
Dillon was also suspicious of the purported engineer who signed off on the plans. When he later tracked down the engineer, Frank Anrep, by phone, he learned he had not worked on the project. The engineer’s stamp was a forgery, and someone had been impersonating Anrep.
The Crawfords hired a lawyer.
By that December, a judge had issued what is called a Mareva order against Ross and his companies, an extraordinary legal measure aimed at freezing a defendant’s assets before a trial.
The next year and a half would see Ross, in the words of a judge, “serially, repeatedly, shamelessly and unapologetically” flout that order.
In a scathing ruling, Ontario Superior Court Justice Graeme Mew called Ross’s dishonesty “patent and unrelenting.” He concluded he lied under oath, to the point where the “process of describing the tangled web of deception weaved by Mr. Ross is exhausting.”
“The scale and the audacity of Mr. Ross’s deception is almost unbelievable,” the judge said.
With numerous companies at his fingertips, Ross began to tap into a near-dormant bank account to dodge the order. Culloden Properties — a company registered to Ross’s mother, which the judge later concluded he controlled and used as a front — had never had a monthly closing balance of more than $65.93, save for one occasion.
But several months after the freezing order, tens of thousands of dollars began pouring in. Culloden Properties even obtained a $40,000 federal COVID-19 loan. In November 2020, the month Ross went on trial, it held a balance of $161,811.76.
From the date of the Mareva order until he was finally stopped earlier this year, Ross cashed more than $200,000 worth of cheques at Money Mart. Ross took on new construction jobs, with contracts worth tens of thousands of dollars or more. He renovated and rented out residential properties.
All the while, he refused to return the Crawfords’ insurance money. And he repeatedly claimed he didn’t have a penny to his name.
At trial, Ross first tried to pin the forged engineer’s stamp on a former friend, an injured Afghanistan war veteran who the judge concluded had no experience in building design. Then he said the project’s site supervisor was to blame.
He claimed he no longer had any income, but instead volunteered to do work for developers. He claimed other people had been buying him food, toiletries and gasoline for his truck. His dog, he said, was eating meat hunted in the wild.
Ross’s former office manager testified that when she asked why he simply didn’t pay the Crawfords back to lift the freezing order, he allegedly told her: “I just want to f–k with them.”
This spring, after being found in contempt of court, he finally paid the Crawfords their money. The funds came from a “personal loan” from a family friend, he claimed, refusing to identify the person.
In July, he was sentenced to 90 days in jail for the contempt, serving 60 days. According to court records, another $300,000 in damages and costs ordered by the court were paid to the Crawfords through a lawyer for Ross’s parents.
This fall, his lawyer filed a brief in court that said Ross was remorseful, receiving counselling and working to rehabilitate himself. His time in jail was “particularly challenging and left a significant emotional impact,” the lawyer wrote.
“Due to the pandemic, Mr. Ross spent 25 consecutive days restricted to his cell. During this time he had no access [to] showers, the phone or the yard,” according to the document.
When asked for comment, Ross declined an interview. He threatened legal action and accused a CBC reporter of harassment and of trespassing onto one of his properties. He said the reporter would be charged if he contacted him again.
“Your allegations are completely baseless and, quite frankly, ridiculous,” he said in an email. “Some of the information you provide contradicts itself within your own communication. Some of it, while equally ridiculous and baseless, flies in the face of executed non-disclosure agreements, which will have immediate and severe consequences for the parties involved. The majority of the remainder constitutes plain old-fashioned defamation.”
He added: “If you choose to proceed in the face of all of the information above, and without providing the proper, fulsome and true version of the story and all of your allegations, there will be serious and immediate consequences. We will not hesitate. We will not ask nicely.”
This week, Ross appeared in a Nova Scotia provincial court in Dartmouth for sentencing on two forgery charges related to a Halifax Regional Municipality tender.
Instead, the court was told he was seeking to withdraw previous guilty pleas — a move prosecutor Rick Miller said he would oppose — and is looking for a new lawyer. The case is set to return to court on Jan. 19.
“It just seems like a delay tactic,” Miller said.
It’s also not Ross’s only problem with a municipal contract.
In one case, Ross’s chief company, Standard Paving Ltd., was fired from a job rebuilding a public washroom in the rural Ontario community of Prince Edward County. The 16-week job was still not done after a year, and a Christmas celebration at the park had to be cancelled. One county councillor called it “a debacle” and the mayor said it was “just ridiculous.”
Two other Ontario municipalities, the City of Belleville and the Township of Springwater, have sued Standard Paving outright, collectively claiming more than $3 million in damages for work that wasn’t done or was deficient. Ross has denied the allegations in the Belleville cases, saying the city was responsible for delays.
Ross has also been the legal aggressor.
In Nova Scotia, he took the Municipality of Colchester County to small claims court in 2017, claiming he hadn’t been paid for $25,000 of work done on a culvert, before his company was fired for repeated delays. An adjudicator dismissed the case.
