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Friday, February 9, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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How drugs and greed tainted auto dealership

Seattle Times staff reporters

One day last July, a 59-year-old man showed up at Huling Brothers Auto Center showing all the signs of being an easy mark: He paid $30,000 cash for a pickup, talked of having tens of thousands more at home, and obviously was mentally ill.

By the next morning, a Huling Brothers manager, Adrian Gregory Dillard, and five underlings practically tripped over each other to be the first to steal the cash, some $70,000, from the man's apartment, according to police reports. Later, another salesman visited the man, who by then was in a hospital psychiatric ward, and swindled him out of his new truck, police said.

If what police and prosecutors say is true, how could such brazen behavior occur at a respected Seattle business?

Interviews, police reports and other public records point to a confluence of illegal drug use, lax supervision and a supercharged culture of commissioned sales that rewarded aggressive tactics.

Steve Huling, dealership co-owner at the time, suggested that the company is the victim of one bad apple -- Dillard.

Dillard, 32, seemed perfect for the company when he was hired last year for the $200,000-a-year job, said Huling and others. He was hired to beef up its "sub-prime" financing division so that Huling Brothers could sell more cars to people with bad or no credit. Around the same time, Huling began working on selling his West Seattle dealership, which he and his brother inherited from their father, to Gee Automotive Companies of Spokane.

That deal closed Jan. 5 -- just 14 days before police announced criminal charges against Dillard and two others.

"Not the way I wanted to retire after 60 years of good work," said Huling, who recently wrote the victim checks totaling $100,000.

Yet his company had problems before Dillard arrived. Huling Brothers salesmen took advantage of other obviously mentally impaired customers, according to interviews and sales records. And court records indicate that a salesman helped drug dealers hide cash through car sales.

Dillard created even more problems, police allege. His staff operated in a freewheeling culture, with Dillard snorting painkillers with subordinates in a bathroom at work and off the dashboard of a company truck, co-workers told police.

Aggressive sales were lauded -- a longtime Huling Brothers salesman who closed the deal with the mentally ill customer told police he was celebrated as "a star for a day." He even tried to sell the man a second car the next day, police said, but the customer's money already had been stolen.

"Anybody in the right circumstances would try to rob him," the salesman told police.

Dillard, who pleaded not guilty to theft and other charges, declined comment.

But his father, Bobby Dillard, said his son is innocent, doesn't do drugs and was targeted by jealous co-workers. "I don't think he even knows what went on," his father said.

"A.G. wanted money"

Dillard joined dealership last year and ran its loan store.

Dillard's auto experience came early. Known as A.G., he followed his father into the business at age 18, working at the Monterey, Calif., dealership his father now manages.

In 1996, after moving to Wenatchee, where his mother owned a restaurant, Dillard launched a carpet-cleaning business with a roommate, Chuck Hurst.

"A.G. wanted money. He wanted success. He was very motivated, and wanted good things for himself," said Hurst, 32, who lives in Arizona.

Dillard and Hurst sold chocolate-covered espresso beans in hotel lobbies and exported gift boxes to Japan, Hurst said. As their ventures were taking off, Hurst accused his roommate of stealing and won a $2,400 judgment against Dillard.

Dillard then bounced between dealerships in California and Washington. He worked at Bill Pierre's Auto Credit Direct in Everett, and later at Leonard Evans Hyundai and Used Car Superstore in Wenatchee. There, he made a sleepy shop busy, his father and others said. Evans' managers did not return phone calls.

Huling Brothers, a landmark dealership in West Seattle, sprawls over three corners of a busy intersection selling new cars from five auto manufacturers and used cars of all kinds. It also finds auto loans for customers.

Dillard seemed ideal to run The Auto Loan Store for Huling Brothers, which catered to customers with bad credit, said Chris Banchero, the former general manager. The company didn't even check Dillard's references, said Banchero, who left the dealership when it was sold.

Before taking the job, Dillard wanted certainty on one thing, Huling said.

"If he was going to move his family back to Seattle, he wanted to be sure I was a person who shared his ethics," Huling said.

Dillard started his new job in January 2006 and was quickly surrounded by salesmen with whom he had worked before. Among them: Ted E. Coxwell, whom Dillard hired, and Paul R. Rimbey, who had started a few weeks before Dillard.

Coxwell and Rimbey, both 39, are the other two employees charged in the theft from the mentally ill customer.

Dillard also hired Bobby Zuanich, 36, who said he joined Huling Brothers last spring because he thought it was a clean shop where he could wean himself from drugs.

