The Battle of Rufe Snow… and Beyond

Movements start small, and if they’re any good, they grow.

Jesus spread his message from a little corner of the world. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. started in one church. Barack Obama’s movement began in, of all places, Iowa, a true field of dreams.

And so Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation starts now on a street with a funny name most people have never heard of – Rufe Snow Drive in North Texas.

Of course, you can’t compare this pro-consumer, anti-scammer movement to anything as grand as religious, civil rights or political battles. Yet it’s significant in its own humble way. People are getting scammed every day all the time.

Rufus Snow


Rufus Snow

What is Watchdog Nation? It’s an ever-growing group of Americans who defend ourselves against false promises, frauds and other deceptions.

Watchdog Nation is about helping Americans stand up and fight for our rights, or at least make a little noise, the kind that matters. Watchdog Nation shows you how to use your power when you fight your electric company, phone company, credit card company, door-to-door scammers or anyone else trying to pick your pocket.

This Web site and the accompanying new book – Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong – show how you have enough tools at your fingertips to beat big and small companies and scammers at their own evil game.

As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s investigative columnist, Dave Lieber has learned tips, tools and strategies that show how to become a part of Watchdog Nation. (There are no dues; your only requirement is a passionate mind and an attitude that you’re not gonna take it anymore.)

And Watchdog Nation begins on its own field of dreams, a busy street in North Texas, Rufe Snow Drive, in Fort Worth’s northern suburbs. The street is named after Rufus T. Snow, a 19th century Texas politician whose name always catches newcomers by surprise. Roof snow? In Texas?

The hardcover book – Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong – has enjoyed the quietest book opening in publishing history. As part of its small-movement-grows-to-large-one humble origins, the book is only available for worldwide sale in the Yankee Cowboy Store and at four distinctive retail outlets.

Coincidentally, the four retailers are all located along Rufe Snow Drive.

Also noteworthy: none of them are bookstores.

Get the book in a bookstore? Naw. On Amazon? Not yet? Nope, only at and at these four non-book stores.

The four are engaged in a contest throughout December to see who can sell more books. First prize is $100, and second prize is $50. The teams are working hard for the extra holiday cash.

So forget the New York Times’ best-seller list. We are talkin’ the Battle of Rufe Snow here, originating home of the Watchdog Nation movement.

WHO ARE THE SALES CONTESTANTS?

Rufe Snow Self-Storage Depot at 6707 Rufe Snow Drive, Watauga, TX, also a U.S. Postal Service substation. Book at front counter. Sales captain is Mark Russell.

Wendy’s Hair Studio at Hightower Salons, 6651 Hightower Drive, Watauga, TX is selling books in between shampoos, cuts and (this is Texas!) lots of dye jobs. Wendy Marthers is sales captain.

Chef Point Café, the only 5-star quality restaurant in a gas station, offers the book by the register. If you’ve never been to the restaurant at the Conoco station at 5901 Watauga Road, Watauga, TX near Rufe Snow, you’ve never had filling station food so filling … and wonderful. Chef Franson Nwaeze and Paula Merrell are sales captains.

Rufe Snow Dental Group at 5757 Rufe Snow Drive is offering books to its patients at the check-out desk. Sales captain is Dr. Mike McLendon.

These are the kind folks who see the value in spreading the word of Watchdog Nation during this December 2008 contest, the soft opening for this book. The book shows you how to save money, win battles with stubborn customer service representatives, learn your rights and discover tips you won’t find anywhere.

If you’d like a copy (they make great holiday gifts), visit one of the four contestants. Cost is $20, and the books are autographed.

Contest updates and standings will get posted here, along with little tidbits about this movement’s most humble beginnings at the Battle of Rufe Snow.

Welcome to Watchdog Nation!

Early Vegas Line for The Battle of Rufe Snow

  • Wendy’s Hair Studio, 6-1 odds – She’s got ’em in a chair for a half hour, and they can’t go anywhere.
  • Rufe Snow Dental, 5-1 – Those women in the front office are charmers.
  • Chef Point Café, 8-1 – People aren’t used to buying a book at a gas station. Then again, they aren’t used to getting a top-flight meal either, so maybe…
  • Rufe Snow Depot & Self Storage, 4-1 – The joint has a post office! In December! Talk about foot traffic…

An indictment for him, and a turning point for me

"Roofer" Shawn Tatum/Courtesy of CBS11

“Roofer” Shawn Tatum in a CBS11 camera still

UPDATE: On May 12, 2010, Shawn Tatum pleaded guilty to theft charges and was sentenced to 180 days in jail, 10 years’ probation and community service. He also has to repay his former customers $162,000. Here is the original story on this crooked roofer.

# # #

Shawn Tatum taught me more about being a watchdog than any man I know. Recently, a Tarrant County grand jury indicted him on theft charges. He spent a day in jail. How he got there is how I learned my lesson.

