Buyer Beware

That's a motto you might want to keep in mind next time you go shopping for a used car

Most likely Joseph shouldn't have had any balance to pay off, or at least not much of one. Just one month after the Tercel was supposedly junked, Svadbik's own records show he sold it again, this time to Asuncion Martinez of Miami. The sale price is not known, but Martinez's starting balance was nearly $2000. Svadbik's records indicate the sale price was not credited to Joseph's account as required by law.

Martinez returned the car to Svadbik 30 days after he bought it. According to Coconut Palm records, one month later Svadbik junked it a second time. Martinez's account was credited $100, not the approximately $1400 it should have been when Svadbik sold it a third time, in March 1992, to Joel Olvera. The car was repossessed from Olvera in August 1992. In September of that year, records show, it was junked yet again.

(How is a car officially junked? The word junk, or scrap, is written somewhere on the title and is sent to the motor vehicles department, where the car is reclassified as a junker. Most often the car is then issued a state salvage title, sold to a junkyard, and the customer's account is credited with the modest proceeds of the sale. A junked car can be sold again to a customer, but only after it has been completely rebuilt and retitled to specifically say so. New Times checked the vehicle identification numbers of every car mentioned in this article with the title division of the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. Not one of the vehicles has ever been registered as a junker, according to state records, and none of them holds a "rebuilt" title.)

When Vickie White came to Coconut Palm Auto Sales in March 1997, she thought she'd found a good job. She'd been working at another used-car lot on South Dixie Highway, a lot that shut down when its owner filed for bankruptcy. At Coconut Palm she was told she'd get more than 40 hours of work per week, more money per hour, and medical benefits.

Early in 1998, after White had been working at Coconut Palm for a year, Svadbik began repossessing the cars of Gloria Fox, Kelley Seaman, and others. White filled out most of the paperwork. As she pored over customer files in search of information, she says, she began to notice abnormalities. She had sold some of these people their cars, and yet she found in the files documents she knew the customers had never signed. The more files she examined, the more problems she discovered.

"The longer that I was there, the more I saw that the people who could least afford it were the ones getting hurt," she recalls. "They had two or three kids and no money and they would sometimes break down and cry in front of me. They'd already spent $700 on a car [from Svadbik] that didn't run and now their other car was being repossessed. It actually bothers you, believe it or not. It's heartbreaking.

"My intent," she adds, "was to get out of there with the evidence to where I could do something about it."

Over the next few months, ignoring the protests of friends who warned her that she could be in legal trouble, White began photocopying every suspicious document she could find. She stored her papers at a friend's house for safety purposes, though she can't explain why that made her feel secure. By October 1998 she thought she had accumulated enough information to blow the whistle on Svadbik and his operation.

"First I went to the State Attorney's Office," she says. "They sent me to the Miami-Dade Police Department in Cutler Ridge, where I was told someone would be in contact with me. Yet when I called the detective assigned to the case, her attitude was that she had so many other cases that she'd get around to it when she got to it."

Although she was ignored by the police, White wasn't alone in her crusade. For two years her father, Lee Payton, worked for Svadbik as a mechanic at the Perrine lot, South Florida Auto Sales. "I was looking for a job," Payton says of his decision to work for Svadbik, which preceded White's employment with the company. "I really didn't want to go to work there, but I don't speak Spanish and it was the only place I could find." Eventually his daughter persuaded him to quit. Both of them are currently unemployed. White is attempting to collect unemployment from Svadbik, who is "vigorously opposed to this attempt," according to attorney Hyatt.

To work on cars for Svadbik is to scrounge for parts, Payton explains. At the back of the South Florida lot, behind the garage where Payton worked, sits a herd of junked cars. Instead of buying new or even used parts for the cars he'd work on, Payton and the other mechanics would be ordered to look for a matching part on the skeletons rusting out back. The shop foreman, Payton recalls, was adroit at rigging anything. He could take parts that don't quite fit a car and make things work, at least temporarily.

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