The three salesmen knew Dillard from working at the Pierre companies. A Pierre spokesman said the company had no problems with ethical lapses or drug use by the men.

Zuanich, who describes himself as a recovering addict, told The Seattle Times he beat Huling Brothers' drug test by using a balloon filled with urine from a co-worker's toddler son.

Within days of starting, Zuanich was buying drugs from one co-worker and snorting painkillers with Dillard, he told police and The Times.

On that July day when the mentally ill customer, now 60, walked into Huling Brothers, he looked so disheveled with a long gray beard and feces-caked pants that no one wanted to help him, police said. But then he retrieved $30,000 in $100 bills from a dresser in his apartment to pay for a GMC Canyon pickup, and told a salesman he had far more, according to police. The salesman told his co-workers, and the next morning, police said, the cash was the talk of a breakfast meeting called by Dillard.

An opportunity presented itself when they returned from breakfast, employees later told police. The man had come to the dealership and asked for help finding his truck; it was at a Mercer Island tow yard after it had been impounded.

While two salesmen drove the man to the tow lot, salesmen raced for the cash, police said. Dillard and Coxwell got there first; two other pairs of salesmen followed in quick succession but got only $108 because the others had already stolen the rest of the money, police reports said.

Coxwell's girlfriend later told police that he spent most of the cash on Oxycontin pills.

Two days after the alleged theft, Dillard used $100 bills to buy $20,400 in cashier's checks, then used the checks to pay down credit cards, according to records obtained by police.

Six days after buying the truck, the customer called police to report it stolen; the truck was again in a tow yard after being found abandoned. An officer, dispatched to the man's home, became alarmed when he saw piles of feces in the apartment and had the man committed for psychological evaluation at Harborview Medical Center, police said.

The man, afraid that his truck would be auctioned off, later called the dealership from the hospital, asking for help. Rimbey told police he took that call and met the man at Harborview. Rimbey got the man to sign over the title to the $30,000 truck for $1,244, saying he would hold it for him, according to police.

The police reports say a Huling Brothers employee, who also served as a notary, didn't follow legal requirements that he witness the man's signature. (The employee, who was not charged, began working for The Seattle Times advertising department in December.)

The customer is now at Western State Hospital. The Times isn't naming him because of his vulnerability.

The alleged theft was an open secret for four months in Dillard's division at the dealership, Huling employees told police.

Then, Zuanich was confronted with a State Patrol investigation into a fraudulent loan he wrote for himself while at Huling Brothers. He spilled the story about the mentally ill man and cooperated in the investigation.

Zuanich was not charged with writing the fraudulent loan, or in the theft.

Huling said he learned of the alleged theft and the truck-title transfer from police in early November. The dealership management cooperated fully, police said.

In 62 years, Huling Brothers has collected legions of happy customers, Huling said.

Michael McQuaid from West Seattle is one of those, a 20-year customer who has purchased five or six cars from the dealership. He said he found the salesmen to be honest and ethical.

"I always felt good buying a car there because I knew they weren't taking the money and running," McQuaid said. "They were putting it back in the community."

Over the past three years, Huling Brothers was named in 24 complaints to the Better Business Bureau. As of Wednesday, the company's car-sales center and its service center have unsatisfactory ratings with the BBB because they did not answer four of those, said a spokeswoman for Western Washington's BBB.

The Washington Attorney General's Office received 24 complaints about Huling Brothers last year -- five complaints for every thousand vehicles sold -- the most complaints in the state for car dealers. But in previous years, the dealership fared better, with fewer than half that number.

The volume of complaints can be misleading, wrote Steve Huling's wife, Sharon, in an e-mail to friends asking for support. With about 5,000 car sales annually, the percentage is small, she wrote.

"I can say unequivocally that Steve has always addressed each and every complaint that has been brought to his attention," she wrote.

Huling said he relied on managers to supervise day-to-day operations and the dealership's 200 employees. When he learned of problems, he said, he took action, including firing people.

Huling said his company also checked all employees for criminal histories, drug-tested them and required them to sign an ethics policy that calls for employees to follow the law and "good business ethics."

The ethics policy didn't specifically address how to treat vulnerable customers.

Doug Walsh, head of consumer protection for the state Attorney General's Office, said he could recall only five complaints in his 16 years dealing with consumer issues that involved vehicle sales to a person who was not competent to negotiate a contract.

The Times has found other examples where Huling Brothers salesmen sold cars to individuals with limited mental capacities.

