ROCK HILL — The Rock Hill businessman police say acted as the ringleader of a car fraud that cheated customers and investors out of thousands of dollars once avoided jail time although a police investigation showed he victimized four people in a similar scheme nearly a decade ago.
In 2006, Bernard Gaston pleaded guilty to three counts of the willful sale of property under lien, a misdemeanor carrying a maximum three-year prison sentence and $5,000 fine. He was sentenced to five years probation.
The charges stem from incidents in 2003 and 2005, when four people claimed Gaston sold them cars that already had liens on them, according to court documents.
Now, Gaston, whose criminal history shows a trail of several arrests but few convictions, faces several years in prison. He is accused of concocting a scheme that has possibly carried on for years and included thousands of people.
Police on Monday arrested Gaston, 46, along with his wife, Mia Gaston, 47, members of his family and several of his associates after authorities say they concocted a yearslong con that sold cars already in their names to the general public.
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, now closed a year-and-a-half after its 2011 opening.
Between Monday and Tuesday, Rock Hill Police and SLED charged 12 people and arrested nine in connection with the fraud case that produced 45 warrants.
By Wednesday evening, warrants were still outstanding for three people, although SLED spokesman Thom Berry said the investigation is ongoing and more arrests and charges are expected.
According to police, Gaston, 46, who ran the business, bought cars at auctions and then signed the titles over to his wife, friends, family members and some dealership employees. He instructed them to get a title loan on a car from a title loan company.
They gave the money to Gaston, who said he would in turn pay off the loan. The cars were then returned to Big As lot and sold to customers who didnt know they were buying cars that already had title loans on them. If Gaston didnt finish paying off a title loan, the loan would default and the lender repossessed the car, police said.
The loans prevented car buyers from getting license tags because the vehicles were registered to another owner.
Court records show that in 2005, SLED built a case against Gaston, alleging he sold cars with liens on them to four unsuspecting customers while running a Saluda Street dealership.
The first victim was a Rock Hill woman who paid Gaston more than $24,000 for a 2000 four-door Lexus in November 2003 didnt know the car had a lien on it with Omni Financial.
Four days later, a Chester man paid Gaston $16,000 for a 1999 Ford Expedition that had a lien with Founders Federal Credit Union. A month later, Gaston allegedly sold a 1998 Toyota to a Rock Hill woman for nearly $14,000. The car, documents say, already had a lien with Bank of America.
Two years later, a Winston-Salem, N.C., man reported to police that Gaston sold him a 2001 Cadillac Escalade for $7,000 without disclosing that it had a lien with Founders Federal Credit Union. That charge was dismissed during plea negotiations between Gastons defense lawyer and prosecutors, court records show.
Gaston pleaded guilty to the charges and began serving his probation in 2006. In 2008, he violated probation, court records show, when he was charged with breach of trust with fraudulent intent. According to an arrest warrant, he took a 2006 Chevrolet Impala worth $5,500 from a Rock Hill dealership for a test drive and never returned it.
A year later, he was sentenced to four years probation that ran concurrently with his existing probationary sentence, and paid the dealership $800 in restitution.
Last year, probation officials arrested Gaston in Chester County when he stopped reporting to his probation officer, said Pete OBoyle with S.C. Probation, Pardon and Parole.
We cant put them back in prison for a probation violation, OBoyle said, Thats up to a judge, who terminated the case.
SLED records show Gastons criminal history spans to 1989, when police charged him with assault and battery and trespassing. He spent 30 days in jail on the assault charge, but was found not guilty for trespassing. In 1992, he paid $97 for trespassing and four years later paid $152 for public disorderly conduct.
In 2004, Gaston registered Team 1 Auto Sales on Saluda Street as a business with the city, said city spokeswoman Katie Quinn.
Two years later, Carrie Crawford-Washington invested $12,000 in Gastons business, said her sister, Margaret Crawford-Parson.
Bernard and Mia Gaston both promised to give Crawford-Washington her money back in monthly installments before shed receive her dividend payments. She received about $400 over four months, and that was it, Crawford-Parson said.
When her sister would ask about the missing funds, there was always an excuse, Crawford-Parson said. She trusted (Bernard). She knew him.
Crawford-Washington, 61, died of cancer last year.
The family had known Gaston for years. Crawford-Parsons daughter dated him for two years while they were students at Northwestern High School.
Hes a likable person ... he and Mia, Crawford-Parson admitted. Im just sad for them. I really am. I just hate it for them. I hate what they did; I dont hate them.
Police started their investigation into Big As Auto Sales last May after officers stopped a woman for driving without a license tag. She said she was working with the dealership to get the tag once the title was mailed.
On Monday, police charged Big As owner, Anthony Neely, with disposal of property under lien and permitting misuse of certificate of title in connection with the scheme. Neely told The Herald on Wednesday he didnt know Gaston and his associates were committing fraud.
I never signed a title loan in my life, Neely said, adding that he voluntarily surrendered his dealers license after his arrest. I dont believe in taking from people what they earned.
Neely and Gaston grew up together, he said. The two had been friends forever. He agreed to go into business with Gaston, knowing full well the details of his friends past, but he hoped Gaston had changed.
I wouldve never gone into a business knowing that he would do the same things of old, he said.
Neely said he was arrested because Gaston asked him to sign the bill of sale for a car the dealership sold to a woman. He didnt think to sift through the paperwork or ask many questions, he said, and didnt realize the car already had a lien.
Gaston, released from jail Wednesday on a $40,500 bond, has been charged with disposal of property under lien, permitting the misuse of certificate of title, two counts of obtaining goods under false pretenses, two counts of permitting the misuse of a title, criminal conspiracy and failure to deliver certificate of title.
Mia Gaston, who left jail Wednesday on a $61,000 bond, faces 16 charges total, including nine counts of disposal of property under lien and seven counts of permitting misuse of certificate of title.
Also arrested and charged, by SLED:
• 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, released Tuesday on $3,000 bond;
• Tenevia Morris, 30, charged with breach of trust with fraudulent intent; giving false information, and altering/forging certificate of title, released on $8,000 bond;
• Angela Smith, charged with two counts of altering, forging a counterfeiting certificate of title and two counts of breach of trust, released on $8,000 bond, and
• Carlos Easter, a former employee at Big As, charged with obtaining goods under false pretenses and released Tuesday on a $5,000 bond.
Sadie Gaston declined to comment when reached by The Herald on Wednesday.