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Authorities warn Sonoma County homeowners of possible scam by debris removal company

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Federal, state and local authorities are warning homeowners of fire-damaged properties to be wary of a debris removal company that may have victimized at least six people and is continuing to seek more customers while operating without a California contractor’s license.

The Contractors State License Board, in collaboration with the FBI and Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, has opened a criminal investigation against a company doing business as Koke Clean-Up or Koke Demolition, said Rick Lopes, a board spokesman.

Authorities believe the company is run by Peter Koke, a 52-year-old North Carolina businessman convicted of insurance fraud earlier this month in New Hanover County, North Carolina, and placed on 36 months’ supervised probation, according to local press reports.

Koke was at an office he leased in downtown Santa Rosa when authorities raided the premises last week, Lopes said.

Investigators believe Koke, who claims to have a long history of disaster cleanup work, is targeting people whose homes were destroyed in the October wildfires and have opted out of the government debris removal program, and face an April 9 deadline to get the work done by private contractors.

“He has given us every indication that he’s going to continue working,” Lopes said.

Koke has allegedly taken as much as $15,000 to $20,000 from people and failed to complete work on at least one property, the board said in a statement. In another case, he appears to have taken a $15,000 down payment and done no work, it said.

“We’re going to stay in Santa Rosa until everything’s taken care of,” Koke said Thursday in a telephone interview from North Carolina.

He said he has about 170 people lined up for work but is currently “not doing anything until my license is ready.”

Koke said he was paid $19,500 for tree removal from a Glen Ellen property and received a $15,000 “progress payment” on a debris removal job that was halted, he said, when a state license board investigator called the landowner. He said he also completed a $32,000 cleanup in Fountaingrove and went unpaid when the investigator did the same thing.

A California license is required for debris and tree removal that cost $500 or more, except when ash is all that remains of a home, the board said.

Koke, who said he purchased $500,000 worth of equipment to work here, claims to have cleaned more than 8,000 properties in 32 years of work following disasters in California, North Carolina and Texas.

He said he has a “flawless record” in that work.

Lopes confirmed that a contractor’s license application was filed in November by a man named John Wade, who said he worked for Koke. The application is on hold pending the outcome of the investigation, Lopes said.

A license applicant must pass two tests and a criminal background check, Lopes said, adding that Koke appears to be trying to obscure who actually runs the companies.

Koke said he obtained county permits for the work he has done and labeled the investigation a case of “intimidation.”

Koke can “say what he wants” but has “no legal standing to do the work,” Lopes said.

Consumers can check the status of a contractor’s license online at atcslb.ca.gov.

Anyone who believes they may have been victimized by Koke is urged to contact license board investigator Amanda Martinez at 510-540-2024 or at Amanda.Martinez@cslb.ca.gov.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner. You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.