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.