Rock Hill car seller connected with Big A's fraud named in 3 lawsuits

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comMay 11, 2013 

Lawsuits filed against a Rock Hill businessman allege he agreed to buy cars for three people – one of them a disabled man – but never delivered the vehicles even after receiving down payments.

Anthony Aldridge, 45, of Rock Hill; Juanita Long, 43, of Summerville and Charlotte’s Dennis James Strong all filed suits against Bernard Gaston, 47, earlier this year.

One of those suits was filed the same morning Rock Hill Police and the State Law Enforcement Division arrested and charged Gaston and 11 other people in connection with a series of sales at Big A’s Auto Sales on Cherry Road.

According to police, Bernard Gaston, some of his relatives and several associates 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, police say, 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 been used to obtain title loans, police say. This prevented car buyers from 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 repossessed the car. Car buyers who financed their cars through a bank or finance company were also left with making those payments.

Among the charges filed against Gaston and the other 11 were several misdemeanors and felonies, including willful sale of property under lien; obtaining property under false pretenses; permitting misuse of certificate of title; criminal conspiracy; and failure to deliver certificate of title to highway department.

Police started their investigation last May after officers stopped a woman for driving without a license tag. She said she was working with Big A’s to get the tag once the title was mailed. A subsequent investigation led to charges involving at least 25 alleged victims.

Bernard Gaston and his lawyer, Rock Hill attorney Michael Matthews, declined to comment for this story. Big A’s owner, Anthony Neely, has told The Herald he was unaware of the fraud, and assisted police with their investigation.

Neely, one of the 12 charged in the case, is accused of disposal of property under lien and permitting misuse of certificate of title.

“The dealership was either very sloppy or very stupid,” said Sue Berkowitz, director for the S.C. Appleseed Justice Center, a legal firm advocating for low-income South Carolinians, helping them with housing, education and consumer affairs.

Berkowitz, after hearing details of the case, said she was unaware of any similar accusations in the state.

She questioned if regulators paid attention to Gaston’s dealings.

“There’s something terribly wrong with regulators that it took a random stop to get that started,” she said. “There should be checks and balances at all times. There’s a lot that probably could have been done if we had stronger regulators and stronger laws.”

Anthony Aldridge

Since police charged Gaston and the 11 others, several people have called Rock Hill Police with stories about Big A’s and similar car schemes.

But Anthony Aldridge, who says he became disabled after a work-related accident, took his story to civil court. On April 1 he filed a lawsuit alleging that Gaston was arrested the same day he was supposed to pick up a Dodge Charger that Aldridge had purchased.

Both Aldridge and his fiancée saved up money so he could buy a car, he said.

Aldridge wrote in his complaint that he gave Gaston $6,000 to pick up the car at auction. It never happened, even after Gaston’s release from jail on a $40,000 bond.

Phone calls have gone unanswered, Aldridge said, or he’s been told the money will come but it never does. Now, he’s requesting that $6,000 back.

According to his complaint, he and Bernard Gaston both found a car on the Internet and took pictures of it. The 2006 Dodge Charger with leather seats was at a lot at the Manheim Fort Lauderdale auto auction in Davie, a small town in Broward County, Fla., according to information in the suit from OVE.com, an online car exchange website.

According to the listed bid, the seller auctioned the vehicle “as is,” equipped with an eight-cylinder engine, power steering, and cruise control. The car also had 160,000 miles on it.

Police have closed the criminal investigation into Big A’s, said Rock Hill Police Executive Officer Mark Bollinger. Although complaints are still coming in, most of the case files have been turned over to the York County Solicitor’s Office for prosecution.

Victims are now referred to civil court since they’re seeking financial restitution, he said.

Dennis James Strong

Dennis James Strong was one of them.

On Jan. 7, he filed a report with Rock Hill Police accusing Gaston of breach of contract. A detective referred him to civil court, where Strong, a Charlotte resident, filed suit on March 11 – the day Gaston and 11 others were arrested and Big A’s shut down.

In the suit, Strong said he signed a contract with Gaston in December 2011 and gave the dealer $2,000 to purchase a silver 2002 Honda Accord from auction.

Gaston has been “unable or unwilling” to purchase the car, Strong writes in his complaint.

“He kept putting me off,” he told The Herald.

After more than a year, Strong cancelled the contract —the second version of an agreement he and Gaston signed after Strong determined the first version was “too vague” and favored the dealer more— and requested a refund.

But his attempts to reach Gaston, who will “not refund my money,” were unsuccessful, he notes in his complaint.

Juanita Long

Juanita Long’s complaint is simple, and her request clear: She didn’t get her car, and she wants her money back.

In her lawsuit, filed on Feb. 20, Long, manager of an apartment complex in Goose Creek, claims that she made a deposit into Gaston’s checking account to purchase a 2001 Volvo Convertible. She entrusted Gaston with making the purchase for her.

But, “Bernard did not make the purchase,” Long states in her complaint, “nor has he returned my money.”

Long said Gaston told her the car didn’t pass inspection.

According to information about the car included in the lawsuit, the car’s interior and exterior were not damaged. The car had 91,000 miles on it and should have been picked up from ABC Orlando, a car auction in Orlando, Fla.

Long told The Herald she called the dealership and learned that Gaston never placed a bid. Employees with ABC Orlando would not say whether Gaston had placed a bid, telling The Herald they could not release dealer information.

Long said she’s known the Gaston family for at least 10 years. Though she already had an SUV and another personal vehicle, she was on the hunt for a convertible. She turned to Gaston for help.

He showed her a car on OVE.com, according to the suit, and said he would place a bid and pick it up. But first, he asked her to put money in a Wells Fargo bank account, Long said.

When Long called Gaston to check on her car while he was “supposedly in Florida,” he told her it never passed inspection. She asked when she’d get her money back, and he told her “today,” Long told The Herald.

“Today never came,” she said. “He just kept on telling me, ‘I’m going to give you your money, I’m going to give you your money.’”

Repeated calls to and attempts to meet with Gaston failed.

“I finally got tired of calling,” she said.

In her suit, she’s requesting a judgment for more than $2,100, which includes the $1,500 she deposited into Gaston’s account and the $80 fee she paid to file papers.

She learned the lawsuit was never served because constables were unable to find Gaston, court officials said. The legal documents can still be served if Long pays $10 and provides the clerk’s office with a new address for the Gastons.

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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