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.
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Schiefer was livid. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "I have the title to my car, I haven't received any money for it, it was listed as a stolen vehicle, and Patrick Sessions has it in his possession. He's driving it around, putting mileage on it, and decreasing the value. You would think they would at least impound it or something until this is settled."
To make matters worse, on January 3 Schiefer was notified that Sessions had filed a lawsuit demanding the title to the car, and including a July 12 purchase order that indicates Sessions bought the car for $12,000. (At the same time, Sessions left his 1988 Chevrolet Corvette to be sold.) Because Schiefer consigned the car to Autoputer, the lawsuit alleges, Sessions is now the rightful owner. "It's a shame because no one is at fault here," observes Sessions, who had done business with Autoputer before. "[Schiefer] authorized them to sell the car, and I bought it. Unfortunately between the time I paid the money and the time I was supposed to get the title, they went under. I had to do what I could to get it. I feel sorry for him, but I did what I was supposed to do and I think the law backs me up."
Schiefer's attorney, Mark Kamilar, says Florida case law dealing with consigned vehicles is not clear-cut. In some similar cases, the courts have found for the buyer. In others, they have found for the seller. "There is some legal precedent to suggest that people who acquire autos without checking the title do so at their own risk," Kamilar says. "But there is also some precedent showing that those who consign their vehicles stand the risk of having the vehicle sold without them receiving compensation. If this goes all the way through the courts, it will be a discussion about which of those two precedents wins out." Although he plans to fight the suit, Schiefer says he'd settle the case for part of the sale price of the car. "I don't know what Mr. Sessions's intentions are, but I would like to settle with him and the both of us go after the owner of Autoputer. That's the person who is really responsible here."
Regardless, Schiefer says he already has learned a valuable lesson. "What people should be aware of is, if you buy a car or a boat, you should definitely see the title or at least check to see if there are any problems. The other thing is that if you put anything up on consignment, there is a chance the person you leave it with can look legitimate but is actually just ripping you off. I just hope everybody who has a car on consignment goes and picks it up today and sells it themselves." Which is exactly what Sessions did with the Corvette he had put up for sale at Autoputer. Entirely by chance, he says, he decided to pick up his car - before the company went out of business.