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The two men took turns waling on Jeffrey Worstell. A gold chain danced against the skinny one's white tank top as he beat the 29-year-old mechanic senseless with a nickel-plated .357 Smith & Wesson. When the skinny guy needed a breather, his partner — a hefty six-foot man in a sloppy white shirt and jeans — added some shots with an aluminum bat.
They traded weapons, attacked, and traded again. Worstell, bruised and bloody, crumpled in the grass on the side of the road in Boca Raton. The skinny guy pressed the gun to Worstell's head, motioning him toward the popped trunk of a green 1995 Infinity J30. Worstell grappled with his attacker. Then a pain exploded on the right side of his head.
Blinking awake from unconsciousness minutes later, Worstell realized he was locked in the trunk of a moving car. A Miley Cyrus song leaked in from nearby traffic. As the Atlanta-based mechanic would later tell police, all he could do was pound against the inside of the trunk, desperate that an outsider might hear.
The June 2011 assault would initially be characterized as a random act of violence against an out-of-towner. But the incident turned out to be just one thread in a scheme much larger and more sordid.
Worstell would be tied to a web of sketchy auto dealers who dealt in used and sometimes stolen luxury cars and bounced between South Florida and Atlanta. Currently, the entire crew is being investigated by the Secret Service, and one of them is awaiting trial for murdering a rapper. The whole tale is proof positive of a Florida maxim: Colorful hustlers from elsewhere inevitably drip down south.
Mani Chulpayev arrived in New York City from Russia in 1989 at age 12. The family settled in Queens, where his father owned food carts. The younger Chulpayev ducked straight work, instead forming an extortion crew with six fellow countrymen. They squeezed $500 weekly tributes from small-store owners, keeping business coming with threats of violence and arson. Chulpayev also worked Medicaid fraud schemes and pimped out prostitutes.
By 1998, he was indicted on a host of charges, including arson, interference of commerce through threat of violence, and racketeering. He rolled. Conversations recorded on a wire he wore helped the government stop Russian crews from organizing into an Italian Mafia-style collective across the Northeast. For four years, the stocky and hard-faced Chulpayev climbed witness stands, eventually helping convict a dozen former associates. In 2002, the New York Times dubbed him "one of the most important cooperating witnesses in the history of the government's battle against Russian organized crime." His cooperation cut his potential life sentence down to just four years.
By the mid-2000s, Chulpayev had served his time and relocated to Atlanta, where he sold luxury cars such as Escalades and Hummers. But in 2005, he was busted, with four others, by federal agents. The group's business had hinged on acquiring stolen cars, altering the VIN numbers, and matching them with counterfeit titles from Wisconsin and Ohio in order to resell the stolen goods.
Facing up to six years in prison, Chulpayev again cooperated with authorities. He turned over other members of his car ring and helped police in a South Carolina murder-for-hire case. This time, his service earned Chulpayev a two-and-a-half-year sentence. He returned to the Atlanta luxury car business upon his release.
It's not clear how they met, but by the summer of 2011, Chulpayev had become acquainted with Lyle Livesay, a boyish-looking 23-year-old with a honey-smooth Southern drawl. The younger man also bought and sold used luxury vehicles like Hummers and Lamborghinis through a business variously called Global Assets Consolidation, GACMotorInc, and Exotics Today, based in the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody. Mechanic Jeffrey Worstell began working on Livesay's fleet that same year.
Worstell claims he had limited knowledge about GAC's business and doesn't know exactly what Livesay and Chulpayev's roles were. "My workings with them strictly involved mechanics," he says. "I don't know what they were doing. It's weird because they come off as very well-spoken and nice."
Livesay, like Chulpayev, had some stains on his reputation. An Atlanta hip-hopper named Diamond had inked a deal with GAC for a yellow Camaro in early 2011. The lady rapper was shocked when the car was repossessed a week after she'd made a $15,000 payment. A video of the tow made it onto WorldStarHipHop.com, seriously denting Diamond's baller cred. When she confronted Livesay on video to clear her reputation, he said it was all a misunderstanding. The rapper signed a new deal with GAC for a red Camaro. But after Diamond made $5,800 in payments, the Camaro was also repossessed.
Diamond, now thoroughly pissed off, went to an Atlanta TV station with her story. The station investigated and found that Livesay's company claimed to get its inventory from car owners who couldn't shoulder their payments. GAC would theoretically act as a middleman, guaranteeing the car payments, then renting out the cars to third parties. But instead of giving its customers a standard lease, GAC had customers sign what it called "closed end use agreements." Apparently, payments never got to the institutions that held the notes on these cars, and they would move to repossess, leaving the third-party renter with no legal recourse. According to an Atlanta 11Alive television report, police had received 50 complaints about Livesay's business, and an investigation was opened by the Dunwoody Police Department. According to the department's Officer Tim Feck, that investigation was eventually handed over to the Secret Service, which is tasked with investigating certain financial crimes. The TV station reported that Livesay was also being investigated by the FBI regarding an online electronics company he'd run.
