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‘Ringleader’ of car fraud scheme in Rock Hill pleads guilty

By Jonathan McFadden
jmcfadden@heraldonline.com

YORK, S.C. Bernard Gaston has spent 137 days in a jail cell thinking about the costly mistakes he’s made this year, he said in a York, S.C., courtroom on Monday.

A judge decided that he’ll have five years in prison and five more on probation to pay for them.

The price tag: Nearly $54,000 in restitution he owes to victims – customers, title loan companies and banks – whom police say he cheated out of thousands of dollars when he, members of his family and several associates concocted a potentially yearslong car-selling scheme at Big A’s Auto Sales on Cherry Road.

In March, police arrested and filed 13 charges against Gaston, 47, that included allegations that he obtained goods under false pretenses, permitted the misuse of a title, failed to deliver certificate of titles and disposed of property under lien. On Monday, Gaston, who police called the “ringleader” of the plot, pleaded guilty to six of those charges while the others were dismissed as part of his plea deal.

According to police, Gaston, his wife and the others involved purchased cars at auction. The vehicles’ titles were then used to obtain loans from auto title lenders. Money from the loans was turned over to Gaston, manager of the dealership, while the titles were signed in the names of his associates. The cars were then placed on Big A’s lot and sold to customers, who didn’t realize they were buying cars that already had titles on them, investigators said. This prevented car buyers from ever receiving their car tags or titles because the vehicles were registered to other owners.

Many of the original title loans weren’t paid off, police say, which meant the loans would default and the lender would repossess the car. Car buyers who financed their cars through a bank or finance company were left with making those payments even after repossession.

Police started their investigation into Big A’s in May 2012 after stopping a woman without a title or tag who said she was working with the dealership to get both.

Authorities spent months sifting through paperwork and contacting victims, S.C. Rock Hill Police Detective Mike Chavis told Circuit Court Judge Donald Hocker.

The joint investigation between Rock Hill Police, the State Law Enforcement Division and the state Department of Motor Vehicles, produced 56 warrants for 31 victims. At least 19 of those victims bought cars from Gaston and ran into some trouble because they did not have titles or tags. The others were title loan companies and financial institutions from where Gaston and his cohorts borrowed money without paying it back.

“Those warrants don’t reflect” all the allegations lodged against Gaston and his associates since police started their investigation, said John Mark Shiflet, the assistant York County solicitor who prosecuted Gaston and will prosecute the 11 remaining co-defendants. “At some point, police stopped taking out warrants.”

Gaston, his wife, Mia Gaston, and 10 others, including Big A’s owner, Anthony Neely, all were charged in the span of a week. Mia Gaston faces the most charges because she handled a bulk of the paperwork, Shiflet said. Neely has told The (Rock Hill) Herald that he knew nothing of the scheme and worked with law enforcement by providing them with business files and documents.

Gaston was released on bond two days after his arrest, but he was soon again behind bars when prosecutors learned he violated bond conditions. Those conditions prohibited him from leaving the state, making contact with any of his victims or selling any cars. Shiflet said Gaston went to North Carolina and accepted $1,000 from one of his victims on the promise that he would be able to pay to have her title released.

The case, Shiflet said, “has affected a large percentage of our county … a lot of money is involved, a lot of people.”

Alleged victims continue to call police because they are still unable to obtain their titles or tags, Chavis said. They’re still being stopped and ticketed, and lending companies are still repossessing their cars. Several people are “out of all their money and their car.”

Shiflet recommended that Gaston spend the next seven years in prison. But the businessman’s attorney, Rock Hill lawyer Michael Matthews, argued that his client should receive less time so he would have the opportunity to return to work and pay restitution to victims.

Since charges were filed, Big A’s has worked through a bonding company to pay $33,000 back to the title companies considered victims in the case, Matthews said, adding that some victims have been able to obtain their registrations and titles.

Gaston, who once owned Gaston’s Autos and Team 1 Autos on Saluda Street in Rock Hill, S.C., became overwhelmed as he took out titles on cars and tried to repay them, Matthews said. It became “too much to handle” and “rolled into a ball.”

“My client understands that he’ll never be able to work in this business again,” he said, but “his plan is to take responsibility for the entire debt.”

“I apologize for the mistakes I’ve made … and any pain I’ve caused my customers or lenders,” Gaston said reading from a letter. “My intent was not to take anything from anyone.”

Gaston, father to a son and daughter, said during his time in jail, he’s mulled over his life and his mistakes. Now, he said he will “think twice” and pray to God for guidance before making any decision.

“My son and daughter need me at home,” he said, fighting tears. “I miss them.”

After taking a short break to consider the sentence, Judge Hocker returned his ruling.

“I appreciate everybody’s hard work … on this case – a case you created,” he said to Gaston before lamenting the case’s “competing interests” because Gaston needed to be punished, but the victims also need to get their money refunded in a “timely fashion.”

He sentenced Gaston to five years in prison followed by five years of probation, during which he must pay back $53,444 in restitution to victims. If he fails, he will have to serve 15 years in prison.

Cases against the 11 others are pending. Shiflet said he hopes to have them resolved as soon as possible.

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