THIS IS A "BUYER BEWARE" story that sounds made-up. I mean, who'd believe that buying a new house would lead to robbery and extortion?
Yet there was Jordan Hyatt, driving through the city in the dead of night, taking text-message instructions from a contractor who'd robbed Hyatt and his wife. He'd return their stuff if they paid him $300.
"It was surreal," says Hyatt, 34, a senior researcher in Penn's criminology department.
Hyatt and his wife, Lindsay Wilde, 33, a physician, bought their just-built house in March 2012. First-time homeowners, they loved their new digs on Orianna Street in Northern Liberties: three bedrooms - including one for soon-to-be-born Lucy, their first child - two baths and a roof deck with awesome views.
They also loved that their builder, Greenpointe Construction Inc., had given them a one-year warranty. Because within weeks, the roof started leaking. They contacted Greenpointe owner Gary (who also goes by Gagan and Ganandeep) Singh for help.
The back-and-forth with Singh went on for months, during which additional leaks occurred, damaging some of the home's walls and floors. Singh eventually replaced the roof, then hired a local company called Aquarius Construction to fix the damaged walls. By now it was spring of 2013.
Hyatt and Wilde liked the Aquarius workers, especially leader Hector Agusto. They bought them donuts and coffee in the morning, pizza in the afternoon. They talked to Agusto about kids - he had five - and their own impending parenthood. When one worker had a medical question, Lindsay offered advice.
In other words, Hyatt and Wilde were dream clients. So you know how this turns out.
One Sunday, about two weeks into the repair job, Hyatt and Wilde felt comfortable leaving the workers alone while they ran errands.
Hyatt needed the distraction: The next day, he was to defend his doctoral dissertation at Penn. The hours-long process would determine whether Penn granted him his Ph.D. in criminology.
When the couple arrived home later, the front door was ajar and the workers gone.
Gone, too, were Lindsay's jewelry, the couple's iPad and three laptop computers - one of which contained Hyatt's dissertation, which he had not backed up ("I've learned my lesson," he says.) Neighbors said the only people they'd seen entering or leaving the home were the workers.
At least one of whom, they soon learned, had their stuff.
"We were shocked. We trusted these guys. I felt so stupid," says Hyatt. "Your parents tell you, 'Don't let strangers in the house.' We actually left them alone."
The couple met with detectives and returned home, now feeling spooked in their own house. Hyatt frantically texted Agusto. His dissertation defense was hours away. Without his computer's visual aids for the presentation, he'd have to work from the 300-page hard copy of his work.
"Please," he begged Agusto. "Call me. Please. Come on Hector. Help me fix this. Do the right thing by us. Just call me back and make this go away."
Agusto finally responded. He denied involvement. Then, he blamed someone named Javier. Then, he admitted he took things "for leverage" because he wasn't being paid enough by Aquarius owner Randall Cone.
"I work hard to get you house painted and I have 5 kids to take care of I'm tired of people f---king me over that's not fair to me and my kids I have to support them and my self," Agusto texted.
The next day, as Hyatt successfully defended his dissertation (he clearly does well under pressure), his cellphone kept buzzing in his pocket with texts from Agusto, who had a plan:
He'd meet Hyatt that night in the McDonald's parking lot at Broad and Girard. He'd return Hyatt's stuff, for $300. Hyatt alerted detectives, photographed 15 $20 bills as evidence and headed out. Cops in the area were on alert.
Then, Agusto changed tactics, perhaps after re-reading an earlier text he sent Hyatt.
"For some reason," he'd written, "I have this feeling that u are going to have cops with u I seen this in movies before we're u meet at the drop and the bad guy gets caught."
He texted Hyatt a series of confusing directions to a new drop-off point.
"Might want to hurry up no one saw me but you never know," he wrote.
After many twists and turns, Hyatt found his own gym bag (which he didn't realize had been stolen) in a trash can next to a white van near 2nd and Montgomery. Inside was some of Wilde's jewelry and two of the laptops, one of which - hallelujah! - contained Hyatt's dissertation. Still missing were the third laptop, the iPad, the rest of Wilde's jewelry and, yes, Agusto himself.
At least Hyatt got to keep his $300.
The couple's travails should've ended there. But, like I said, they're good people. So Fate messed with them some more.
Aquarius Construction stiffed them out of repair work. They sued owner Randall Cone and won a judgment, which Cone (who did not respond to my many calls for comment) has yet to pay.
They sued Greenpointe, too, when Singh refused to repair remaining damage related to the leaks. They won a $12,000 judgment against him, which they were more than willing to negotiate down to $8,000. But Singh appealed. The couple dropped the suit, knowing it would cost them at least $8,000 in legal fees to get their money.
Singh's attorney, Perry Liss, says Singh "tried to help Jordan, he worked with them as long as he could and to help in every way he could. But the relationship broke down. Jordan wanted more than [Singh] believes he was entitled to."
Although even Liss, in an email to Hyatt, admitted that Singh's original offer of $2,600 to Hyatt and Wilde was "insulting."
As for Agusto, there's a warrant for his arrest on three counts of felony theft. But he can't be found. Philadelphia Police Detective Albert Bender thinks Agusto has skipped town.
"I talked to him [by phone] and he was going to turn himself in," says Bender, whose dedication has made Hyatt and Wilde his fans for life. "He never did - not surprising, given his lies. I just want to put cuffs on him."
Now that Hyatt and Wilde's home is snug and dry (they found and paid a trusted contractor to finish the repairs) the couple is loving their home. But they still wanted me to share their tale.
Says Hyatt, "I hope our experience serves as a caution for anyone who lets a contractor through their front door. And they need to know that a warranty is only as good as the person backing it."
On Twitter: @RonniePhilly