When Jared Murray began building a new home in Lake Placid, Florida, last July, red flags soon began appearing to those working on the job.
“Every two or three weeks, he’d change his cell number,” a contractor on the project told The Daily Beast. “He would never answer his phone, and when he did, he was always around a lot of other people.”
Murray, 37, regularly had construction materials sent to the job site, and for some reason they exclusively came from Lowe’s. The items were delivered by couriers driving rented U-Haul trucks, often at odd hours. The contractor says Murray told him that his uncle worked at Lowe’s, and got 50 percent off everything. All of Murray’s business was handled by someone who lived in the area and identified herself as Murray’s aunt.
“Everything about him was really shady,” said the contractor, who asked not to be named. “I never met him, I just met his family members. He said he’s on the road for business all the time. I tried to meet him, but he always had an excuse—he was in Georgia, he was in Jacksonville, he was somewhere else.”
In fact, no one ever met Murray because he was not on the road, but in a prison cell. An FBI affidavit obtained by The Daily Beast lays out allegations that Murray has “devised and executed—and continues to execute—a scheme to defraud Lowe’s Home Improvement out of well over a million dollars worth of inventory."
Murray, who has been locked up for much of the past decade for his participation in an armed robbery allegedly masterminded by his mother, has not yet been charged in connection with the Lowe’s matter. The investigation, which centers on allegations of wire fraud and money laundering, is ongoing.
The hustle was as brilliant as it was brazen. Using cellphones that were smuggled into the South Bay Correctional Facility, where he is serving up to 25 years, Murray allegedly stole the identities of contractors with open lines of credit at Lowe’s, according to the affidavit. Then, prosecutors say, he would order large amounts of building supplies, charging them to the unwitting contractors’ accounts.
A series of go-betweens picked up the materials from Lowe’s, delivering some to the crews building Murray’s house in Lake Placid, according to the feds. What Murray didn’t use, he allegedly sold at a steep discount on OfferUp, a Craigslist-style online marketplace, and used the proceeds to pay for the construction.
The unfinished three-bed, two-bath home is now listed for sale at $185,000. If the scheme had worked, it would have been virtually pure profit.
“During this entire time, Murray has been incarcerated and has not had any legitimate income,” says the affidavit, which notes that Murray last reported wages totaling $111.80, earned back in the first quarter of 2008.
Reached for comment, Keith Jackson, the broker handling the listing, said he knew about the charges, but that “some things were happening” and declined to elaborate further. The house and land are now in the process of being seized by the federal government. The assistant U.S. Attorney handling the case did not respond to a request for comment.
Prisoners have long used contraband cellphones to pull off all manner of scams from the inside. But in attempting to build and sell a house from behind bars, Murray allegedly took things to a new level of sophistication. The affidavit doesn’t specify how he obtained his cellphone—or phones—but they’ve been known to get into correctional facilities via drone, body cavity, even dead animals. (Last year, “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli was caught with a contraband smartphone at the New Jersey prison where he is serving a seven-year sentence for securities fraud.) Of course, incarcerated people also use contraband phones to avoid paying the exorbitant prices charged by private companies that provide phone service in jails and prisons.
"Inmates call their mothers like most of us do on holidays," a former Pennsylvania corrections official told NBC News.
Murray launched his scheme in July 2019, when he purchased a vacant quarter-acre lot in Lake Placid, Florida, for $4,500, prosecutors say. A female associate of Murray’s paid for the land using a bank account in her own name, but Murray is listed as the sole owner on the deed. His aunt is listed in county building permits filed as his authorized representative.
Murray presented himself to those he hired—always over the phone, never in person—as, among other things, a fairly sophisticated real estate investor, says the contractor who knew him. Yet, those same contractors say Murray made frequent rookie mistakes that normally wouldn’t be made by someone with his supposed level of experience.
To begin with, customers don’t normally provide building supplies to contractors. And Murray often botched the orders he placed at Lowe’s, obtaining the wrong supplies for the job.
“I was like, ‘Who did the material checkoff?’” recalled the contractor. “I did. Well, it’s not fucking right, man. Can’t you make it work? Well, no—the PVC pipe you got for inside, is for irrigation. You can’t use it.”
