A stolen deposit to a car salesman turned into a multi-state manhunt and an investigation by state motor vehicle officials.
Maria Papathanasiou of New London said her daughter needed a car, so she shopped around.
"We were looking for about a month, month and a half," she told the I-Team.
She said they finally found a silver Saturn at Johnny's Auto Sales in New London.
Papathanasiou said her daughter was friendly with the sons of salesman Frank Hewitt.
"He was really nice," she said. "He told me 'I found a nice car for your daughter.'"
She said she put down a $1,500 deposit in early March.
"He said the bank said everything got approved, then he said he had to register it, then he had to fix some things," Papathanasiou said.
However, excuse after excuse was made and she still didn't have the car.
Papathanasiou said that's when she asked for her deposit back
"Then he said 'come down Saturday,' but he said he didn't have it," she said.
She contacted the I-Team.
It went to Johnny's Auto Sales in downtown New London and found that Hewitt wasn't there. The business told the I-Team that he was in court.
A week later, the I-Team's cameras were there as a judge ordered Hewitt's arrest for failing to turn himself in to face larceny charges in Somerset County, ME.
The manhunt was a short one.
Hewitt was taking into custody just hours later near his home in Uncasville.
Officials said he wasn't just facing charges from Maine. He was served with warrants by Department of Motor Vehicle inspectors related to cases of breaking laws while selling cars to other customers.
"We have received two recent complaints about Johnny's Auto and it does involve the sale of two different vehicles to two different people and they did not receive titles to the vehicles after paying the dealership for them," said Lt. Christopher Smith, DMV.
Beyond the charges against Hewitt, the owner of Johnny's Auto was ordered to a DMV hearing where the dealership could be sanctioned. Inspectors are checking out Papathanasiou's recently filed complaint as well.
The I-Team asked Smith to elaborate on deposits.
He showed a stack of papers customers should demand before putting down a deposit for a vehicle. Usually in those forms it says deposits are non-refundable.
"It'll say right on the form that it's not refundable," Smith said. "But then on the other hand the car should be delivered to the customer."
In this case, however, no car was delivered. The DMV said it will try to get Papathanasiou's money back.
The case raises red flags for Smith since her case was the third recent issue the DMV said it heard about involving Hewitt and Johnny's Auto.
"So that indicates a financial issue that we want to take a closer look at and make sure that they have the financial ability to protect the customer and if they don't, we would have them come in for a hearing and we'd address it in that manner," Smith said.
Smith said he was doing that with Johnny's Auto.
Papathanasiou said she hopes the DMV will get her money back.
She said she ended up scraping together enough to buy her devastated daughter a different car. Still, the theft stings because they chose someone they knew.
"Well if he's not giving it back, yeah, he stole my money. [He] took advantage of us," Papathanasiou said.
Monday, the I-Team heard from another angry Johnny's Auto customer who said a car was bought that needs costly repairs.
The I-Team asked Smith to offer some advice for people shopping for new and used vehicles.
"Check our website to make sure this business is licensed by us, have the car inspected by a mechanic you trust to make sure it's in safe condition," Smith said. "If you're going to give a deposit on the vehicle and sign paperwork that you're aware, that deposit is non-refundable, and if something makes you uncomfortable with the salesman or the dealership, they don't want you to get it inspected, get up and walk away. This could be a lot of money, $10-20,000 you're on the hook for, so if you're not comfortable with the situation, go elsewhere and find another place. If ultimately you do make the purchase but feel there's something wrong with the sale the purchase, go right on our website. There's a form right on the page there, send it to us, we get on them pretty quick and we'll find out what happened."
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