In 2018, Standard Paving was hired to do foundation work on a $14.8-million project to build a new arena at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. That ended when the university and its construction manager accused the company of multiple delays and substandard work. Ross turned around and placed a lien on the property. The case was settled out of court.
But the stories don’t just involve governments or institutions. At the centre are often families or small, rural businesses stuck with unpaid invoices or work that’s never completed.
Chris Barber, an electrical contractor in Mulmur, Ont., said he spent part of his 40th birthday ripping out electrical equipment his company had installed in the Prince Edward County public washroom project.
He’d been subcontracted to outfit the washrooms by Ross, after Standard Paving had been hired by the county to refurbish the site. Barber said Ross owed him $18,000 for the work, but never paid.
“Believe me, he can talk his way out of anything,” Barber said in an interview. “You would ask him where the money was, and by the end of the conversation, you thought you were doing something wrong. He would turn everything on you. And man that guy could talk.”
Furious at not being paid a penny, Barber said he tore out every last wire. He later donated it all to a local ski hill that was revamping its washrooms.
In another case, Paul Holkema, an extended family member of Ross by marriage, sued him for $10,850 after he said he wasn’t paid for masonry work Ross hired him to do at two Ontario projects. Ross promised the cheque was in the mail, he said, but it never arrived.
“I have made numerous attempts to contact Shane Ross via phone calls and text messages and he does not respond and appears to have blocked my number, and blocked me on Facebook,” Holkema wrote in court records.
He was finally paid, months later.
Variations appear in lawsuit after lawsuit, with companies ranging from building material suppliers to excavators to asbestos abatement firms saying they hadn’t been paid.
For Sim and Janis Lee, the shock came early in 2019, when a stranger knocked on their door and handed them a builder’s lien notice from a local insulation company.
A year earlier, the Lees had hired Standard Paving to rebuild their daughter’s home in Elderbank, N.S., after it was largely destroyed by an electrical fire — a project that had already dragged on well past the promised 150 days.
The Lees learned Ross hadn’t paid several subcontractors, as well as a building supply company. The couple said they paid one, then quietly put the final tranche of their insurance money in a lawyer’s trust. When the house was mostly finished, they gave what remained to those owed money, and shut the door on Ross.
He was livid, Janis Lee said, even going so far as to tell her the family was barred from setting foot on their own property.
“That year had to be the hardest year of my life because of Shane Ross,” Janis Lee said.
The name Standard Paving holds a high reputation in road-building circles in Nova Scotia. It worked on the Halifax Armdale Rotary and the Bedford Highway, one of the city’s main traffic arteries. It was still recognizable in the Halifax area in the early 1990s, until it was rebranded by its owner, concrete giant Lafarge.
The storied Standard Paving of the past, however, is not Ross’s Standard Paving. Whether by coincidence or calculation, it’s the name he chose when he renamed his company, Interpave Contractors Ltd., in 2014.
This has led to real-life confusion. A May 2020 letter from a Toronto law firm representing Lafarge demanded Ross stop using the name and trademark. There have “been actual instances of confusion amongst members of the public,” according to the letter, which accused Ross of trading off on the “goodwill and reputation” of Lafarge’s Ontario Standard Paving subsidiary.
Ross’s latest company is named Cityzen Developments Inc., and was registered late last year, a week before he went on trial in the Crawford case.
The company says it specializes in “building new, architecturally interesting homes in Nova Scotia.” In October, its website, cityzenhomes.ca, displayed a portfolio that included photos of a number of Toronto-area homes.
It’s not clear whether Ross or his companies did any work at the sites. The companies behind the projects did not respond to questions.
In November, the photos were removed and replaced, including with images from a south-end Halifax home that recently sold. In 2015 and 2016, several liens were filed on the property by contractors and companies, saying they had provided services to Ross’s company, Astor Construction, but not been paid. The liens were later lifted.
Cityzen Developments is also a registered member of Atlantic Home Warranty, a non-profit that provides warranties to homeowners building a new house, covering things like structural defects.
Atlantic Home Warranty CEO Ian Lezama said he has become aware of Ross’s past. But he said Ross had fulfilled the requirements of the application process to become a registered member and there were no concerns with his references. He declined to identify those references.
Earlier this year, Ontario Provincial Police charged Ross with defrauding the Crawfords, using forged documents, falsifying documents and attempting to defraud the Central Frontenac Township, where he submitted the building plans, and with impersonating Anrep, the engineer. He has not entered a plea.
The Crawfords have now moved into their partially completed home. The remainder of their insurance money was held up for a time, and they said it was embarrassing having to explain to any new contractors hired that they may not get paid right away.
To get this far, they’ve had to drain their savings. Much of what Phil earned was plowed into the new house or legal bills.
“We want off the ride,” Brooke Crawford said. “We’ve had enough. We just want to move on with our life and try to get the house finished.”