By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Allison Babka
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
This matter must be heard today, lawyer or no, the judge ruled. And so Rob Lee was on his own.
Lee's situation didn't look good. His lawyer had quit on him, leaving Lee to face an angry car dealership all by himself. Dressed in work shoes and blue auto-mechanic garb with "Rob" stitched in red above his shirt pocket, the mullet-haired Lee looked somewhat comical sitting at the counsel table across from the suits. Minutes before the hearing began, Joe Jacobson, one of two lawyers who sat in opposition, told a reporter that Lee is a "nut" -- maybe even dangerous, Jacobson suggested. After all, Lee had written, "I'm locked and loaded and just waiting for some walking mass of feces like you to try to shut me up," on an Internet message board when someone disagreed with his opinions about Bo Beuckman Ford, which is suing him for defamation.
This had all the markings of pro sefodder. Should be over in about an hour, Jacobson predicted.
The parties were here in St. Louis County Circuit Court to decide whether a temporary restraining order against Lee should become an injunction. For the better part of a month, Lee had been picketing Bo Beuckman Ford, claiming the Ellisville dealership had sold him a lemon pickup for $30,787, then refused to right the situation. The picketing began in early December, soon after KMOV-TV (Channel 4) ran a story on Lee's battle with the dealership, which insisted there was nothing wrong with his Ford F-350 diesel pickup. Unable to get satisfaction from Beuckman or Ford, Lee had to go to an arbitration panel, which ruled in August that the truck was defective and should be replaced with a new one. But Beuckman refused to compensate Lee for insurance, interest and other out-of-pocket expenses that Ford wouldn't cover. The dealership also told Lee that the price of the truck had increased by $1,500: What was standard equipment on the first truck, a 2000 model, was now considered optional on the replacement, a 2001 model. Lee had to pay according to the new price list. All told, Lee would have been out $4,700 for a truck he drove for barely one month, logging fewer than 1,500 miles. Beuckman wouldn't budge, so Lee called the media.
When KMOV called Beuckman, Larry Perez, the dealership's general manager, telephoned Lee and offered everything he wanted: a full refund, plus reimbursement for all expenses. As part of the deal, Lee had to call KMOV and ask the station not to air the story. But the TV station ran the story and Beuckman rescinded the refund offer [D.J. Wilson, "Short Cuts," RFT, Dec. 6]. Within a few days, Lee and his family were handing out fliers, shouting at customers and carrying signs reading "Bo Ripped Us Off," "$30,000, No Truck" and "Bo Leaves Family in the Cold."
Lee has also railed against Beuckman and Ford on the Internet, chronicling his battle on a Web site catering to Ford mechanics (www.flatratetech.com). He has called the police to report what he believes were illegal advertising signs at the dealership. He has threatened to contact every Ford owner in five ZIP-code areas. And he has gotten under Beuckman's skin. A few days after the picketing began, the dealership reinstated its offer of a full refund. The offer still stands. But it's too late.
Now, Lee is reallyangry. He wants more than a refund. He says he won't shut up until he gets his money back, plus $35,000 -- after nearly 10 months of haggling, he figures, he's due some damages. Beuckman says the cash demand amounts to extortion. On Jan. 5, the dealership sued Lee and stopped the picketing with a temporary restraining order. Beuckman, which claims it has lost sales, says Lee is lying when he says he was ripped off. The dealership is asking for damages of more than $25,000 -- more than enough to ruin Lee, a self-employed mechanic.
So it was no surprise that Lee arrived in court Thursday looking serious, if not scared. His girlfriend, Lorie Kraemer, sitting cross-armed in spectator's position, looked worried. Lee told Judge Carolyn Whittington that he hadn't had a chance to get a lawyer. Could this wait for another day? he asked. No, the judge replied.
The opening statements were brief. Beuckman attorney Fernando Bermudez, who represented Beuckman along with Jacobson, said Lee overstepped his First Amendment rights by telling lies. Lee told the judge he didn't have a statement and would do the best he could. "I have no knowledge of the law, ma'am," he said. Then Beuckman general manager Larry Perez took the stand.
Lee sat motionless and stony-faced, staring at the man who had insisted the truck was perfectly fine, then offered to make everything right, then pulled the deal away, then put it back on the table when faced with a relentless campaign by a simple Joe who'd been pushed too far. Lee let the questioning go on for about 10 minutes before objecting to a question about exhaust smoke -- "Is Mr. Perez an expert on diesels?" he asked. The judge told him he could get into that during cross-examination. A few minutes later, Lee again spoke up when Bermudez asked about the truck's mileage. "I object," Lee said. "Hearsay. Mr. Perez has no knowledge of this vehicle."