SALEM — The former owner of a controversial Salem sober house is heading back to jail for 21/2 years, after a Salem District Court judge found “frankly, overwhelming” evidence that he’d again violated his probation in an identity fraud case — with more identity fraud.
This time, prosecutors allege, Michael Viola, 50, of Saugus, used a licensed contractor’s information and a copy of his insurance certificate to submit an application for a building permit for renovations at the 17-21 Salem St. building that is now, at least on paper, owned by his 25-year-old daughter.
The contractor, who had met with a former tenant, a store owner, at the building two years earlier, testified that he’d never been hired by anyone there to do the work, though he’d submitted a proposal at the time.
When a copy of the building permit showed up at his business last spring, he went to authorities.
And then a lot of strange things started happening, he testified. For one thing, he discovered that he was now the subject of a restraining order on behalf of a woman he’d never met.
The case, which remains under investigation, may extend beyond simply filing the fraudulent application. A Salem police detective testified during yesterday’s hearing that he’s been told that Viola had orchestrated a plan for a homeless woman to obtain the restraining order against the contractor. This happened after Viola learned he was being charged with fraud.
Detective Dennis Gaudet testified that Viola drove the woman to Lynn District Court and told her what to say in the restraining order affidavit. After the order was issued, he paid her $100 and dropped her off at a nail salon, Gaudet testified.
Two city employees testified that Viola showed up at the building department after the charges were filed and suggested how they should testify.
“He said that I could be the guy that could keep him out of jail,” Michael Lutrzykowski, the assistant Salem building inspector, testified.
“It seems like there’s a lot of weird stuff out there, I’ll grant you that,” said Viola’s attorney, Steve Judge, who urged Judge Matthew Machera to simply put Viola back on probation.
Prosecutor Alex Grimes had a different view.
“He has been a scammer and a con man and a thief for his entire life,” said the prosecutor, who argued for at least 21/2 years behind bars.
Viola made waves shortly after buying the building on Salem Street and attempting to open a “sober house,” a largely unregulated rooming house for people dealing with substance abuse. A lengthy legal battle with the city over zoning requirements eventually led to an agreement in which Viola promised to install handicapped-accessible doors and other items on the property.
Meanwhile, police charged him with stealing the identities of three former residents of the building and racking up $25,000 in bills — including Valentine’s Day flowers for both his wife and his girlfriend — on their credit cards.
He was convicted and received a 21/2 year suspended sentence and five years of probation, which he’s been accused of violating several times. Among the conditions of his probation was that he cut ties to the sober house.
Then, in March of this year, Viola walked into the city’s building department seeking a permit for renovations in a store that is part of the building, employees of the department testified.
Assuming that Viola was simply dropping off an application for the contractor, officials issued the permit.
When they realized that the contractor hadn’t actually sought the permit, they issued a cease-and-desist order, building inspector Tom St. Pierre testified.
Viola took the stand in his own defense during the probation violation hearing, denying that he owns the house. He insisted that the building is owned by his 25-year-old daughter — who still lives at home, attends school and is supported by her parents.
“I just know it’s rented, sir,” Viola testified, insisting that he was simply running an errand by dropping off the application.
He also denied knowing the homeless woman who filed for the restraining order against the contractor.
After determining that Viola had again violated his probation, Machera imposed the 21/2 year sentence that had previously been suspended.
Then, in order to avoid trial on the new identity-fraud charge, Viola pleaded guilty in that case and received a concurrent 18-month jail term.
Viola, who previously was found guilty of violating his probation and who has picked up other charges around Massachusetts, was also charged recently in Salem, N.H., with “criminal solicitation,” according to court records.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @SNJulieManganis.