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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
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Records in Vickie White's possession do not reveal the exact purchase price, but they do show that with insurance and additional fees, Muniz's starting balance was slightly more than $4200. The documents reflect that three months after the purchase, Muniz returned the Celica to Coconut Palm. According to White, the car had been involved in an accident severe enough to render it inoperable. Dealership records show Svadbik wrote off the vehicle as a loss and credited $600 from insurance proceeds to Muniz's account.
Muniz still owed more than $3000, upon which late fees were accumulating every other week. In March 1998 Svadbik placed a lien on and seized a car owned by Muniz's wife and loan cosigner, Rosemarie Torres. (Like most customers mentioned in this story, Muniz and Torres could not be located for comment despite repeated efforts.)
What Muniz's account does not reflect is the fact that the Celica, which Svadbik had written off his books, was patched up and sold again by Coconut Palm, in February 1997, to Hector Ramos. The Goulds resident's account opened with a starting balance of more than $5000. Florida law (Chapter 679.504) mandates that Muniz's account should have been credited with the full amount of the Ramos sale (less "reasonable expenses"), a credit that likely was large enough to retire his debt. Records show the account was not credited.
Ramos experienced mechanical troubles with the Celica. According to Coconut Palm records obtained by Vickie White, he returned the car to Svadbik only four months after his purchase. At the end of that month, June 1997, Svadbik again wrote the vehicle off his books. Ramos, however, still owed more than $4300 on the car, a balance upon which late fees began accruing every other week.
What Ramos's account does not show is that two days before Svadbik wrote off the car, it was sold again, this time to a man named Neptaly Cardenas. Dealership records indicate that even after he dropped a whopping down payment of almost $3000, Cardenas's account opened with a balance of $5000. He allegedly missed his first payment, and the car was immediately repossessed. According to Coconut Palm records, Svadbik wrote off the Celica later that month. With late fees and interest, Cardenas's balance as of June 1998 had ballooned to $7035.73.
Evidently Cardenas's account was not credited when the Celica was sold yet again by Coconut Palm, in November 1997. Rodolfo Carbajo of Miami opened with a balance of more than $5250. Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles records indicate he still owns the car.
"The number-one customer is an uneducated black woman," Vickie White says. "And if you speak Spanish and not much English, they love you." White is sitting at a table in a Denny's restaurant in Florida City, drinking a cherry Coke. While she talks about her days working for John Svadbik, tourists headed for the Keys amble through the front door, blinking as they make the transition from the bright sunshine outside.
"The cars are misrepresented to the buyer," she continues. "These are 'blue-light specials' that John picks up at public auction, yet we tell [customers] the cars are in good condition, that they run great. We'd say they get [maintenance] when they don't -- [some] of them can't even legally pass the emissions test. If a potential customer notices something wrong with the car, he might make the sale conditional by saying something like, 'If you fix this, then I'll buy it.' We'd always agree and promise to fix it. But once he signs on the dotted line, we wouldn't fix a thing."
Casually, while sipping her soda, White confirms the worst fears of every used-car buyer. The National Independent Automobile Dealers Association brochure states it clearly: "One of the greatest challenges facing the used-car industry is overcoming an image of dishonesty. Often a customer will come on to the lot primed to do mental battle with the salesperson because he believes the salesperson is trying to hide something that is wrong with the car or will charge him too much for the vehicle."
That's exactly what happens, White says, adding that the sales process at Coconut Palm and South Florida Auto Sales is designed to overwhelm. "We speed them through," she explains. "We allow no more than fifteen minutes to read the contract and sign it, knowing full well that most of them aren't good readers. We tell them to sign here, here, and here. In the process we add on extra costs for insurance, which [Svadbik] isn't even licensed to sell." (Svadbik's attorney Steven Hyatt acknowledges that neither Svadbik nor his companies are licensed to sell insurance but says that Svadbik "works through a licensed agent." Customer Elisa Williams, who has bought one car from Svadbik and is paying on another, says she bought insurance for both vehicles directly from a Svadbik salesman, not through an agent.)
"By the time we're done," White continues, "a car that sold for a base of $2000 can almost double in price. And John is charging 30 percent interest on everything."
Former customer Gloria Fox breezed through her used-car purchase. "They were very, very receptive," she says of the Coconut Palm sales team. "They don't give you any hassles. They sell you a car within 30 minutes."