Little Red Corvettes
Cliff Monroe Driven Mad: Former Corvette owner Cliff Monroe, with the car he was forced to return to its original owner, after a broker failed to turn over the $32,000 he paid for it.
Silicon Valley Corvette aficionados say they were suckered out of their cars–and roughly a half-million dollars–by a used car salesman who let his operations slip into the red
By Cecily Barnes
CLIFF MONROE sits back in his chair, takes a deep breath and describes what he now considers one of the worst days of his life. The dark day arrived on a Friday in early November. Monroe had washed and dressed his 1960 Corvette, white exterior with cherry-red interior, and then paced around his Willow Glen home waiting for the arrival of his unwanted guests: the Corvette’s previous owner, Ed Hennessee, and a representative from Murphy Bank. Monroe would be forced to turn over the keys to the classic Corvette he had purchased only eight months earlier for $31,946 plus the trade-in value of his own 1974 Corvette. In exchange he would get an uphill legal battle against Matt Mazdeh, the owner of West Coast Corvette in Fremont, who he says sold him the car and promised a pink slip that never came.
The car’s former owner, Hennessee, arrived first in a new Corvette he bought after purportedly selling the 1960 classic in the driveway. Although everyone expected the meeting to be tense, the group stood in the driveway of Monroe’s home admiring the car and talking for nearly an hour about the bizarre chain of events that brought them together.
Monroe’s white ‘Vette was being returned to Hennessee, who had originally given it to West Coast Corvettes to sell. Mazdeh, from the dealership, had never passed the money along to the car’s actual owner, Murphy Bank, which still had the pink slip. Hennessee would now have to resume payments to the bank unless he found a new buyer for the car. Everyone felt they had been hoodwinked.
But at the end of the meeting, Hennessee drove off with the car and the bank representative with the pink slip. Monroe had a receipt from Murphy Bank showing he had done the right and legal thing–but Mazdeh still had the money. Monroe felt he was the only one who truly lost.
“It’s like if your dog had rabies and you had to go out and shoot him,” Monroe says in a resigned voice. “I had to get rid of this car that I thought should have been mine. Not a day goes by that I don’t get into my car [an ’89 van that Monroe calls his utility vehicle] and think about the situation and the car I don’t have.”
But parting with the car, Monroe learned, was just the beginning. Monroe discovered he was one of eight Corvette lovers who say they handed their cars over to Matt Mazdeh to sell and received nothing in return. Mike Smith in Antioch says he swapped his 1966 Corvette for a $26,500 bad check from Mazdeh. Gary Moreland in Pleasanton gave Mazdeh his 1978 Corvette just before West Coast Corvettes went out of business. Moreland says he never saw a check; nor did he see his car or Mazdeh again.
“I have not really pursued legal action because the cost to me is too great, plus the energy, the time,” Moreland says. “I’m not going to pour good money after bad money, [and] I wasn’t crippled financially.”
Most of the Corvette owners who say they’ve lost money to the same car salesman–Mazdeh–opted against filing a non-dischargeability suit to recover their losses. Quite simply, the time, energy and cost of pursuing a civil suit made the ordeal more trouble than it was worth.
Monroe thinks otherwise. Although he harbors little hope of being compensated for his troubles, the desire to see Mazdeh pay–in one way or another–keeps Monroe going. The $32,000 won’t make or break his family, Monroe says, but that’s no reason Mazdeh should get to keep it. He shares the sentiments of Moreland, who said, “If I was going to give away my ‘Vette, I’d rather choose who to give it to.”
Instead of cutting his losses like the others, Monroe decided to fight–through lawyers, the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Alameda District Attorney’s office and, when all else failed, personal trips to M Performance Classics, a newly opened business in San Jose that Mazdeh says he operates for a relative of his.
Teaching a Lesson
MONROE, who wears glasses and a button-down shirt, taught drafting in high school for 20 years and says he can count on one hand all of the fights that he’s been in. But when it comes to Mazdeh, Monroe becomes enraged. When things started to shake out, Monroe stormed down to M Performance Classics to confront Mazdeh and keep him from forgetting about the past.
“I went down there maybe five or six times,” Monroe says. “It never got into a real heavy thing where I felt like hitting him. I just said stuff like ‘I’ll see you in court’ and ‘I’ll see you in jail.’ Another time I went in to tell him that Murphy Bank has the car. I said, ‘They have the car and you have my $35,000.’ I wanted him to know that.”
But after paying Mazdeh a few visits, Monroe received a letter from John Vos, Mazdeh’s attorney. Mazdeh had filed bankruptcy, and under the law Monroe was not to contact him again. Because the bankruptcy papers show the Corvette peddler to be worth a mere $12,800, Monroe’s own attorney advised him against the hassle of a civil suit. It would be like digging for an empty treasure chest.
Still not satisfied, Monroe went to the Fremont police, who he says sent him straight back to his attorney.
“They said it was a civil matter and they do not handle civil matters,” he says.
According to Alameda County Assistant District Attorney Richard Klemmer, contract deals gone bad require an intent to commit fraud in order for the matter to be considered criminal.
