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Complaints catch sheriff's eye

His computer is Gerard Levy's path to places he cannot reach by himself. He is 77 years old, the victim of two strokes that left his legs almost useless.

But Levy gets around quite well in cyberspace. He reads the New York Times on the Internet. He sends e-mail to friends. And he makes his own greeting cards to send to relatives.

The computer, he said, "gives me an outside world."

When he wanted to upgrade his equipment, he put his trust in Pasco Computer Service & Sales, owned by Steve Ivester. Ivester told him the chip he wanted would cost $100.

Levy ended up paying $900.

For that, he says, he got a defective computer and a lot of lip.

Ivester "called me an old man on a scooter," Levy said. "He was making fun of me because I was on a scooter and couldn't walk."

Ivester, 32, can point to a number of satisfied customers of both of his businesses, the computer shop and All State Auto Repair at 6633 Massachusetts Ave. (Ivester is no longer associated with the All State Auto Repair on U.S. 19.) But some of his customers tell stories a lot like Levy's.

In 1994, for instance, a woman complained to the Sheriff's Office that a battery and spare tire were stolen from her car when she took it to All State Auto Repair. According to an incident report, her car was returned to her with a cooler of dead fish.

Two of Ivester's other computer customers said he called them "b------" after they complained of receiving faulty equipment.

Ivester adamantly denies that he verbally abuses customers or offers them poor workmanship.

"I always treat customers with the utmost respect," he said.

But a string of recent complaints have prompted a Pasco County Sheriff's Office investigation into Ivester and Pasco Computer Service & Sales.

It will not be his first brush with the law.

In 1982, at age 17, Ivester was arrested for robbery and served one year in prison, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Since 1988, the Sheriff's Office has received 15 complaints against him alleging everything from sexual harassment to domestic violence.

Equipment failure

Mark Duhaime owns EMI Computers, another computer dealer in Port Richey, and has heard about Ivester's problems _ from Ivester's customers.

Duhaime said he has talked to about 30 people regarding computer problems on equipment they either had upgraded or bought at Pasco Computer. Often, he said, the computers they brought him contained parts inferior to those listed on the customers' sales receipts.

April Marshall, vice president of IMS Inc., a Hudson computer company, said she has worked on only one computer from Pasco Computer, but has taken many calls from Pasco Computer customers having trouble with their equipment.

The West Pasco Chamber of Commerce also has had three recent complaints, according to executive director Wally Savage.

According to Levy, Ivester told him he would stick a high-powered Pentium chip (the brains of a computer) into his old 486 computer for $100. He said Ivester then told him he had to pay $900 to get his computer back because of other parts he installed.

Levy paid, but said he soon had problems with his "upgraded" computer and had another dealer check it out.

"Ivester took my good CD Rom drive and put a junky one in," Levy said. And, Levy said, his Pentium chip was slower than the one he paid for.

Sheriff's spokesman Jon Powers said the complaints the office has received have a common theme.

"What it basically boils down to," Powers said, "is sale but not delivery of computer or computers, a substandard product or receiving something other than what they have ordered."

Ivester said he always stands behind his products.

"You deal with 400 customers a month and you have 10 that are bad complaints," he said. "That's an unfair ratio? Not even close."

As for EMI saying it has dealt with 30 Pasco Computer customers with problem computers, Ivester said that's not true. He chalked the comment up to a competitor trying to give him trouble because he has been so successful.

He said he does not ridicule customers. But if they are rude to him he tends to treat them the same way, he said.

Ruth Wingate, 72, said she bought four computers for her family. She has been unhappy with two _ and with Ivester's language.

"He's been nice to me except when I'm in there and he goes in the back room and he curses something fierce, using words that ladies don't need to hear," she said.

Ivester said sheriff's Detective James St. Pierre told him he had found no criminal activity at Pasco Computer, "just a public relations problem."

Many unhappy returns

Katherine Donahue paid Pasco Computer $1,050 for a new computer on May 23. Two days later she couldn't get the modem to work and called Ivester for help. He asked if her computer had a modem. She said she thought so.

"Use the half of a brain in your head and look at the back of the computer and see if there's a telephone jack there," he told her, according to her complaint to Consumer Affairs.

Eventually another employee helped her fix the problem. But Donahue still needed Internet software that should have been loaded into the computer when she bought it. She took the computer back in the next week.

