CHICAGO (CBS)– They hired him on the worst day of their lives.

But several people say the owner of a fire restoration company took their money and then never repaired their burned homes.
Insurance fraud allegations are mounting.
The problem? The contractor is dead.

Morning Insider Lauren Victory introduces us to one family fighting the mess left behind.

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Pieces of insulation and shreds of homework are all that remain in Hope Sears’ home of four decades. The Midlothian grandma’s house suffered a devastating fire in November 2018. In the midst of shock that day came a helping hand.

“He went in to get my purse and came back. He was really a nice person. Well, I thought he was a nice person,” said Sears of a representative from Fire Mark Restoration.

Sears hired the board-up and repair company to take care of damages but days then months went by with no progress.

Now, more than 2.5 years since the fire, CBS 2 took a tour of Sears’ home. Charred debris is all over the floors, the ceiling is still ripped open, from firefighting, and the house reeks of smoke. Fire Mark never cleaned up.

No one ever applied for permits to fix the home either, according to Midlothian officials.

“They broke us,” said Sears, crying.

She is stuck paying her burned home’s mortgage and rent for an apartment since the house in inhabitable. The money from insurance is gone – paid to Fire Mark.

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“They didn’t help me and we’re not alone,” said Sears who is one of five families CBS 2 is aware of that is suing Elite Construction, a now-defunct company that was apparently doing business as Fire Mark Restoration.

“Several homeowners have filed complaints with the Illinois Attorney General’s office,” said Nate Reyes, a lawyer with Bruning & Associates. Reyes represents four of the families, including Sears, who filed breach of contract cases against Elite Construction.

Reyes tells us, “We don’t know where the money went. We’re trying to find that out but that process is difficult and lengthy.”

The process is further complicated by that fact that Elite Construction’s owner, Timothy Zipsie, died last year which forces Sears and other victims to sue Zipsie’s estate.

Proving fraud gets much harder when the person you’re accusing is no longer alive.

“Obviously that presents an obstacle,” said Reyes. “We can’t bring Mr. Zipsie into court but we can bring other employees in, former employees of Elite. We can look at the financial records and it’s going to be really hard, I think, for them [Elite’s legal team] to justify receiving the money from Hope Sears and my other clients and then not seeing a transaction that shows that money was spent on home repair equipment and supplies.”

It’s an uphill legal battle with salt in the wound via the Village. Midlothian has levied several fines against Sears for violations at her vacant property including failure to cut weeds and “unsafe structure.”

Midlothian’s building superintendent tells CBS 2 his department can’t play favorites and needs to follow village code.

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Greg Adamo, attorney for Elite Construction and the Timothy Zipsie Estate did not return our multiple requests for a comment.

Lauren Victory