GRETNA, La.-- While some of their homes are still in shambles, the Jefferson Parish victims of home elevation contractor Ernest Blackwell said they are starting to feel whole again after Blackwell entered a guilty plea last month that will keep him behind bars for eight years.
In August, Blackwell pleaded guilty to three counts of theft over $1,500 for cases involving three separate homeowners.
Blackwell has been the subject of a series of WWL-TV investigative reports over the past five years, starting when he tried to lift the Marrero home of Cindy Butler and the floor collapsed in 2012.
"It's like waking up from a bad dream and everything's ok because it's finally over," Butler said about Blackwell's recent guilty plea.
Butler paid Blackwell $17,000 from a Jefferson Parish hazard mitigation grant to get her home lifted to prevent future flooding, but Blackwell's company at the time, Professional Shoring Elevations, left the home uninhabitable.
Until recently, Butler was living in a FEMA trailer in her own backyard, paying a mortgage on her broken home, without the money to fix it.
When asked how often she would think of Blackwell, Butler replied, "Almost every day. Every day I looked at my house and thought why did you do this? It was just awful."
But Butler was far from Blackwell's only victim. The Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, or GOHSEP, the pass-through agency for federal grant funds, estimated Blackwell owes the state $908,000 for jobs that he botched or never finished.
Over the years, Eyewitness News has chronicled Blackwell's victims in Jefferson, Orleans, St Tammany, Terrebonne, St Bernard and St John the Baptist parishes.
In 2016, a St John Parish Judge sentenced him to six years in prison for contracting without a license, misapplication of funds and home improvement fraud.
The Jefferson Parish plea adds an additional year to Blackwell's time in prison.
As for Butler, she recently was awarded a restoration grant from Jefferson Parish to demolish her existing home and build a new one.
"I'm gonna be busy with building a new house since I've never done this before. It's gonna be, it's gonna be a challenge, but a good one," she said.
Sources in 2016 told Eyewitness News Blackwell had been tied to work on homes in New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy and in Texas after Hurricane Gustav as well.
Fraud associated with Louisiana's home elevation grant program left the state and FEMA on the hook for $38 million dollars contractors took without doing the work or not meeting the obligations of the program. If the money is not recovered, the state would eventually have to pay the money back to the federal government.
Attorneys began trying to recoup the money for the state last year. A spokesman for GOHSEP said so far, Louisiana has recovered $14.5 million.