'20/20': Ex-Con Contractors

ByABC News

June 28, 2001 -- Most people can't imagine inviting a convicted felon into their homes. Often though, many families are doing just that when they open their doors to workers and salespeople who make housecalls.

Six years ago, Don and Terina Ferminick and their and five-month-old daughter had just moved to Alameda, Calif., where Don took a position as a church minister. "Our life was wonderful," Don says of his life then. But Don's family was permanently scarred when Giles Nadey came to clean the carpets of the church rectory.

Terina went to the rectory to pay Nadey and never returned. That evening Don went to check on her and found his wife stabbed to death and covered with blood. There was even blood on the walls. "I guess through the course of events, he sodomized her, and I guess to cover up what he had done he decided to take her life," Don says.

Nadey was later convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. What was particularly troubling to Don Ferminick is that the horrible act might have been prevented. Had Nadey's employers bothered to run a background check, they would have learned that he had two previous felony convictions. Nadey even acknowledged his criminal record on his job application, but the company still hired him to clean carpets in people's homes.

Two years later, in the same county, Kerry Spooner-Dean, a 30-year-old pediatrician, was viciously stabbed to death by another carpet cleaner named Jerrold Woods. Woods had eight prior convictions for armed robbery, but the carpet cleaning company never did a background check. Dan Dean, the victim's husband, recently won a $9 million judgment against the company.

Secret Histories

Sadly, these brutal crimes are all too common. And the recent revelation that Utah police investigating the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart are focusing attention on an ex-convict who worked as a handyman in the Smarts' Salt Lake City home is bringing more attention to the problem.

David Taitte is serving 25-30 years in a Nebraska prison for raping a woman after delivering a pizza to her house. When he applied for his job at Domino's, he had been in jail 16 times including once for sexual assault. He says he knew Domino's would neither hire him if he admitted to his convictions, nor investigate his background if he lied. So he left the box blank on the application where it asked if he was a felon.

Domino's, which settled the lawsuit with the victim, defends itself, saying that it delivers over 7 million pizzas a week and this was the first incident of its kind. The company also canceled the contract with the local franchise because they failed to check Taitte's driving record.

But Domino's still does not require its franchise owners to do criminal background checks, saying that would be expensive and complicated.

Taitte argues that denying ex-cons jobs keeps them from rehabilitating themselves. "They already served their time and they're just looking to try to get a new job — start a new life."

But Oakland County prosecutor Jim Anderson, whose office handled both the Ferminick and the Spooner-Dean murders, calls the issue a "no-brainer." He believes all employers who provide home services should conduct background checks and they should not hire anyone with a criminal record.

Consultant Barry Shamis, like Anderson, believes that people are put at risk when companies fail to do background checks on workers who provide in-home services. "If you don't do criminal background checks, you're making a huge mistake."

Some professions, like teachers, school bus drivers and some health-care workers, are legally required to check the criminal history of all new hires, but most are not.

As a result, all around the country there are examples of home service companies taking on dangerous employees. In Kansas City, ex-convict Wesley Purkey was working as a plumber when he beat to death an 80-year-old woman. In California, ex-convict Mesa Kasem worked as a deliveryman for an auction house and he and an accomplice murdered one of the clients. And in Pennsylvania, convicted felon John Cramer was working as a meter reader when he raped a woman in her home. In each of these cases the employer did not conduct a criminal background check.

Shamis says many companies are afraid of the cost of background checks, but argues that the checks are relatively inexpensive. Companies like American Background say they can do a fairly thorough check of a job applicant's history — county by county — for $30 to $60. And Tony Raker, who works for the company, says the checks turn up criminal records with a startling frequency — more than one in for every ten employees. At one company, 22 percent of the applicants for the job of cable TV installer come up with criminal records.

Can They Afford Not To?

More and more companies that don't conduct checks have to deal with expensive lawsuits.

Arthur Von Lanier had a long criminal record when he started cleaning carpets for Sears. While on the job he sexually assaulted a Maryland woman in her home in 1993. Though he technically worked for a subcontractor that did not do a background check, the victim filed a lawsuit against Sears Roebuck and Company. The company settled on undisclosed terms and now requires background checks of all their home service workers.

In another example, Kristi Reade successfully sued the Kirby Company, which makes vacuum cleaners, after a salesman sexually assaulted her nine years ago. At the time, the assailant was on probation for indecency with a child and the independent distributor that hired him never checked his background.

Kirby says it "has sold millions of machines to satisfied individuals" and although background checks were suggested in the past, the company has "modified its prior policy to require distributors to conduct these background checks."

As for Reade, she and her family have moved to a different state and she says she never opens her door to any workers unless someone else is there with her. "Until companies make a commitment to check every person they hire," she says, "Every time a woman lets someone into her home, she's at risk."