Restaurant News & Reviews

Hell on wheels: a Miami food truck nightmare

Melani Romero sent out this announcement in 2013 in anticipation of getting her truck from Miguel Pacheco. So far, no truck.
Melani Romero sent out this announcement in 2013 in anticipation of getting her truck from Miguel Pacheco. So far, no truck.

Miguel Pacheco deals in the business of dreams. For just a few thousand dollars, he’ll convert a regular old truck into a food truck, or so he says. Customers of Don’t Stop Believing Fabrication Corp., aka DSB Fabrication, hoped to launch their own restaurant on wheels, joining the popular niche industry that has exploded with its low price of entry and enthusiastic customer base.

Plenty of people have taken him up on this offer, but some have definitely Stopped Believing, either in Pacheco or the notion of consumer protection in South Florida. Barry Cohen says he had to hound Pacheco for months and call the cops before he could get his truck back, unfinished. After a long, frustrating saga, Melani Romero saw her 1985 Chevy step van sold to another woman. That woman, Chelita Smith, through no fault of her own, ended up a co-defendant in Romero’s subsequent lawsuit against Pacheco.

Shelette Buchanan is the latest disgruntled customer. She moved from Wisconsin to Port St. Lucie to be closer to her brother, James, and to share her Chicago-style hot dogs — piled high with tomato wedges, chopped white onions, sport peppers and pickle spears and generously slathered with mustard — with a new market. She has yet to dispense the first dog from that still-undelivered truck.

None of them knew until it was too late who they were dealing with. Pacheco was declared by a Miami-Dade court to be a “habitual felony offender.” His record shows 15 arrests, most on multiple counts, for larceny, grand theft, forgery, fraud and conducting business without a license. He served prison time in 2005 for writing worthless checks and he and his son/business associate have a trail of bankruptcies, lawsuits, a foreclosure and various liens and court judgments.

In the buyer-beware world of South Florida, Don’t Stop Believing Fabrication is a cautionary tale, exemplifying what can go wrong when business is conducted on the basis of a handshake and a smile.

And if something goes awry, good luck. In Pacheco’s case, police said it was a civil issue, while state and county fraud enforcers said it was best handled by cops.

This isn’t Bernie Madoff money, but to the aggrieved customers, it hurts badly.

“I used to think people who fell for this kind of stuff were stupid,” said Shelette Buchanan. Now I understand how easy it is to be the victim.”

Held ‘hostage’

To hear Pacheco tell it, the claims against him are either irrelevant or untrue. The prison sentence, he notes, was 11 years ago, and the various lawsuits immaterial. He said he didn’t even know he was being sued in one recent case until after a judgment was rendered.

He says the customers who have logged complaints — including a small Facebook group dedicated to airing grievances against him — are liars who got cold feet when it came time to pay what they owed. He adds that health problems are to blame for his most recent difficulties.

I used to think people who fell for this kind of stuff were stupid. Now I understand how easy it is to be the victim.

Shelette Buchanan

All Buchanan knows is that she is still waiting for the return on her $7,000 investment. Buchanan said she and Pacheco didn’t sign a contract when she made a $5,000 down payment on April 21. She had met Pacheco a few weeks earlier when he was doing a truck conversion for her brother at a local auto shop where Pacheco was employed. Pacheco said he could do the same for her more cheaply if he did it on his own.

It seemed like a good offer, and there were friendly vibes in the beginning — including one night when she, her husband, Pacheco and a handful of others all went out to dinner. “We took the kids to get ice cream after,” she recalls. It was a good night.

Also during this time, Pacheco gained the business of Buchanan’s cousin, Anthony McLaren and his wife, Lakesha Taylor, who came to visit Florida from Chicago and were intrigued by the idea of owning a food truck. The couple made a down payment in April for a vehicle that they still have not received — even after Anthony flew down in May to check on the status of the work, repeatedly extending his trip until it stretched out to three weeks while Pacheco gave him “the run-around.”

And before them, there were others.

Barry Cohen says Pacheco took his truck “hostage” for the majority of 2013 with virtually no work done after the $5,000 down payment. He filed a Better Business Bureau complaint in February 2014. Michele Mason, from the bureau’s southeast Florida branch, told the Miami Herald the allegations against Pacheco were “very serious.” She said that when the office notices patterns in the complaints, it generally refers such matters to law enforcement — but no case notes exist on whether the Pacheco complaints were forwarded accordingly.

