In June of 2005, the sheriff in Elko County, Nev., had an assignment for his detectives.
The sheriff’s office there received complaints about a Shell gas station and tire shop at the junction of Interstate 80 and United States Highway 93 in the town of Wells. Motorists, many from out of state, claimed they had been pressured into buying tires and auto parts they didn’t need. The sheriff ordered a sting operation to try to catch the station’s employees committing what’s called theft by deception.
So detectives sent motorists to the station undercover, gathered evidence and even served a search warrant, documents show. But neither criminal actions nor civil citations were ever filed against the Shell station or its owner, Michael Heath.
Heath now owns a gas station and adjacent tire shop in New Harmony, Utah. The Utah Division of Consumer Protection is alleging Heath is doing some of the same things sheriff’s detectives suspected in Nevada, records show.
“He’s fully aware of what he’s doing,” said Marvin E. Morton, a now-retired Elko County Sheriff‘s lieutenant who at various points tried to get the Wells municipal government, the district attorney and the Nevada attorney general to take action against Heath’s business.
“Just the way he’s primed, he’s gone from one place to another,” Morton said. “He just doesn’t care. It’s all about how, at the end of the day, how much money he makes.”
The Utah Division of Consumer Protection issued its first citation against Heath in March, alleging his Freeway Tire along I-15 in New Harmony made untrue representations to one customer and failed to clearly state the cost of goods sold to a second. Freeway Tire is contesting the allegations and what could amount to a $27,500 fine. Last month, the company filed an appeal in Utah’s 5th District Court.
Also in August, the consumer protection division issued a second citation to Freeway Tire. It alleges nine counts of violating Utah’s consumer code and says some of those violations were made while Freeway Tire was defending itself from the first citation. The fines for that citation could add up to $22,500. Freeway Tire has not yet filed a response to the second citation.
Jim Jensen, an attorney for Heath and Freeway Tire, said last week the business disputes the allegations in the second complaint and will challenge it as it has the first. Freeway Tire tries to satisfy every customer complaint, Jensen said.
“The matters are matters to be tried in the appropriate forums and jurisdictions and we don’t try our cases in the court of public opinion,” Jensen said in an interview.
Jensen said Heath was never charged or cited with any frauds or consumer violations in Nevada. As for why so many complaints have accumulated against Heath over the years, Jensen said, “Comes with the territory.”
Documents about Heath’s time in Nevada were collected by Utah attorney Kirk Lusty, whose brother-in-law, Harry S. Johnson, bought the Wells gas station and tire shop from Heath in 2014. Johnson is now suing Heath in federal court in Salt Lake City, alleging Heath made a number of misrepresentations during sale negotiations.
Johnson is also suing Heath under the federal racketeering statute, saying that Heath’s history of business practices amounts to a pattern of corruption. Heath has not yet answered the lawsuit.
The documents Lusty shared with The Salt Lake Tribune show how consumer complaints began causing problems for Heath in Nevada as early as 2002, when he was leasing a Chevron station on the same property as a Red Lion hotel and casino in the city of Elko. That year, according to court records, Chevron sent Heath a non-renewal notice and ordered him to stop displaying Chevron signage.
The letter from the oil company, entered into a court record, read: ”Chevron is taking this action because of the customer complaints this facility has generated. Over the last two years Chevron has received more customer complaints for this facility than almost any other of the over 8000 ... Chevron branded outlets.”
In an affidavit, Heath denied ”the illegal acts that are alleged against me” and said the complaints were generated to force him out of his lease.
While Heath was in the dispute with Chevron, he purchased what became the Shell station in Wells. In 2005, according to court records, he opened a tire shop at the station. The Elko County Sheriff’s Office began receiving complaints.
The undercover operations began in June 2005. According to the sheriff’s office report, a civilian employees of the office was recruited to drive cars to the Shell station. The first operative sent there asked for someone to check her oil and tire pressure. A worker did so, but didn’t take the bait. No service was recommended, and the operative left after paying for a tank of gas.
The next month, detectives tried again. They placed Idaho license plates on a former sheriff’s employee’s Toyota Rav4. This time, the attendant at the Shell station who checked the oil and tires told the undercover operative that three of the four tires were unsafe to drive at highway speeds. The operative agreed to have two tires replaced.
When the Toyota was in the repair bay, a worker told the operative she needed to have all four tires replaced. The operative again only agreed to two tires. She bought the two tires — with money from the sheriff’s office — for $159.95 each. The shop employee told the operative that the tires were from a ”Goodyear affiliate,” according to a sheriff’s report, and that Goodyear Tires would honor the warranty.
Detectives then obtained a search warrant and retrieved the two tires that had been taken off the Toyota. They took them to another tire shop, where an attendant measured the tread said the tires had another 3,000 to 5,000 miles of tread remaining.
The detectives also contacted a Goodyear dealer who said they had never heard of the brand sold to the operative and that the brand had no affiliation with Goodyear. Comparable tires, the Goodyear shop dealer told detectives, would cost $106 a piece.
The sheriff’s office gathered other evidence and complaints, but nothing ever came of them.
Morton said the district attorney felt there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Heath or the business. Besides, Morton said, the witnesses lived all across the country. Elko County would have had to pay for them to come testify.
But records show that the complaints continued. Morton said locals knew not to stop at the Shell station in Wells, and truck drivers would use their C.B. radios to warn each other not to stop there, but other motorists continued stopping and making complaints.
“It was giving the town a bad name and it was getting around on social media pretty extensively,” Morton said.
In the summer of 2013, Bruce Christensen, a veterinarian, and his family were on their way to his new job at the University of California-Davis. At Wells, according to a complaint he later filed, he saw a sign on the Shell station advertising fuel for $3.73 per gallon — a few cents less than other stations at the exit.
Christensen began filling up with 87-octane fuel. Then he noticed the digital display on the pump wasn’t printing the price of the gasoline. He looked at other pumps and saw the fuel price was actually $4.79 per gallon.
Christensen looked again at the sign he had seen. Underneath the sign displaying $3.73 was a second, smaller sign that read ”PROPANE.”
Christensen complained to the employees. He says they told him the displays were legal in Nevada.
Next, Christensen drove to the Wells city hall to make a complaint. Some city employees were outside, Christensen said in an interview, and they saw his out-of-state license plates and vehicle loaded with personal items.
“They didn’t even have to ask us what we wanted,” Christensen said. “They looked at us and said Shell Station?”
The employees invited him inside and offered to add his complaint to what they described as a thick file, Christensen said. The Wells city manager did not return a phone call last week seeking comment.
After complaining to the city, Christensen went back to the Shell station. He was wearing a Brigham Young University cap when he told staff there he would lodge complaints with authorities.
One employee responded, ”Go ahead, Brother Brigham, and do just that. They know about us and they don’t care.”
“It was just absolutely out there like, ‘We know what we’re doing we don’t care,’ ” Christensen said last week.
The 15 1/2 gallons of gasoline cost him $74.43. He has not received a refund.
Update at 9:49 a.m. Sept. 5, 2017: An earlier version of this article misstated when the latest citation was issued and when Heath filed an appeal in state district court. Both were filed in August.