Murray’s house failed a plumbing inspection last August, according to county permit data.
Murray’s aunt ran the bank account meant for construction expenses “like a piggy bank,” said the contractor, and checks written to various subcontractors and vendors began to bounce.
This made the source “look really bad” around town. He feared for his reputation, and says he started paying some of the bills out of his own pocket.
Construction materials would show up at the jobsite at all hours of the night, always in a U-Haul truck and always from Lowe’s. The trucks were often driven by people who appeared to be transients and sometimes didn’t have enough gas money to get home, said a source close to the situation.
The official record corroborates the source’s recollection. Shortly before 11 p.m. on Oct. 19, cops were called to the Lake Placid property by a homeowner across the street who spotted what they thought were two people in a U-Haul stealing construction materials. Police found no immediate evidence of a crime; the pair were actually dropping off a load of roofing shingles, which they had gotten at Lowe’s.
A few weeks later, a Lowe’s store in Lake Wales—about an hour’s drive from the house Murray was having built in Lake Placid—reported a series of suspicious transactions to local authorities. A man calling himself “Wayne Jones” had ordered about $9,000 worth of roofing shingles, fraudulently charging them to two different contractors’ accounts. Jones instructed Lowe’s to deliver the shingles to an address in Winter Haven. There, a woman identified in court documents as “H.R.” accepted delivery of the items, signing the name “Wayne Jones” on the receipt.
The shingles were later seized by the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, and a detective interviewed H.R. about the purchase. She bought the shingles after seeing them for sale on OfferUp for 50 percent less than their typical price, H.R. said, explaining that she dealt directly with the seller, who called himself “Robert,” on the phone but used the name “Mike Myers” on OfferUp. Following Lowe’s delivery of the shingles, a woman named Lisa showed up at her house to collect payment for Robert, H.R. told the detective.
Not long after H.R.’s meeting with investigators, Robert contacted her to try and sell her more shingles at half-off. This time, Robert said H.R. would have to pick them up herself at a nearby Lowe’s. H.R. notified the Polk County detective, who told H.R. to proceed with the purchase. The detective would direct her every move and tail her to Lowe’s and back, in hopes of getting closer to Robert. Or Mike. Or whatever his name was.
The detective followed H.R. to the “Pro Desk” at Lowe’s, where the shingles were loaded into her car. H.R. then drove home, under police surveillance, and waited with the detective for Lisa to come over to collect Robert’s cash.
She showed up within the hour, and after H.R. handed over payment for the shingles, Lisa—whose real name turned out to be Candance Skinner—was arrested, according to the affidavit. Investigators questioned Skinner, who said she was collecting the cash on behalf of someone named “Jay.” The two met on Facebook, she told police.
The affidavit says Skinner, 36, deposited the cash she collected on each run into her own checking account. At “Jay’s” direction, Skinner explained she would regularly send money to “random people” via Cash App, saying that Jay also allowed her to use the funds in the account as needed.
“Skinner admitted that the transaction with H.R. was probably not ‘legit,’” according to the affidavit.
Investigators got a warrant to search Skinner’s phone, and turned up Jay’s number, which matched the one used by “Mike Myers” on OfferUp. It was saved under the name “Bae.” Skinner stored another number belonging to “Jay” under the name “Jared Ol’ Slick Ass”—specifically, Jared Murray.
Saved in Skinner’s files was a Florida Department of Corrections visitor’s form, seeking authorization for her to visit Murray at South Bay Correctional. Her phone’s background image was a photo of Murray in a prison uniform, squatting in front of a white brick wall.
In a phone call with The Daily Beast, Skinner at first denied any knowledge of the allegations, then referred any further inquiries to her attorney, who did not respond to a subsequent request for comment.
Skinner’s new legal woes sidelined her. And while the work on Murray’s house had been pretty consistent at first, everything shut down without Skinner’s assistance on the outside, according to one of his contractors.
“I got tired of dealing with him because he was jacking me around with the money,” said the contractor, who needed the income but walked away from the job once detectives told him what was really going on. “The last time I spoke to him, me and him got into it. At that point, I was like, ‘You douchebag, what the hell did you get me involved in here?’”