Cohen got the county and city of Hialeah to conduct inspections, resulting in fines of about $2,500. He also lodged a complaint with the state attorney general’s Division of Consumer Protection, but it did not undertake an investigation. A spokeswoman told the Herald the situation was determined to be “more of a criminal nature.” Cohen says when he went to the police, but they told him there wasn’t enough evidence to put him in prison.

Cohen was incredulous. “He ripped me off for hundreds and thousands of dollars!”

The police did, however, help him get back his truck, which he took to another shop for completion. Pacheco’s description of these events differs: “His truck was very well done. I let him take the truck just having paid the down payment.”

In the midst of Cohen’s “hostage” situation, another unhappy customer, Melani Romero, had already reached wit’s end and was suing Pacheco. This followed a long saga involving both the police and Miami-Dade’s Office of Consumer Protection that ended with her truck being sold to another person, allegedly without her knowledge or permission.

Romero told the Herald she first met Pacheco in September 2012 after seeing his online posting. He gave her an initial cost estimate of $13,500 to purchase the truck and modify it for food sales, according to an itemized invoice filed in court. She paid the first $8,000 in two installments in September and October of that year. Eventually she started to feel suspicious. Pacheco kept pushing the deadline back with one excuse or another, and she wasn’t sure if he was doing any work at all, she said.

In December, she contacted the Hialeah Police Department. Detective Juan Amaro intervened, calling Pacheco to broker a solution, emails and interviews indicate.

Thus began two months of Amaro acting as a mediator between the two parties. On the first weekend of February 2013, he accompanied Romero to the auto shop. Pacheco told the Herald that she was “very happy with the work.” Romero says it looked “half ass.”

She has documentation to support her assertion, specifically a Feb. 2, 2013, email to the detective: “I feel like [Pacheco] is doing the job to get it out of the way [and] that’s not what I want. She said she would pay the remaining balance upon completion “as long as the truck is done RIGHT.”

Detective Amaro responded three days later: “The Truck is almost completed as scheduled and its delivery will depend on you,” he wrote. “As far as any specific work or features on the Truck, I will not be able to assist you or get involved any further; this constitutes a Civil issue.”

In the end, Romero never picked up the truck. Pacheco claims she did an about-face, suddenly expressing discontent when it came time to pay up. “I do not owe that lady a penny — that lady is a liar,” he says.

Romero denies that. For the next few months, she sent several more pleading emails to the police. After she reached out to the county’s Office of Consumer Protection, a case manager there spoke with both Pacheco and Amaro. But a month later, in May 2013, the office closed the case, citing a policy against mediating “business-to-business” complaints, a consumer advocate told the Herald.

As late as July 26, 2013, Romero was still sending emails to the Hialeah Police Department.

What she did not know was that her truck was no longer her truck. It had been sold it to another woman, Chelita Smith, back in March.

Here’s how that happened: In December 2012, records show, Midnight Express Towing and Recovery billed Alex Pacheco, Miguel’s son and the CEO of DSB and Don’t Stop Believing, for towing Romero’s truck. The towing record says the truck was “illegally parked,” which Midnight Express owner “Gio” Loureiro says often means a vehicle on a shared property is blocking another business.

A few days later, Midnight Express mailed a notice to one of Romero’s addresses, saying the truck would be put up for public sale if it went unclaimed. She says she never received the notice. The sale was scheduled for Jan. 31, 2013. Just two days later, Romero visited Pacheco’s shop to check on her vehicle, still intending to pay in full “as long as the truck is done RIGHT.”

Loureiro is emphatic that he was not in cahoots with the Miguel Pacheco. “[Pacheco] has problems with everybody, including myself,” Loureiro said.

Paperwork from Romero’s lawsuit shows that Midnight Express sold the truck to itself for one dollar on March 22, 2013. Loureiro says this is common practice for towed vehicles that are not claimed by their registered owners.

