YORK — For years, Mia Gaston styled hair in Rock Hill and volunteered in the community.
She got married, and more than a decade later the dutiful wife and churchgoer was charged in an elaborate car fraud scheme at Big As Auto Sales that authorities say bilked customers and investors out of thousands of dollars.
Police say her husband, Bernard Gaston, was the ringleader of the plot.
On Friday, Mia Gaston pleaded guilty to 10 misdemeanor charges, including six counts of disposal of property under lien, three counts of failure to deliver title and one count of permitting misuse of a title.
Thirteen other charges were dismissed as part of a plea deal, and Circuit Court Judge John Hayes III sentenced Gaston to 30 days in jail, which she will serve on weekends, and five years of probation. She also must pay $25,046 in restitution to victims.
According to police, Bernard Gaston, Mia Gaston and 10 others including family members and associates bought cars at auction and used their titles to obtain loans. Money from the loans was turned over to Bernard Gaston, manager of the dealership, while the titles were signed in the names of his associates.
The cars were then placed on Big As lot on Cherry Road and sold to customers, who didnt realize they were buying cars that already had liens against their titles, investigators said. That prevented car buyers from receiving their license plates and titles, because the vehicles were already registered to other owners.
Many of the original title loans werent paid off and went into default, police say, which meant the lender would repossess the car. But car buyers who financed their cars through a bank or finance company still had to make their payments.
Police started their investigation into Big As in May 2012 after an officer stopped a woman driving a car without a title or tag. She told police she was working with the dealership to get both.
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 Bernard Gaston and ran into some trouble because they did not have titles or tags. The others were title loan companies and financial institutions from which Bernard Gaston and others borrowed money and didnt pay it back.
Last month, Bernard Gaston pleaded guilty to six of the 13 charges against him. He was sentenced to five years in prison and five subsequent years of probation. He will have to pay nearly $54,000 in restitution or face an additional 15 years behind bars.
Mia Gaston, police said, received the most charges because she processed the paperwork for each illegal transaction.
She certainly wasnt at the level of Mr. Gaston in terms of culpability, said John Mark Shiflet, the assistant York County solicitor prosecuting all 12 co-defendants. But she was very much aware of what was going on.
He then recommended that she be jailed for 30 days, which she can serve on the weekends starting Jan. 10.
On Friday, Rock Hill defense attorney Phil Jamieson told Judge Hayes that Mia Gaston is deeply involved in her community and involved in her church.
She cooperated with police when they started their investigation, several months before she was charged, Jamieson said.
She has done the best she can to try to make amends, he said, by working with a bonding company to ensure that the victims who lost their money have been made whole again.
Mia Gaston stood before the judge, sobbing.
I didnt mean to cause harm to anyone, she said, and after several moments, she decided not say anything more.
Hayes read letters from several people advocating on Mia Gastons behalf.
Why you got caught in this...on the surface, I have an idea, Hayes said, adding that while her intention was not to cause harm, she did. Youre receiving a generous offer from the state as it is.
After sentencing, with her family at her side, Mia Gaston walked out of the courtroom. She declined to comment further.
Her husband had a lot of experience in the automobile business, Jamieson said. She was largely following the instruction of her husband. I dont think she understood the extent of what she was doing.
Editor's note: An earlier headline was incorrect. Mia Gaston will serve 30 days in jail.
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082