ST. JOHN — Paul Stracci, a high-profile defense attorney in Northwest Indiana, is representing a business owner accused of stealing thousands from his customers last year.
He says his client Erik Schneider, is innocent of any "criminal intent," and St. John's Hometown Appliances is "simply a small, local business that ran into hard times."
Numerous customers allegedly paid Schneider, 42, of Lowell — with credit cards, personal checks or cash — in 2019 for promised appliances that never arrived. Instead, they were met by unanswered phone calls and voice messages, and repeated promises of delivery, records show.
Schneider has been hit with numerous felony theft and misdemeanor conversion charges, filed in Lake Superior Court between Dec. 17 and Dec. 30, for the alleged crimes.
Stracci said because Schneider had no criminal intent, customers are encouraged to file small claims actions for their undelivered appliances.
"Hometown Appliances has been a cornerstone of the Lake County community, with nothing but high customer ratings and satisfied customers, for years. Unfortunately, over the last few months, the company ran into distribution and cash flow problems through circumstances beyond their control," Stracci said.
Schneider is accused of hastily cashing customers' checks and promising delivery weeks out, and then never delivering on the products. In many cases, when customers called, they were met by a full voice mailbox or were given numerous excuses, court records allege.
Schneider also allegedly owes the state $170,000 in unpaid sales tax, court records show.
A St. John Police officer investigating customers' claims learned in October that the credit card used by Hometown Appliances starting holding up transactions because Schneider didn't have money in his checking account to cover expenses, records state.
The credit card company representative told police the bank loaned Schneider $60,000 to help him get back on his feet, but nothing has allegedly been paid back, records show.
"Schneider also owes his distributor over $70,000 ... Schneider is in a huge financial (hole) and it sounds like he's just taking people's money and not giving them their appliances they are purchasing," the representative allegedly told police.
Schneider has been flagged by the Indiana Department of Revenue for tax code violations, court records show. Police say he continued doing business as Hometown Appliances despite owing the state of Indiana more than $170,000 in sales tax and being flagged by the state revenue department, a class A misdemeanor in Indiana.
Schneider was picked up Monday night by the Lake County Sheriff's Department on 11 active warrants near Economy Inn near 82nd Avenue and Louisiana Street in Merrillville.
He was found armed and driving a white Dodge Ram pickup truck with a snowplow and an expired license plate that read "HOMTWN2," according to a county sheriff's police report. The plate was partially obscured by a salt spreader.
Records show Hometown Appliances, formerly Hometown Appliances & Electronics, opened at 10033 Wicker Ave. in 2010.
Online Google reviews of Schneider's company from five years ago are generally positive and customers praised services there with five stars reviews.
However, in the last year, it appears numerous one-star reviews began flooding in, claiming poor repair service, rude customer service and undelivered appliances.
"If you are in a hurry for appliances this definitely is not the place to go! They do not return your phone calls and have been waiting for eight weeks. They cashed the check quick enough," one reviewer wrote.
Make customers whole
Stracci said Schneider had no criminal intent, and was attempting to make good on his contractual obligations.
That includes giving "loaner" appliances to many of those alleged to have been affected by these unfortunate circumstances and had successfully completed dozens of deliveries during this same time period.
"Unfortunately, the additional expenses and damage to the company’s good name, as a result of the criminal charges, have made it even more difficult for Mr. Schneider to assist in making the customers of Hometown Appliances whole," Stracci said.