That same day, Chelita Smith handed Pacheco a $5,000 check as down payment on the very same truck — and agreed to pay an additional $8,000 in installments to refurbish it, according to a DSB invoice in the court file. Asked about this sale, Pacheco said that Amaro had told him in February that if Romero did not pick up the vehicle in 15 days, he could legally resell it. Amaro, no longer with the department, could not be reached for comment.

Thus began Smith’s own frustrating experience with Pacheco, who promised to have the truck ready by April 5, but dragged his feet for four months, according to a letter she later wrote that found its way into Romero’s lawsuit file. “Every time I called him or went to his shop, he had an excuse,” Smith wrote.

It wasn’t until July 15, she wrote, that Alex Pacheco, the son, finally accompanied her to transfer the truck’s title to her name. The record from that date shows the truck being transferred from Midnight Express to Chelita Smith for $7,000. Loureiro says he was not paid $7,000 and that it is more likely, based on how his company typically operates, that Midnight Express sold the truck for something like $500 to Pacheco, who then sold the truck to Smith for the greater amount.

At any rate, Smith didn’t write the check to Miguel, but rather to his son. Smith said Miguel told him that was for “tax reasons,” according to the letter in Romero’s case file.

As a result of this paper trail, Smith got tangled up as a co-defendant when Romero sued Pacheco. But both Romero and her lawyer described Smith sympathetically. Romero’s lawyer emailed her in October 2013 with an update: “Chelita Smith called. Seems like a fine lady who also got ripped off.”

The Herald could not locate Smith.

Romero eventually won her lawsuit against Pacheco in October 2013, securing a $10,192 judgment. She has not gotten her hands on the money. “It’s unfortunate but it can be easier to obtain a judgment than to collect,” explained Holly-Beth Billington from the county consumer protection office.

Call me back in 30 days and it will be a different story. They will have their truck.

Miguel Pacheco

In his interview with the Herald in July, Miguel Pacheco said he was not aware of the judgment until months after the fact when his son informed him. However, the case file includes records of Pacheco’s wife being served with papers every step of the way.

Pacheco is still on probation dating back to the last decade — long before the Cohen, Romero and Buchanan sagas began. Romero’s lawyer sent Pacheco’s probation officer a letter informing him of Pacheco’s activities. He never heard back. The Herald left messages for the probation officer as well, but they went unanswered.

Call him Mike

And so, Pacheco has continued to operate, marketing himself under various names. Buchanan said when she did business with Pacheco this spring, she dealt with him simply as “Mike.” Cohen specifically named DSB Food Truck Fabrication in his complaint with the BBB. DSB and Don’t Stop Believing, which came along later, were both registered under Alex Pacheco’s name.

Not long after DSB ’s formation in August 2012, it faced multiple lawsuits, including one filed in May 2013. The case centered on bounced checks that Alex Pacheco had signed for more than $3,500 worth of equipment, according to the court files. A judgment for almost four times that amount was levied against the company on Sept. 11, 2013. A month later, the younger Pacheco filed for bankruptcy. Around that same time, a lawsuit was brought against both Pachecos and DSB for breach of contract by another customer who claimed to have paid $8,000 for food truck work that the father-son duo never did. That lawsuit is ongoing.

Alex Pacheco declined to comment through a lawyer.

Throughout the reporting of this story, Miguel Pacheco maintained there is no story. He said he is just a businessman behind schedule on his work for Buchanan and her cousin because he had a stroke in June, although the troubles date back years earlier. “Call me back in 30 days and it will be a different story,” he said in a lengthy interview with the Herald on July 11. “They will have their truck.”

It’s 44 days later and still no truck.

When the Herald called to check on things a month after that assurance, Pacheco pushed back the deadline again, saying he would resolve things that week. He promised to pay for the Chicago couple’s flight to South Florida. He has still not done that but says he is working on getting things together.

Like Romero and Cohen before her, Shelette Buchanan has filed complaints with the Hialeah Police Department, but satisfaction has eluded her.

Buchanan has pretty much given up hope. “My stress levels have been too much,” she says.

Know who you’re dealing with

One way to ensure you are dealing with an honest business person — besides doing a thorough Google search and insisting on references — is to check his or her criminal history in Florida.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement offers criminal background checks online for $24, payable by credit card.

Information required: a name, date of birth or approximate age, race and gender. The website is https://web.fdle.state.fl.us/search/app/default?0

  Comments