ROCK HILL — Twelve people have been charged in a car fraud scheme that cheated hundreds of customers and some investors in a Rock Hill auto sales business out of at least $500,000, according to police.
A joint investigation by Rock Hill Police, the State Law Enforcement Division and the state Department of Motor Vehicles ended Monday when authorities filed charges and signed 45 warrants for people associated with Big As Auto Sales on Cherry Road, police said.
By Tuesday evening, nine people, including the dealerships owner, Anthony Gerard Neely, 46, and Bernard Gaston who police say was the conspiracys ringleader had been arrested.
According to police, Gaston, 46, who ran the business, bought cars at auctions and then signed the titles over to his wife, Mia Gaston; friends; family members and some dealership employees.
They then went to a title loan company and obtained a title loan on the car. They gave the money to Gaston, believing he would in turn pay off the title loan.
The cars were returned to the lot and sold. Customers did not know they were buying cars that already had title loans on them, Rock Hill Police Lt. Brad Redfearn said.
If Gaston didnt finish paying off a title loan, the loan would default and the lender repossessed the car, police said.
Many customers never received their title after paying for their vehicles, and could never get license tags because the cars were registered to another owner. Car buyers who financed their cars through a bank or finance company were also left with making those payments.
Police started their investigation last May after officers stopped a woman for driving without a license tag. She said she was working with Big As to get the tag once the title was mailed.
One of the customers was Omega Morris, a 26-year-old Chester County woman who last August paid Gaston $3,900 for a Mercedes she bought for her nephew before he went to college.
After paying for the car, Morris said she waited for Gaston to mail her the title. It never came.
Each time she asked Gaston about it, it was always something, she said, and he and his wife would promise that the title was on the way.
In the meantime, Morris was approved to buy another car and asked Gaston to help her find another Mercedes. He claimed he found one that was $28,000.
Morris said she gave Gaston a $6,000 down payment and then financed the remaining $22,000.
That was in January. By Tuesday, she still hadnt gotten the car or her money back.
Morris, who said she works hard and financially supports her nephew, planned to buy a house this year. Those plans might have come to an end now that she has a $22,000 auto loan clogging her credit.
For Nakea Land, who said she lost $15,000 after a car she purchased from Gaston was repossessed, the arrest leaves her feeling vindicated.
But at the end of the day, I still want my money back, she said.
So does Charlottes Christina Thompson.
Last July, based off a friends recommendation, Thompson went to Gaston to see if he could find a BMW for her. Gaston told her he would need $1,500 before he even started looking.
Desperate for travel to and from work, Thompson gave him the money. From there, he gave me the run-around, she said.
Months passed and Thompson was still without a car. To pacify her, Gaston let her drive his personal car. He was such a manipulator, she said.
By November, he sold Thompson a 2002 BMW with 100,000 miles.
Thompson paid a total of $4,000 for the car, bereft of a title or a tag.
By January, she still didnt have her title or tags. She went to the DMV and learned that Gaston had reported that the tags registered with that car were stolen.
She contacted the DMV in both North and South Carolina and realized the car was never registered to her, but to someone else.
Bernard Gaston has been charged with disposal of property under lien, which carries up to three years in prison, and permitting the misuse of certificate of title, a misdemeanor carrying up to a year in prison, Lt. Redfearn said. On Tuesday evening, he was being held at the Rock Hill jail on a $30,000 bond.
Hes also been charged with two counts of obtaining goods under false pretenses in connection with Morris incident, Redfearn said. The charge is a felony carrying a maximum 10-year prison sentence.
Mia Gaston, 47, faces 16 charges total, including nine counts of disposal of property under lien and seven counts of permitting misuse of certificate of title. She was charged by both Rock Hill police and SLED.
She was being held Tuesday evening at the York County Detention Center on a $61,000 bond.
Neely is charged with disposal of property under lien and permitting misuse of certificate of title. He was released from jail Tuesday on $5,000 bond.
Also arrested and charged, by SLED, are: Willie Gaston, Bernard Gastons brother, charged with forging or counterfeiting certificate of title and breach of trust, released Monday on $8,000 bond; Sadie Gaston, Bernard Gastons mother, charged with breach of trust and altering, forging or counterfeiting certificate of title, released on $8,000 bond; Dontay Clifton, charged with obtaining property under false pretenses;
Also, Tenevia Morris, 30, charged with: breach of trust with fraudulent intent; giving false information, and altering/forging certificate of title; and Angela Smith, charged with two counts of altering, forging a or counterfeiting certificate of title and two counts of breach of trust, released on $8,000 bond.
Morris was being held at the York County Detention Center.
Rock Hill police also arrested Carlos Easter, a former employee at Big As, on a charge of obtaining goods under false pretenses. Easter has been released on a $5,000 bond.
SLED obtained 30 of the warrants and Rock Hill Police obtained 15. Rock Hill Police still have warrants pending for two others, one of whom will also be charged by SLED. SLED also has warrants pending for one more person.
SLED officials were unavailable for comment.
Big As dealers license was voluntarily handed over, police said, and the business was closed.
Police suspect that the number of people victimized in the conspiracy might number in the thousands and spanning several years.
Redfearn said several residents also invested in Big As, expecting to receive dividend payments. One man invested $100,000 in the dealership, while another put in more than $60,000.
Theyll never get their money, he said.