Updated: July 30, 2012, 8:23 AM
NORTH TONAWANDA – A car collector’s complaint has led to criminal charges against a man who sold him a 1966 Chevrolet Corvette, alleging that the Vehicle Identification Number plate on the classic sports car was forged.
Robert C. Ernst, of North Tonawanda, who said he found about the problem when he and his car were disqualified from a car show in Ontario, is accusing Ronald A. Ellis, of Wilson, of ripping him off.
“I’m out $75,000,” Ernst said. “He knew the value of the car [on the collectors market] wouldn’t be there without the original VIN tag on it.”
Ellis’ attorney, Herbert L. Greenman, said Ellis had nothing to do with the replacement VIN tag.
“My client’s a terrific guy. He’s got a good job and a good family. He’s never had anything to do with the law,” Greenman said of Ellis.
Ernst has a friend who works as an investigator for the Niagara County District Attorney’s Office, and Ernst told him about the case.
The eventual result was that Ellis was charged with nine felonies: third-degree grand larceny, second-degree criminal possession of a forged instrument, forgery of a VIN, illegal possession of a VIN and five counts of offering a false instrument for filing.
Ellis, 41, has pleaded not guilty, and the case is pending in North Tonawanda City Court.
Ernst, 65, is no neophyte. He has restored and resold six vintage Vettes, selling each at a profit – at least if only money is counted.
“When you think about my time, no. I spent a year and a half to two years on each of them,” Ernst said.
Ernst bought the ’66 Corvette from Ellis after encountering the battered car at a Riverside collision shop in 2008. “All Corvettes are kind of significant, but being an older one, the ’63 through ’67 [models] are considered special. This had a 427 [cubic-inch] engine,” he said.
Ernst, a petrochemical designer, said he paid Ellis $49,700 for the car and spent an additional $75,000 over the next two years restoring it to its original luster. “It’s some of my retirement money,” he said.
The story turned ugly June 9, 2011, when Ernst loaded the Corvette onto a trailer and hauled it to the National Corvette Restorers Society show in London, Ont.
“There are five teams of judges that go over the areas of the car. I was in the second area when the judge asked me if they could take a picture of the VIN tag,” Ernst recalled.
Moments later, the judge came back and told Ernst he was disqualified because the VIN tag was counterfeit.
He said that the number was right for that car but that the lettering font and the die marks on the tag were different from the ones that General Motors would have used in 1966.
Ernst said, “They looked at this thing with a jeweler’s loupe,” a specialized magnifying glass.
At first, Ernst said, he didn’t want to say anything to Ellis. “I didn’t want to tip him off,” he said. Instead, he told his story to Paul Schultz, an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office. He referred the case to a colleague, Daniel Pluff, and the hunt was on for the history of the car. “Somewhere along the line, the car might have been stolen and recovered,” Ernst said. “It had this weird sticker on it, ‘GA7558.’?”
The investigation showed that the car was originally sold in 1966 by a Chevy dealer in Georgia. It was stolen in that state and eventually recovered by police sometime between 1966 and 1969.
Ernst said the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles then placed the GA7558 sticker on the car because the original VIN plate had been removed.
That ruined its value for high-end collectors, he said.
Ernst contends that the Georgia tag was on the car when Ellis bought it from a previous owner.
He alleges that Ellis removed it and made a new one, forging it using a number from the Corvette’s transmission. “Apparently, the transmission never left the car,” the collector said.
But Ernst said that the history traced for the vehicle turned up seven previous owners in Niagara County alone.
The original VIN also would have been stamped on the car’s frame behind the left rear wheel, but Ernst said the car apparently was driven through many Western New York winters, and he thinks that the number would have long since rusted off.
“What was happening with the VIN took place long before my client had the car,” Greenman said. “What Mr. Ernst believes to be a Georgia VIN, my client had nothing to do with.”
Besides the criminal case, being handled by Assistant District Attorney Heather A. DeCastro, Ernst said he has retained Niagara Falls attorney Edward P. Perlman for a possible civil suit against Ellis.