BEVERLY — With an easy charm and quick smile, Jaime Ford wasted little time in winning over Gloria Lilja, who was in a wheelchair mending a fractured knee.
At 82, Lilja was looking to add a second floor to her ranch-style home, so her daughter and family could move in. Ford, a home contractor from Middleton, answered their job posting within hours.
He was late to their first meeting, but brought lobster and imported beer to make amends. Donning preppy, Vineyard Vines-like clothes, he looked as if he just “docked his boat,” Lilja recalled.
As they discussed the project, he told Lilja she looked just like his grandmother, and before long was calling her “Nonni.” When Ford left, he kissed her goodbye on the cheek, as if he were part of the family. Before long, Lilja and her daughter, Kaarin Robinson, offered him the job.
Two years later, Lilja’s home is boarded up, stripped down to the studs. She is nearly $200,000 in debt. Of Ford’s many victims, prosecutors say, Lilja has perhaps lost the most.
“He crushed us,” Lilja said in a recent interview, as she nodded to her daughter. “He ripped apart my home, and now it’s just a shell. I loved that house, and I don’t want to let it go.”
Authorities say Ford, 47, was a consummate con man who lied about his qualifications to land lucrative contracting jobs, then spun elaborate tales to explain delays, even feigning that his wife had died from cancer.
Essex County prosecutors allege Ford was not licensed or insured to perform home improvement projects, and obtained permits by forging the names of other contractors. He left a trail of victims across Greater Boston, prosecutors say, often vanishing without a trace in the middle of large-scale home improvement projects.
Last summer, Ford was charged with close to 80 counts of larceny, fraud, and money laundering, a lengthy series of swindles prosecutors describe as unusually brazen.
“All the construction and services he was supposed to provide, he didn’t,” said a Beverly police detective, Darlene Prinz, who investigated.
Ford has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and is out on bail awaiting trial. His lawyer, Carmine Lepore, said the accusations are highly exaggerated.
“I think this is an example of prosecutorial overreaching,” Lepore said. “There were many people deemed to be victims by the Commonwealth whose work was completed.”
Lepore is seeking to have the charges dismissed, and a hearing is slated for July 21 in Salem Superior Court.
“There is a perception that he took their money and didn’t do anything,” Lepore said of the Lilja case. “That’s just not the case at all.”
One homeowner who hired Ford to redo his basement last year said he was satisfied with his work, although frustrated to learn he had been misled.
“We were fine,” said Peter White of Chelmsford, “But I wasn’t happy to find out later that he wasn’t licensed or insured.”
But prosecutors said most homeowners were left in the lurch, while Ford used their money to fund gambling trips and buy a Cadillac SUV. He registered the car in New Hampshire under an employee’s name to avoid Massachusetts sales tax and auto insurance, prosecutors say.
The Internal Revenue Service has also placed liens totaling nearly $700,000 on a home Ford owned in Lynnfield for nonpayment of income taxes, court papers show.
Given that magnitude of debt, victims are skeptical that they will ever recoup their losses.
“I don’t think there is anything really to be had,” said Luan Dean, who hired Ford to demolish and rebuild a decrepit house in Hudson. Dean, who has since sold the property, estimates she lost between $70,000 and $80,000 on the unfinished project.
Dean said Ford preyed on her compassion and trusting nature. When he lied and told her his wife had recently died, she felt so sorry for him she gave him a $50 gift card to take his two children to lunch on Father’s Day.
“He really got me, hook, line and sinker,” said Dean, 62, a school psychologist. “He sensed people’s vulnerable points. With me, I’m a compassionate person. So he went for that and totally abused it.”
Lilja and her daughter thought they had done their due diligence, but said they were deceived at every turn. He persuaded her to take out a $152,000 home equity line of credit, instead of a construction loan that would have placed more scrutiny on the project, according to court records.
“He said to me, ‘Nonni, you don’t want to take out a construction loan because it would take a long time to get the money,’ ” she recalled, her eyes welling up. “I trusted him.”
Prosecutors say Ford forged Lilja’s signature on building permit applications and failed to apply for a variance to build the addition. By March 2015, he had gutted the house and built a second story, but then claimed that part of the home’s foundation had rotted, raising the cost of the project by $50,000.
It was then that Robinson and Lilja suspected something was wrong.
“How could he have added a second story to the house if the sills were rotting?” Robinson asked.
Lilja called City Hall and was told no permits had been taken out for the project. She called subcontractors Ford had listed, but none of them checked out. They got in touch with a lawyer, who advised them to call the police.
When they called Ford and confronted him, he told them “I’m not going to that job anymore,” Robinson recalled.
Now, Lilja is desperately trying to hang onto the house she has owned for more than 50 years. A retired registered nurse, she is struggling to pay $3,000 each month to rent an apartment and pay the loan on a boarded-up home.
“I don’t want to let go of my house,” Lilja said. “It’s like holding on to someone who’s drowning. I can’t let go.”
Robinson has started a Gofundme page to help her mother, and has reached out to a local vocational school to see if students can help rebuild the house.
“I’m hoping and praying I can put together something to keep that house,” Lilja said.
She also prays for Ford, praying that “God will make him do the right thing,” she said. Every night before bed, she recites the Lord’s Prayer.
“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” she said. “That’s where I emphasize it. Loudly.”Kathy McCabe can be reached at Katherine.McCabe@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.