Tatum was my roofer, even though, as he once said, “I never held a hammer in my hand.” We met after I asked my insurance agent whether he knew a good roofer. He recommended Tatum.

Looking back, I understand now that in my haste to avoid the complicated process of finding an honest roofer after a Texas hailstorm, I got lazy. Left myself vulnerable. But my search had problems from the start.

The first company I hired to replace my roof after the 2007 hailstorm did a fantastic job. The only problem was that the crew went to a neighbor’s house instead of mine and replaced the wrong roof.

When my confused neighbor knocked on my door that night to explain what had happened, he told me that the erring roofer demanded that he pay him by filing an insurance claim. No way!

I called the roofer. When I suggested that he take the loss on my neighbor’s roof because it was his mistake, he got angry with me for interfering. I asked to get out of our contract. First he said no. Then, after I kept asking, he agreed to sever our ties.

Blessed with a second chance, I took the shortcut to the insurance agent. And not long afterward, Tatum’s charming, silver-haired sales director showed up and mesmerized me with his pitch.

This is the point in the sales process when you should say, “Can we talk by phone in a few days?” and shoo the salesman away. Then you turn on the computer or call the reference desk at the public library and begin asking questions: Does the company show up on the Internet? What does the Better Business Bureau say? Is it a member of any state associations? Are there references from past customers?

Hindsight. I know.

I signed the contract and gave the salesman my insurance check. Two months later, after hearing nothing, I called and was told, “He don’t work here no more.”

So I talked to Tatum, an Orson Welles look-alike from Arlington who promised to do the job but explained that there were delays.

Turns out he was giving the same speech to a hundred other customers. He was taking their checks — and cashing them at a grocery store in Arlington because he kept his money out of banks — but not doing the work.

 

 

Grocery store in Arlington, Tatum used as his "bank" to cash checks/Courtesy Google Maps

Arlington, Texas grocery store Tatum used as his “bank” to cash checks (Google Maps Photo)

 

 

After months of delays and excuses, Tatum sent a crew to put on my roof. I later learned that I was one of the lucky ones. Only a few got service. Now every time I look at that roof, I think of the victims who will never see a dime.

In 2007, Tatum Contracting filed for bankruptcy, listing $671,000 in debts. The 86 creditors included homeowners, suppliers and subcontractors who did the work for the man who never held a hammer.

One client, Helen Webb, an elderly Watauga widow, spent two hours with Tatum at her kitchen table. She wanted to hold the $1,700 insurance check in a bank account, but he persuaded her to let him have it. “He said he would do my roof next,” she recalled. Her certified letters to him were returned, marked refused.

The list of creditors — on which my name is mistakenly included — offered a road map for Tarrant County district attorney’s investigators, who sent letters to everyone. “It has come to our attention that you may be a victim of a criminal offense committed by Jerry Shawn Tatum,” they said.

Sixty people responded with stories of how Tatum owed them either a roof or money. From that, 17 cases were strong enough to take to the grand jury, which returned an indictment July 15 alleging theft of more than $100,000.

“The sheer volume” of that many jilted customers shows a pattern of theft, says Assistant District Attorney David Lobingier of the economic-crimes unit.

My attempts to reach Tatum by mail, phone and e-mail last week were unsuccessful. During a 2008 bankruptcy hearing, he testified that he always intended to perform the work and that he had been in business for three or four years.

In a separate case in March, Tatum pleaded guilty in 371st District Court to a hot-check charge involving more than $1,500. He was sentenced to two years’ probation.

Dan Pitts, former president of the North Texas Roofing Contractors Association, says customers shouldn’t give contractors money before a job is started.

“I would say our average roof job is $8,000 to $10,000, and we get no money upfront,” says Pitts, who owns Pitts Roofing in Haltom City.

“It’s hard to get someone back [to your house] when you owe them very little money,” he says. “It’s hard to get them to respond to your phone calls. But if you owe them money, they’re much more apt to return your phone calls.”

For me, the lesson learned two years ago was to stop relying on the advice of others and instead take greater responsibility in my decisions. My insurance agent apologized to his customers. But I don’t blame him. He’s an indirect victim himself.

In a sense, after this, my roles as a newspaper watchdog and vigilant consumer merged into one. Coming close to losing thousands of dollars taught me to take nothing for granted. Everybody needs to be a detective. All the time. On everything.

# # #

Dave Lieber, The Watchdog columnist for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is the founder of Watchdog Nation. The new 2010 edition of his book, Dave Lieber’s Watchdog Nation: Bite Back When Businesses and Scammers Do You Wrong, is out. Revised and expanded, the book won two national book awards in 2009 for social change. Twitter @DaveLieber

Dave Lieber's Watchdog Nation book won two national awards for social change.