“People enter into contract negotiations all the time, and when something goes sour they back out. This may be civil, but it’s not necessarily criminal,” Klemmer says. “Unless there’s circumstantial evidence, it’s very hard to get into somebody’s mind and prove what they intended to do unless they confess.”
And while many police departments have fraud units–including those in Fremont and San Jose–it’s not always clear when the situation crosses from a failed contract negotiation into a crime.
“A police department might say, ‘We’re not going to investigate this because it looks like a contractual dispute,’ ” Klemmer says. “But you have to be persistent. The police department should commence an investigation or turn it over to a regulatory agency like the DMV or a consumer affairs office.”
If these agencies won’t investigate, it’s up to the victim–or an advocate, if the victim can find one–to gather evidence and convince a district attorney to take the case.
Monroe recalls his early attempts at retribution: “My first attorney told me, ‘That’s too bad, Cliff.’ ”
Ultimately, Monroe sought help from Juan Sevillano in the DMV’s Hayward investigations department, where seven investigators handle complaints from most of the Bay Area.
Sevillano has been working to gather enough evidence to convince Klemmer that Mazdeh’s actions justify a criminal case. Since telling his story to Sevillano, however, Monroe has learned yet another lesson: the wheels of justice and retribution, especially in the case of fraud, turn slowly.
Mazdeh, meanwhile, has brushed himself off from the bankruptcy suit and spends his days running M Performance Classics, a business he says is owned by a same-named relative. The shop, he says, does repair work exclusively. However, two Corvettes in mint condition sit displayed in the front room, which looks suspiciously like a car showroom. Since Mazdeh’s license to sell cars expired when he left West Coast Corvettes, Mazdeh cannot legally sell cars.
Monroe fumes when he explains that Mazdeh runs a new business right in San Jose.
“I couldn’t believe it, after all the fraudulent things he did,” Monroe says.
MATT MAZDEH wipes the grease from his hands with a blue rag and greets me in the makeshift waiting area at M Performance Classics on Lincoln Avenue. Despite his unruly dark hair and a white work shirt marred with grease, the 34-year-old seems utterly innocent, appearing about 10 years younger than his age, with huge, earnest brown eyes. The reason for my visit, however, makes Mazdeh visibly agitated. He wrings his hands together and begins the story of what led to his bankruptcy filing. While his tale is disjointed, the theme resounds clearly–he’s not a bad guy, just a guy with a bad turn of luck.
“I had a partner and he left me with nothing. Business went bad and we lost a lot of money,” Mazdeh begins.
Mazdeh explains that West Coast Corvettes was his first dealership. Before that he worked with Larry Parks, a Milpitas Corvette racer and dealer who wound up shot dead in his office on Aug. 29, 1994. One year later, Parks’ wife went to prison for the crime.
“After he died I just tried to keep the same thing going,” Mazdeh says.
He opened West Coast Corvettes on Fremont Boulevard. The business closed suddenly in July, followed by an immediate Chapter 7 bankruptcy suit. Mazdeh’s Aug. 30 filing showed him to be $563,348 in the hole, with only $12,800 in assets. According to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court, it was Mazdeh’s first and only bankruptcy.
“I’m trying to make money to pay them back, but they assume I took their money to open a new business and that’s not true,” he says.
Mazdeh insists he is not the owner of M Performance Classics, despite confirmation from property owner Pete Kouretas that Mazdeh is the man who leases his building. Mazdeh explains that his relative owns the business, and because he runs it for her, Kouretas sees him as the owner.
“I also owed my relatives some money and this was the way I could help them,” he says.
Mazdeh then points to the two beautifully painted Corvettes and a sporty red Mazda in the front of the shop, and without prompting he offers a defensive explanation. “They think I’m selling these cars, but these cars are just here for work,” he says.
When asked why the vehicles aren’t parked with the others in the garage, Mazdeh explains that they’re at the shop for a long stay, receiving restoration and repair.
“These cars have been here for months,” he says.
But at least one of these cars, the sporty red Mazda, shows up on a DMV report as having changed ownership five times in the last two months. The DMV report shows it was purchased on Nov. 11 by Maxim Auto Center, located around the corner from M Performance Classics. A spokesman for Maxim Auto Center says that the car is for sale and is being kept at M Performance Classics for repair. However, the car, I was told, could be back at their lot the next day for an interested buyer.
Back at M Performance Classics, Mazdeh buries his forehead in his hand and sighs. “I’m not a crook. I just had some bad business. If it takes me the rest of my life I will pay them back.”
Monroe’s not holding his breath and neither are the others. Instead, Monroe has taken a second job at Work Force Silicon Valley. Once the money starts rolling in, he plans to buy back the sleek white Corvette he’s come to think of as his own. It will hurt to pay for the smooth-bodied ‘Vette twice over, but it will be worth it. “I can’t say, ‘I’m a victim so I’m never going to buy another Corvette,’ ” he says. “And why not buy the one I’m in love with?”
From the December 10-16, 1998 issue of Metro.
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