At some point, the men began delivering cars to customers in Florida. In June 2011, Worstell and Livesay headed south with a small fleet of luxury rides — a Bentley Continental, a Lamborghini Murciélago, a Maserati Quattroporte.
Donovan Stephens, then a 21-year-old from Hollywood who worked for a shipping company, responded to a Craigslist ad for a black 2009 Dodge Challenger. After meeting with Livesay, Worstell, and a third GAC associate, Stephens put a $4,900 down payment on the car for a lease and worked out a payment plan, he would later claim in court. A few days later, Stephens walked out of Cheetah strip club in West Palm Beach to find that the Challenger was gone — repossessed.
Feeling he'd been scammed, he devised a plan to lure Worstell and get his revenge. He called the mechanic and told him he had a friend who was interested in buying another car. Worstell met the friend in the parking lot of a Coconut Creek Walmart and rode shotgun as the potential customer test-drove a Chevy Silverado. The driver eventually steered to a quiet part of Boca Raton, where Stephens and another of his friends were waiting, .357 Smith & Wesson and aluminum bat in hand.
After Worstell banged on the inside of the trunk, he was moved to the front seat. From there, while the car idled at a gas station and his attackers held him at gunpoint, Worstell made a break for it, opening the passenger door and running for help. When authorities arrived and quizzed him, he explained that he'd been set up by a man with whom he'd talked earlier in the week about buying a 2009 Dodge. Police tracked down Stephens and charged him with false imprisonment, carjacking with a firearm, and felony battery. No other assailants were caught.
Despite the violent episode, the car dealers continued to do business in South Florida. Company records show that in 2012, a "Mani Chilpayen" was listed as a manager of Luxury Lineup LLC, a dealership located in an industrial park in Dania Beach. Livesay's name appears in the corporate filings for a company called Imperium Holdings LLC, the address of which leads to a UPS store in Fort Lauderdale. Three names — Paul Carruth, Kimberly Reiss, and Saleh Nayab — all appear in the paper trail for both companies.
A neighbor from a nearby mechanic shop witnessed Ferraris and Rolls-Royces going in and out of Luxury Lineup's lot. Chulpayev was "the nicest guy ever," the neighbor tells New Times. "[Livesay] was here, but he didn't like it so much here. But he used the cars."
The business might have continued to this day, except that last April, the Broward Sheriff Office's SWAT team swarmed the industrial park, acting on a warrant from Georgia. According to Fulton County prosecutors, Chulpayev was involved in the June 2012 murder of Houston rapper Lil Phat outside the Atlanta hospital where the musician's son had just been born. Two days prior to being shot, the 19-year-old recording artist had reported to police that Chulpayev had leased him a stolen BMW. The Russian has said that he is innocent and that he was working with the FBI to help expose others involved in the murder plot.
After the raid, Luxury Lineup emptied out of the Dania Beach location. Neighbors say only the occasional skiptracer shows up at the address.
Livesay, who did not reply to a request for comment made through his attorney, appears to still be operating in South Florida. Last February, his name was listed in the filing documents for another company, Oceans92, whose listed address also leads to a UPS store in Hallandale Beach. He pleaded guilty in October and received probation on five charges in Georgia, including theft by taking, identity fraud, and forgery, although it's unclear what incident triggered those charges. In November, he was subpoenaed at a Boca Raton address to testify in the trial of Donovan Stephens.
In court, Livesay denied he had ever met Stephens, said he had no record of any car transaction, and had never repossessed any car.
When Worstell took the stand, he completely changed the story he'd originally told police, now denying he'd ever met Stephens before the attack. Worstell now tells New Times, "[Livesay] might have done some business with [Stephens]. I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Stephens' attorney, John Klein, says that's B.S. "[Stephens] was absolutely scammed," Klein says. "This was done by persons that were engaged in criminal activity. Really all of them had a reason to lie and cover their own tracks." It doesn't justify Stephens' beating of Worstell, Klein admits, but the beating wasn't random. The jury believed Stephens, and instead of life in prison, Klein says, "he got three years."
Worstell is now a mechanic at a Ferrari dealership in Atlanta. He has never been charged with any crime related to GAC's business, but the Atlanta office of the Secret Service tells New Times the mechanic, Livesay, and Chulpayev are all currently "part of an open investigation."