Two days before his deployment to the Middle East in 2019, Air Force Technical Sergeant Charles Cornacchio was in uniform when movers came to his home at Hanscom Air Force Base to pack up his belongings and take them to a storage facility.
After the truck was loaded, the company — Father & Son Moving & Storage of Billerica — demanded more than double the price it initially quoted, according to Cornacchio. But he said he agreed to pay because he felt his property was “pretty much being held hostage” and he needed to resolve things quickly before leaving the country hours later. He said he paid $2,190 for moving costs and six months’ storage.
As the 18-wheeler drove away, Cornacchio said, he remembered thinking, “Man that’s everything I own, but my dog.”
Soon, all of it would be gone.
Five months after storing Cornacchio’s property in two vaults at its Billerica facility, Father & Son sold it at auction to the highest bidder, according to court filings.
The unauthorized sale triggered a lawsuit against the company last year filed by the Justice Department for violating a law that prohibits storage companies from selling the possessions of military members on active duty, unless they obtain an order from a federal judge. Last month, Father & Son agreed to pay $60,000 to Cornacchio, along with a $5,000 fine to the government, to settle the allegations that it violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act.
Meanwhile, an exhaustive search to recover Cornacchio’s property ultimately led to a dead-end at the sprawling Brimfield flea market.
One unidentified buyer bought Cornacchio’s belongings at Father & Son’s auction in July 2019, from furniture and appliances to family heirlooms and irreplaceable keepsakes, according to authorities. There were mementos from Cornacchio’s cousin, a Green Beret killed in Afghanistan; his grandfather’s Korean War medals; a dresser handcrafted by his great-grandfather; old photographs; and letters his parents wrote to him when he was at boot camp.
Cornacchio, now 33, was serving in Qatar when he learned about the auction — a month after it happened. His mother sent him a care package for his birthday and tucked inside was an unopened letter from Father & Son, claiming he had an outstanding storage balance and his belongings would be auctioned if he didn’t pay. He said he immediately called the company to dispute the claim, and, after being placed on hold for a long time, was told his possessions had been sold.
“I’m hurt, I’m upset,” Cornacchio said during a recent telephone interview from Italy, where he’s currently stationed. “Look around your house and imagine none of it is there and you can’t get any of it back. How would that make you feel? And you have no control.”
The company, which did not admit liability, said in a statement that it had made multiple attempts to contact Cornacchio prior to the auction about outstanding storage fees, wasn’t notified that he had been deployed, and had been unaware of the law prohibiting it from selling his possessions. As part of its agreement with the government, the company created new protocols and employee training related to the law.
The agreement says Father & Son sold or transferred “certain assets” of the company to Personal Movers in Haverhill last year, but Bryan and Keith Taylor are listed as managers of one company and officers of the other and must comply with the settlement.
Acting US Attorney Nathaniel Mendell said his office aggressively pursued the case and plans to send letters to storage facilities across the state, alerting them to the law.
“We are talking about people who are separated from their communities and their families, risking their lives to defend the country and the country’s interests, and there’s a law that protects them from having all of their belongings sold out from under them without notice,” Mendell said.
The law, enacted in 2003 and amended repeatedly, also protects military members on active duty — or up to 90 days after their service ends — from car repossessions, foreclosures, evictions, credit card cancellations, and action related to student loan debt.
Last year, the US attorney’s office reached a settlement with a Brookline landlord accused of violating the law after refusing to refund rent and a security deposit to a service member who terminated his lease because he was relocated by the Army. In September, the Justice Department announced that American Honda Finance Corp. agreed to pay more than $1.5 million to settle a suit alleging it violated the law by failing to refund upfront payments to service members who ended their leases early because they were deployed or relocated.
Jack Regan, a senior fellow at Harvard Law School’s Veterans Legal Clinic who represents Cornacchio, said the law provides important protections for military members so they don’t have to worry about economic issues back home while on active duty. He said it was “just astonishing” that a storage company located less than 7 miles from Hanscom Air Force Base was unaware of it.
“This was a terrible loss for this service member who has served his country, not only here, but all over the world and is still doing so,” said Regan, who credited Assistant US Attorney Torey Cummings with aggressively pursuing the case to get compensation for Cornacchio and sending a message that “this kind of conduct just won’t be tolerated.”
In an unrelated case in 2019, a state judge ordered Father & Son to pay $75,000 for overcharging customers, in violation of an earlier agreement to resolve a suit brought by the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, according to court filings.
Father & Son said in its statement that after it was contacted by Cornacchio, it spent “countless hours tracking down, and buying back, all of the service member’s property it could locate from third-parties” and returned it to him.
But Cornacchio said the only items recovered were a king-size bed mattress, which came back filthy, some softball jerseys, and wall decorations.
“It looked like what I got back was what the guy who bought it couldn’t sell,” Cornacchio said. “I’ve been relentlessly searching for two years.”
He said the company wouldn’t disclose the identity of the buyer because of customer confidentiality, but the US attorney’s office told him the buyer had sold most of his property at the Brimfield Flea Market in July 2019. Efforts to track the items down were unsuccessful, he said.
Cornacchio said he posted on Facebook for help recovering his belongings and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from thousands of people. But, he said he was unable to locate anything, and he took the post down because it became too consuming and distracting. Still, he hasn’t given up hope.
“I didn’t care about my washer, my dryer, my furniture, my TV,” Cornacchio said. “I kind of care about my guitars, my drums, but the things that really kept me up at night and still does are the personal stuff I collected or inherited.”
Among the most precious items sold at auction were those that belonged to his cousin and best friend, Staff Sergeant Alex Viola, a member of the US Army Special Forces who was killed in action on Nov. 17, 2013, while serving in Afghanistan. They included gear with Viola’s name on it, Cornacchio said.
Cornacchio hopes to get back a painting he had purchased at an annual car show and fund-raiser held in Texas in his cousin’s honor. It was a unique, 3-foot-by-1-foot metal slat, hand-painted by a pinstriper known for his custom designs on cars, depicting Viola’s name and the combat diver insignia.
Cornacchio said he had kept every letter written to him since he enlisted in 2007, but now they are gone. Also gone are souvenirs he collected while stationed around the world, military gear, badges and ribbons, a mint Schecter seven-string guitar, and a blue leather cigar chair bequeathed to him by a former commander.
He watched an episode of “Storage Wars,” where buyers battle at auction for storage lockers and then toss away what is worthless to them. He worries that may have happened to things he considers irreplaceable.
Cornacchio said he’s a private person who is shy about publicity but hopes his case may shine a spotlight on the law and prevent other military members from suffering the same fate. He said he’s accepted what happened because, as his brother-in-law told him, “It’s better to come home to nothing, than to not come home at all.”