She argued with Ivester, who called her a "b----" several times, Donahue told the Times.

"His parting words to me when I was leaving were, "Wait until you have to bring the unit back and see what kind of service you get then,' " Donahue said.

When problems continued, Donahue returned her computer to Ivester on June 19 and asked Discover Card to cancel the charge. The matter is still not settled, and she is still out $1,050.

Ivester said it was Donahue who was mean and nasty.

The computer business, he said, prompts a lot of complaints because people who don't know how to use the equipment immediately assume there is a problem with the machine.

New or used?

Since spending $2,000 on a computer for her 12-year-old son in October, Fleur Cachet has had a miserable nine months.

"It's the worst $2,000 I ever spent," she said.

When she got home with the computer she noticed the Cannon printer sold to her as new had a seal stamped on it reading "refurbished." She said she had the computer checked by a computer consultant and learned her "mouse" was used as well and that she lacked some software that should have been installed. What she did have did not come with guide books or registration papers.

She demanded a refund. Ivester refused.

He said he doesn't offer refunds after two days. But after two months he did give her a different monitor, printer and tower.

"When I told him that I felt he had cheated me he called me a b----," Cachet wrote in a complaint to Consumer Affairs.

Even after the exchange, Cachet said her computer wasn't working properly. After paying a computer consultant $20 an hour, she said she learned she was still missing software that should have been installed when purchased.

With a paid computer consultant at her side, Cachet went back to Pasco Computer on Wednesday to demand the software. Ivester gave her the software she wanted.

He then showed a Pasco Times reporter Cachet's new sales receipt from July 17 and said she was a satisfied customer.

Uneasy exchange

Greg Ushko, 77, placed a $1,000 deposit on a $1,700 computer at Pasco Computer. When he went to pick it up he placed $700 cash on the counter and his receipt was marked paid.

Then he realized his computer lacked the Windows 95 operating system. Ivester said that would cost $90 extra. Ushko grabbed the $700 cash and the receipt marked "paid" and said he wanted the operating system put in or he wouldn't pay the rest of the money.

An argument broke out and Ushko eventually left with the receipt but no computer.

"(Ivester) threatened me and said, "You won't be able to sleep at night because you'll be worried about what will happen to you and your wife,' " Ushko told the Times. "Now he has my computer and my $1,000."

Ivester denies threatening Ushko and said the system was equipped with an earlier version of Windows. He said he did argue with Ushko because Ushko "robbed" the $700 from him.

Ushko said he returned to Pasco Computer last week with Detective St. Pierre. He said Ivester gave him a $700 refund check.

Ushko said he immediately tried to cash the check, but found there were insufficient funds. He said he eventually filed a complaint with the state attorney's office.

Sales tax

Ushko said Ivester told him that if he paid with a credit card there was an extra 2 percent charge, but if he paid with cash he wouldn't be charged the sales tax.

Ivester denied the claim.

"We do not suggest people pay with cash," he said.

Three customers told the Times their sales receipts do not show that they paid sales tax.

The first receipt from Cachet's purchase in October itemizes the equipment charges, which total $2,000. The tax line on the receipt is empty. But the receipt he gave her last week shows her purchases total $1,887, with $113 in sales tax, bringing the bottom line back to $2,000.

Ivester said that even if sales receipts don't always show he charges customers tax, he always sends it to the state.

"If a customer comes in and I decide to eat the tax on something, I pay the tax," he said. "Sometimes I pay the tax myself out of the profit."

As to why he changed Cachet's receipt, he said his accountant recently told him he should show the tax on the receipts.

"I guess I never took a small business course. I never went to college," Ivester said. "You learn things every day."

Happy customers

Ivester said most customers like his product and his service.

Since a visit from a Times reporter Wednesday, he said he has called 160 customers who support him.

Bill Darrell, a minister to seven area nursing homes, sent a letter last week praising Ivester.

"I would not have been able to either acquire, or learn to use my computer without your help," he wrote.

"He's gone overboard," said Bill Foulis, another satisfied customer. "He's worked with me until 8 p.m. at night."

And whatever problems he faces, Ivester does have compassion for the less fortunate.

He donated a computer to Zachary Vanwhy Ashcroft before he died in May of leukemia at age 7. He also covered the family's funeral expenses.

_ Times staff writers William R. Levesque and John Hill contributed to this report.