But not only did the sudden lack of funds mean a hit to the contractor’s finances, it forced him to pay a number of outstanding debts out of his own pocket to subcontractors he had hired.
“I wanted out,” said the contractor. “I just paid it.”
About 10 days after Skinner’s arrest, Murray’s situation took another turn for the worse. On Dec. 5, an inmate at South Bay handed over a contraband Samsung cellphone to prison staff. The inmate, who is identified in court documents as “A.J.,” said the phone belonged to Murray. A.J. had been acting as Murray’s “hold down” since September, with A.J. holding Murray’s phone in his cell for monthly payments of $200, according to the affidavit. A.J. confessed that he allowed Murray to do business in his cell, and acted as a lookout for Murray, it says.
Investigators searched the phone, which contained documentation of the fraudulent Lowe’s orders, as well as messages with Murray’s customers on OfferUp, and numerous emails between Murray and contractors for drafting, HVAC, plumbing, and other services for his Lake Placid home, the feds said
As it turns out, money issues were also at the root of the rift between Murray and A.J.
“A.J. held some understanding that, as part of their arrangement, Murray would pay the lawyer’s fees related to a clemency application A.J. desired,” says the FBI affidavit. “According to A.J., Murray had only paid part of the anticipated fee and, accordingly, the application was never filed. A.J. felt that Murray had breached their agreement and, as such, reported the phone to corrections staff.”
By this time, the FBI had gotten involved. Messages found in Murray’s phone revealed the identities of additional co-conspirators, and the FBI says in the affidavit that it located two more women who were working with Murray. They were allegedly performing the same tasks as Skinner, picking up money from Murray’s OfferUp customers, only in Georgia.
As described in the affidavit, a mule who had earlier been arrested picking up one of the fraudulent orders at Lowe’s was linked to Murray through his phone number. Federal agents reviewed surveillance footage from Lowe’s of the pickups tied to the investigation, one of which captured the suspicious duo seen delivering shingles to Murray’s property late at night the previous October. In addition to the shingles, the affidavit says, receipts showed the two had also picked up a bathroom vanity, contractor clean-up bags, faucet, outdoor lighting, floor and wall tile, and tools used for roofing and painting, all illicitly obtained by Murray.
Murray’s aunt—the alleged paymaster—was implicated by texts investigators found in her nephew’s phone.
“[B]e careful with how you get the money to auntie,” someone listed as “Jit” in Murray’s contacts texted, according to the affidavit. “You know the account and the house got her name on it she in a fixed income if they tap into her shit bro she can’t explain the shot [sic] and they gonna freez account just be careful keep the paper trail away from auntie.”
Murray responded, “I been stop using aunti...And aunti got a safe deposit box...No paper trail son.”
However, there was indeed a paper trail. The FBI says it managed to trace the activity in the aunt’s Wells Fargo account down to the last penny. There were payments to contractors working on Murray’s house, as well as payments for local fees and taxes. One transaction put $1,627.50 into Murray’s inmate commissary account at the South Bay Correctional Facility.
It is unknown if Murray’s aunt is facing charges.
Murray’s ex-contractor described him less as a smooth-talking con artist and more as an excitable, fast-talking guy who stutters when he’s under pressure. Still, he very nearly managed to build and sell a brand-new home from behind bars—an accomplishment no matter how you slice it. But now, said the contractor, “I think he’s screwed.”
A few minutes later, a fast-talking gentleman with a stutter called from a cellphone with a blocked number. There was loud activity and shouting in the background. He claimed his name was “Ryan,” and said he was Candance Skinner’s brother. According to public records, Skinner doesn’t have a brother named Ryan.
“Ryan” said he had spoken to Skinner, who told him someone was asking questions about Murray. He claimed not to know anything about the alleged Lowe’s fraud, and expressed shock at the allegations laid out by the FBI.
“Whaaaa? No, that’s not true at all!”
It was hard to ignore the commotion on the other end of the line. This reporter asked if it was in fact Murray calling from South Bay.
The man quickly ended the conversation, saying, “Lemme call you back when I get off work.”
He never did.