In 2001, a 50-year-old mentally impaired Woodinville man paid thousands more than Blue Book value for a 1997 Plymouth Neon from the dealership. He bought it after a van Huling Brothers sold him two years earlier was stolen.

At the time he bought the Neon, the man, whose first name is Paul, was earning about $500 a month as a dishwasher. The sales contract obligated him to pay $283 a month for five years: about $17,000 for the stolen van and the Neon. But his insurance company valued both vehicles at less than $9,000, said the man's brother, a hotel general manager.

Another of his brothers tried to cancel the sale. Then, the hotel manager said, he, too, tried to cancel the debt in 2004, but got no response from Huling Brothers.

"Paul is mentally handicapped. He has an IQ of 70," his brother wrote to the financing company and the dealership. "This is clearly obvious during the most basic of interactions. It is also obvious that the Huling Group took advantage of his disability on both occasions."

His brother asked that Paul's last name not be used to avoid his being victimized again. Paul paid off the debt a few months ago.

Huling's attorney, James Aiken, said the dealership was unaware of Paul's mental incapacities. He noted that Paul had a driver's license and sufficient income to get the loan. He also said Paul probably wouldn't have gotten the loan unless the vehicles were worth what he paid.

In November 1999, a Huling Brothers salesman sold a used Buick LeSabre to a 76-year-old Magnolia man who was housebound from a stroke. The man had called the dealership after spotting a newspaper ad. Easily confused, and unable to drive or write, the man was chauffeured to and from the dealership by a salesman, who also test-drove the car for the man and filled out every line but the signature for the $16,767 check to buy the car, said the man's daughter, Ida Werner.

A few weeks later, Werner said, a Huling Brothers salesman called her father and arranged to trade in the Buick for a model that cost nearly twice as much, plus $5,200 to finance.

Werner complained to Huling and two managers. Huling Brothers told her it had no legal obligation to undo the sale, according to a letter Werner's attorney wrote the business.

Huling Brothers eventually voided the second contract and returned the man's Buick. Werner said her father is embarrassed, and she asked that his name not be used. An attorney for Huling Brothers said the company doesn't have details of the sale because it purges records after six years.

A drug link?

Salesman was suspect in money-laundering scheme.

A Huling Brothers salesman also was implicated in a money-laundering scheme with drug dealers, according to court records.

During a Tacoma drug investigation in 2003, the salesman structured a $12,000 sale in a way that avoided laws requiring reporting of cash transactions over $10,000, according to a federal agent's affidavit.

The investigation showed the salesman, a fleet manager, avoided oversight by making his own deals and approving his own sales. The salesman was not charged but was fired.

A Huling Brothers attorney later told a prosecutor involved in the case that the dealership could not scrutinize every sale.

That explanation was "disingenuous," said Craig Adams, the Pierce County deputy prosecutor. "You hire people as managers, and they have to have control over everybody. It's your responsibility."

Ongoing scrutiny by owners and top managers is crucial, said Earl Honeycutt Jr., a business professor at Elon University in Elon, N.C., who has studied the ethics of car salesmen for two decades.

Honeycutt said a warped culture can develop even in reputable dealerships, because salesmen rely on commissions, which reward aggressive tactics.

Name to be changed

New owner is hoping to distance the dealership from its recent troubles.

Police and prosecutors are still trying to decide whether to charge others in the case of the mentally ill man who had his truck and $70,000 in cash stolen.

Coxwell never returned to work and Rimbey quit under pressure, according to police reports. Dillard, who is married and the father of three, was fired in November for "performance issues," said former Huling Brothers manager Banchero.

Several of Dillard's employees told police they wished they had behaved differently.

"If given the chance to do it over, by all means, I would talk those guys out of it, and just say leave it alone," one salesman told police four months after the alleged theft. "But that isn't what happened."

Cline Davis, president of Gee Automotive, the new owner, said the business was blindsided by the charges against the Huling Brothers employees. Davis said Huling didn't disclose the investigation; Huling said he disclosed everything he knew.

Three employees implicated in the cover-up were still working at the dealership when police released details of the crime. Gee Automotive has since fired them.

"We'll do everything we can to strive to show this is an ethical, family-owned auto dealership," Davis said.

Gee Automotive will not try to undo the sale, but it is speeding up plans to change the dealership's name, he said. Meanwhile, the new owners have begun covering up all signs displaying the Huling name.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com; Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com;

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com.

Times staff reporter Steve Miletich and researcher David Turim contributed to this report.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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