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For years John Schiefer's family took meticulous care of their prize Cadillac, a white 1973 convertible Eldorado identical to the pace car used at the Indianapolis 500 that year. The car was a gem when Schiefer's parents gave it to him as a wedding gift two years ago. The spare tire had never touched asphalt. The plastic boot that covered the ragtop when it was open glistened like new. The original battery cranked up the engine. Even the trunk still had the original dealer's stickers. This past June, eighteen years after his parents bought it, the car had seen exactly 24,185 road miles. "It is a one-of-a-kind-type car," says Schiefer, a 40-year-old Coconut Grove resident. "You won't find a car like this in any showroom."
So when Schiefer, who owns a boat-bottom-cleaning company and the sailing school and boat-rental at the Crandon Park Marina, decided in June that he could no longer care for the car properly, he didn't just list it in the newspaper classified ads or drop it off at a used car lot. "Of course I wanted to be compensated," he says. "I thought it was worth about $25,000. But it was more than the money. It was like looking for a place for a pet you've had for many years. I wanted to find it a good home with someone who knew about collectible cars and how to take care of them." Schiefer took the car to Autoputer Inc., a Hallandale-based broker with showrooms in Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties and locally recognized for dealing in antique and classic cars. Unfortunately for Schiefer and dozens of people like him, Autoputer would come to represent much more than a place where people who know quality cars shop and sell.
On June 17 Schiefer dropped off his car at the showroom at 3000 Hallandale Beach Blvd. and signed a consignment agreement giving the broker 60 days to complete a sale. Although he believed the Cadillac was worth much more, Schiefer set a minimum asking price of $10,000, agreeing to pay Autoputer a commission of five percent of the final sale price. He held on to the title, registration, owner's manual, even the original set of keys.
Schiefer phoned regularly to check on his car. "Still no sale," was always the broker's response. When he asked on August 27, he was told no one was working that day. The next day, he was told Autoputer had gone out of business. "I immediately said, `Wow, I better go get my car.'" But when Schiefer arrived, not only was there no sign of his convertible, but the few former employees hanging around the showroom could not even locate any paperwork indicating the car had been at Autoputer. "As far as they were concerned, my car didn't exist," he says. "I left it there to be sold and now it wasn't there, so in my book, I had to consider it stolen."
Schiefer filed a stolen-auto report with the Broward Sheriff's Office, and waited. He also began to hear horror stories about Autoputer. Opening as a new-car broker and eventually branching out, the company built a reputation in the 1980s as a reliable outlet for classic-car buyers. But when the company folded, it left behind two million dollars in debt. State and federal investigators found dozens of cases of sales in which buyers never received titles and sellers didn't receive any money after their cars were sold. Although no one has been charged with any crimes, the company and its owner, Marvin Friedman, are under investigation by federal, state, and local law enforcement officials. The company's remaining assets were sold at auction January 11.
In December Schiefer happened to talk to a friend who knew a former Autoputer salesman. Although the salesman was no longer employed there by the time Schiefer's car arrived, he remembered the Cadillac - he had stopped by one day in July just as the car was being purchased by none other than Patrick Sessions, the former Arvida executive who made national news in 1989 when his daughter Tiffany, a University of Florida student, disappeared in Gainesville.
Schiefer immediately zipped over to Sessions's Coconut Grove home, only a few blocks away from his own, and caught a glimpse of the white Caddy in the garage. Schiefer called the Broward Sheriff's Office. "I was really happy because I found my car," he says. "I thought this was the end of it."
Broward sheriff's detectives, Schiefer recalls, were not so enthusiastic. "I told them I found my car after all these months, and they made me feel like an idiot," he says. "They were saying things like, `How do you know it's your car? How do you know this is for real? Who told you this was your car?'" A sheriff's detective, however, did meet with Sessions, and then pulled the car off the stolen-auto list. They informed Schiefer that Sessions had paperwork indicating he had bought the car and that it was up to the courts to decide who actually owned the vehicle. "That was the advice of our legal counsel," confirms Sgt. Robert Goodell, head of the auto-theft unit of the Broward Sheriff's Office. "We were told it should be handled as a civil matter." Goodell won't comment on the investigation into Autoputer, saying only that it is ongoing.