Law officers shut down car dealership

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Vicksburg and Warren County investigators along with the National Insurance Crime Bureau take over the lot of the Thames Autoplex Monday to serve warrants.(Brian Loden The Vicksburg Post)

[11/9/04]Authorities shut down a Vicksburg car dealership Monday morning as a part of an investigation into identity theft and various types of fraudulent transactions.

John Thames Jr., owner of Thames Autoplex Inc., was served with a cease and desist order by representatives of the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office. The order effectively closed the car dealership at 4075 Pemberton Square Blvd. pending further developments.

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The dealership is variously known as River City Autoplex, River City Mitsubishi Hyundai and Vicksburg Motor Co.

Thames was in Circuit Court as a defendant in an unrelated civil trial when he was served with the order. At the same time, officers from the Vicksburg Police Department and the Warren County Sheriff’s Department served two separate search warrants on the car dealership.

“What we were looking for are records of sales of some possibly inappropriate sales,” Warren County Chief Investigator Jay McKenzie said.

State and federal laws prescribe records automobile dealers must keep, including those related to a chain of title. One offense, for example, would be accepting a vehicle with an existing lien as a trade-in, and not paying off the lien in order to clear the title before selling the vehicle again.

During a series of legal troubles and consumer complaints over the past several months, John Thames Jr. has said problems stem from a change in ownership and are being worked out. He has asked for patience.

Grant Hedgepeth, director of consumer protection in the Attorney General’s Office, said authorities are investigating reports of possible identity theft and insurance fraud.

“What really brought this to a head was people complaining that they weren’t getting their titles,” Hedgepeth said, without offering details on specific cases or offenses.

Thames said the financing corporation, American Financial Corp., has the titles.

“We should have them shortly,” he said.

No one representing American Financial Corp. could be reached.

Thames said the dealership will reopen soon.

“(The legal problems) will be taken care of over the next two weeks, at which time we will be back in full operation,” he said.

No one has been arrested in the investigation, although “we do expect arrests eventually,” Police Capt. Mark Culbertson said.

Thames said the problems lie with the dealership’s previous owner.

“I am cleaning up for the former owner/operator of the business. This has nothing to do with my current business,” Thames said.

Thames identified the previous owner/operator, but said he doesn’t know where he is.

Meanwhile, a man whose car was towed while he and his wife were test-driving a car from Thames’ dealership has had his life turned upside down.

It took two weeks for Joey Arnold to recover his 1996 Mitsubishi Eclipse. It was seized Aug. 10, along with all the other cars on the lot except for the 2002 Ford Escape that Arnold and his wife, Valerie, were test-driving, as a part of a court order.

American Financial Corp. sued Thames Autoplex for repayment of outstanding loans. The suit was not related to the civil suit Thames was involved in Monday morning.

Arnold said he drove the car home because he and and his wife had no other car. Thames moved to repossess the car, which resulted in a Thames Autoplex salesman having an angry conversation with Valerie Arnold, Joey Arnold said.

Joey Arnold said he went to the dealership and got into a shoving match with the salesman, who pressed charges.

“I told him I didn’t appreciate him cussing my wife,” Joey Arnold said. ”

Arnold was arrested for simple assault, a charge to which he pleaded not guilty in Municipal Court on Monday afternoon.

“I don’t feel pushing a man out of your face is assault when he’s up in your face,” Joey Arnold said.

Because he missed time from work while in jail, Joey Arnold said he lost his job as a trucker. He found another one, but it pays 3 cents less per mile a significant loss for the father of a 5-year-old.

The Arnolds’ car was returned to them six weeks after it was towed. Joey Arnold said the car was returned in poor condition, with a radio missing and engine damage.

“I don’t know what happened,” Joey Arnold said.

The Arnolds have traded the car, but Joey Arnold said the appraisal value was $1,400 less than it was because of the damage.

“She wouldn’t run from here to Jackson. I know because I tried,” Joey Arnold said.

The family was forced go into debt to buy a new car, he said.

Arnold is now trying to find an attorney to deal with his criminal case. He was also concerned about legal action involving Thames, who, Joey Arnold said, tried to convince him to join Thames to sue American Financial Corp.