FANNIN COUNTY, Ga. — A builder promised families he would build them their dream homes in the North Georgia mountains.
But homeowners said they were left with half-finished homes and unpaid bills.
The builder took in millions of dollars, and now families want to know what happened to all that money.
Channel 2 consumer investigator Justin Gray learned police in multiple counties and states are investigating Jason Bryson and his company, Higher Ground Builders.
While Gray was reporting this story, Bryson was arrested and charged with crimes that could lead to decades behind bars.
Rodney Jones showed Gray around his half-built home. He and Chuck Capo were supposed to be living in their north Georgia mountain retirement home more than a year ago.
But in April 2022, the work just stopped.
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“We know that we were ripped off,” Jones said.
“This was our retirement dream turned into a nightmare,” said Howard Wells, a retired law enforcement officer from Florida.
“There was nothing but open studs,” Wells said, showing Gray his mountain retirement home.
Wells and his wife Judy had to learn to hang drywall as they worked to finish the home themselves.
“I’ve watched my wife cry because she didn’t know what we were going to do and how to get through this,” Wells said.
Both homeowners hired Higher Ground Builders and its owner, Jason Bryson, to build their dream homes.
Dozens of others did too.
“He’s a scoundrel,” Wells said.
The count is more than 20 families who say Jason Bryson and Higher Ground Builders took their money but never finished their homes.
“My opinion is that he just saw too many zeros in his bank account,” said Tom Brice.
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Brice and his wife were planning to move away from the heat and bugs of South Georgia.
“I ended up going up to the building department and finding that there were 24 violations. Big violations,” Brice said.
Homeowners who paid Bryson hundreds of thousands of dollars were also learning something else -- they were paying Higher Ground Builders for products and materials, but the vendors were not always getting paid.
“We got served with civil papers stating they were suing us, and they were going to take this house and sell it,” Wells said.
He and his wife have multiple liens on their home from unpaid vendors for more than $27,000.
Chuck Capo and Rodney Jones also have thousands of dollars in liens against their property.
“It was one excuse after another. But in reality, it was nobody wanted to work for Higher Ground because he was not paying them,” Jones said.
In March, Bryson was arrested in Fannin County. A grand jury indicted him on 13 felony charges of conversion of payments for real property improvements and theft of services.
Bryson is currently out on bond.
He also is facing felony charges in Cherokee County, North Carolina, where Howard Wells’ home sits near the Georgia and Tennessee borders.
“I walked up to him, and I said, ‘I don’t know how you sleep at night,’” Wells said.
Gray tried to reach Bryson at his Blue Ridge home and a construction site where he had been working in the past.
“We wanted to ask him about all the homes he’s building, but not completing. Can we leave a message for him?” Gray asked the person who answered the door at Bryson’s home.
Gray recorded cell phone video of Bryson in his pickup truck speeding away from Channel 2 Action News when he saw Gray coming.
Bryson has declared bankruptcy, listing nearly $3 million in liabilities.
For families stuck with half-built homes, the cost of all this is overwhelming.
Brice estimates it cost him 80% more than what he originally budgeted to finish his home.
“The expense was enormous,” he told Gray.
According to bond documents, Bryson blames inflation and claims several witnesses actually owed him money.
Jones and Capo are still looking for a way to cobble together enough new cash to finish work on their retirement home.
But they still come to the house every day to plant flowers or just look at the view.
“All we can do is come here and look around at what it’s going to be and know that hopefully soon we’ll get it straightened out,” Jones said.
Bryson still has his contractor license. His wife who was listed as an officer and registered agent for Higher Ground Builders, has started a new LLC called Stand the Gap Construction.
But part of Bryson’s bond agreement is that he will not build until his trial.
To protect yourself from bad builders, the Georgia Secretary of State’s website recommends asking people you trust for referrals, getting written estimates from several contractors, and getting references from your contractor and checking them.
Once you chose a contractor get a contract in writing, agree on and put start and completion dates in your contract, set up payments in conjunction with completed stages of the job, and do not pay for incomplete work.
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