A Del Mar company took down its website and Facebook page and had its Twitter account suspended last week after an Oklahoma veteran came forward and accused the company of failing to refund him more than $10,000 for almost two years.
Coty Melancon, a disabled Air Force veteran, purchased a $16,600 tank-like wheelchair from Del Mar-based Iron Horse Devices in December 2016. He did so with $12,000 from the Semper Fi Fund charity, plus $3,700 raised on GoFundMe.
Melancon received his chair on Dec. 23, 2016. He said the chair functioned as advertised at first, then broke down soon after it was delivered. Melancon said he faced months of delays and shifting explanations from the company, then reached out to his local television station in Oklahoma.
After a story aired on Sept. 17, the Del Mar company unpublished its social media accounts and website, according to Kathryn Evans, the company’s co-founder.
“I took down the Facebook account due to Mr. Melancon’s negative information about us,” she said by email. “It caused our FB page to blow up with negative comments asking why we were taking advantage of a disabled veteran.”
Evans said she has been threatened on her personal accounts. She also said she has offered Melancon a full refund.
Melancon said his attorney is in negotiations with the company for a settlement, and expects it will wire him the money soon. He has shopped for a replacement off-road chair that costs about the same as the one from Iron Horse Devices, and he plans on buying it as soon as he gets his refund.
The problem with Melancon’s chair began almost as soon as it was delivered, he said.
After an initial drive the day he received it, Melancon stored the chair in his garage. On New Year’s Day, 2017, he took the chair hunting. It was the first — and last — time the machine functioned as intended, he said.
“I took the chair to go hunting in Wellston, Oklahoma,” Melancon said in an email. “I returned home and parked (it) in my garage with no issues.”
A week later, the next time he went to use his chair, he said the right track was not moving and he called Evans.
“She informed me that I would need to send the chair back for them to diagnose,” Melancon said.
So he did. Melancon said he kept a log of the dates and all the emails exchanged between him and the company. According to him, from Jan. 30, 2017, to Aug. 28, 2018, the company gave more than a dozen different explanations as to why it could not refund his money or sell his chair on consignment.
Melancon said at that time, the company told him the problem was a broken gear box and a burned motor.
Evans said in an email last week that the company could not determine why the chair stopped working.
“We believe it was due to water damage to the electric motors which were washed at a car wash,” she said, “causing electrical damage not covered by the warranty.”
Melancon said he hosed the chair off at his home.
According to him, the company told him it would be replacing “all parts on the chair” in mid-February 2017.
By March 15, the promised date of repair, the work had not been finished. At this point, he said he decided he’d rather have a refund.
Instead of a refund, Melancon agreed to enter into a consignment agreement with Iron Horse Devices on March 23.
“We have a signed consignment agreement with Mr. Melancon,” said Evans in an email. The company would re-sell the chair for Melancon, and then give him the money.
Over the next 17 months, promised buyers would come and go, and Melancon would be assured his chair was sold — or was in the process of being sold — over and over again, he said.
In September 2017, he received partial payment from the company, he said, in the amount of $3,767.
The new year unfolded much like the previous, Melancon said, as he asked for updates only to be told the chair was being demonstrated, upgraded or in the process of being sold.
By May, Melancon said he asked for a direct refund. In a June email, Evans told him the company did not have the money to give him a refund.
By the end of August, Evans told Melancon there was a delay in the shop, and it would take at least five more weeks for a refund. That’s when Melancon went to his local news station.
Iron Horse Devices was incorporated in 2016 in Del Mar. Its listed business address — 1155 Camino Del Mar — is a UPS Store. Correspondence sent to Melancon lists a Rancho Peñasquitos residence as the company’s address.
“We do not have an office,” Evans said. “The products are manufactured and then assembled at multiple contracted shops.”
The company was built on the remnants of another tracked-chair company, Tankchair.
A 2015 story about Tankchair on ITV in the United Kingdom reported on similar issues with a customer trying to obtain a refund for the device.
“We do not have any business affiliation or current relation to Tankchair,” Evans said. “Iron Horse purchased parts and inventory from Tankchair. We invested in engineering to correct the problems.”
Evans and an investor, John Pabst — a San Diego real estate agent — separated their ties with Tankchair, Evans said.
“Products are being sold as-is and are considered demo units,” she said. “This is on the invoice we provide to our customers. This project relies on the expertise of the engineers and technicians we contract. Yes, we have experienced prototyping hurdles, and we correct and move forward.”
--Andrew Dyer is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune