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Wanted: Auto Fanatics -- Serious Inquiries Only

The federal government plans to sell an array of SUVs, exotics and collector vehicles seized from suspects.

September 22, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Sociologists may argue over what drives people to crime. But Rancho Dominguez warehouse worker Ruben Gonzalez can actually show you.

A smuggler from a Downey-based drug ring drove the sweet black-and-white 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 Skyliner convertible parked in the center of the storage room. The light-blue 1958 Chevrolet Impala convertible sitting near the wall was the pride and joy of one of the ring's money launderers. One of its kingpins tooled around in the silver 2003 Mercedes-Benz SL55 AMG convertible that stands gleaming near the front.

The warehouse contains 18 luxury and classic cars and tricked-out stretch limousines seized by federal agents from suspected drug dealers and white-collar criminals. Next week, authorities plan to auction them off to the highest bidders -- ones with cash in hand and clean tax records.

Vehicles up for grabs include a black 2-year-old Jaguar XKR convertible, a charcoal 2004 Maybach 62, a red 2001 Ferrari 360 Modena F1 Spider and a gray 2004 Rolls-Royce Phantom.

Along with their pink slips, each car will come with a checkered history.

The 25-foot black Hummer stretch limousine stored at the far side of the warehouse was one of a dozen vehicles owned by the alleged ringleader of a Minnesota-based illegal Internet pharmacy.

The Internal Revenue Service's Criminal Investigations Unit seized them all, including a companion white Hummer stretch limo, a black 2004 Cadillac Krystal Koach limo, a black 2000 Ford Excursion stretch limo and assorted high-end sports cars, including a lime-green 2004 Lamborghini Murcielago.

Even though the investigations are continuing, a judge awarded the cars to the federal government. Proceeds from the planned sale, at noon Wednesday at 2332 E. Pacifica Place in Rancho Dominguez, will be deposited in the Treasury Asset Forfeiture Fund. The accused pharmaceutical felon will get the cash if he beats the rap.

Profits from the sale of other cars will go to law enforcement and to victim restitution, said Britney Sheehan, an administrator of EG&G Technical Services, a private contractor that handles seized assets for the government.

Sheehan said authorities for the first time are conducting Wednesday's live auction in conjunction with Internet bidding. But all potential buyers must register by noon Tuesday and deposit a $10,000 cashier's check in order to bid. No sales tax will be charged.

The vehicles' previous owners or their representatives are excluded from the auction. The IRS has up to three business days to approve buyers.

Each of the vehicles has undergone an unusually thorough inspection. Along with mechanics checking engines and brakes, drug-sniffing dogs and smuggler-savvy U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers carefully inspected the interiors.

None of the vehicles had traces of cocaine or marijuana inside, said William J. Hayes, assistant special agent in charge of the Santa Ana customs enforcement office.

"We've checked all of the vehicles," Hayes said. "We don't sell vehicles with hidden compartments. They can be very elaborate: You tune the radio to a certain station and turn on the windshield wipers and put on the hand brake and a hydraulic compartment opens out of the floor. It takes a sophisticated criminal mind."

Most of the cars seem to be in pristine condition. But the '58 Impala leaks oil, and the '57 Fairlane drips both oil and transmission fluid. And the black '96 Hummer has a broken ceiling mirror, a damaged undercarriage, a bad low gear, poor brakes and an inoperable winch.

Authorities speculate that the three stretch limos were part of some side venture that the alleged Internet pharmaceutical dealer was involved in. They say some of the fancier cars may have been acquired through various money-laundering schemes.

The Downey drug operation contributed five cars to the auction. According to customs investigators, the trafficking organization was comprised of a tight-knit group of individuals and was responsible for smuggling wholesale amounts of cocaine and marijuana into the U.S. from Mexico in passenger cars with hidden compartments. The drugs were then shipped to Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, New York, Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. The marijuana was also distributed in the Los Angeles area.

The arrests, which began in June 2004, have so far resulted in nine convictions.

A Cincinnati-area marijuana dealer awaiting sentencing on drug and money-laundering charges turned over a red 2001 Chevrolet Corvette convertible that is included in the auction. The Rolls-Royce Phantom came from a Grand Rapids, Mich., corporate executive involved in an alleged Ponzi-style scheme.

Gonzalez, who is 29 and drives a 2003 Dodge Stratus to work from his home in Lakewood, said Thursday that his favorite car is a black 1968 Ford Mustang Shelby GT500KR.

Suddenly, the sharp sound of the rear engine compartment hood cover slamming shut echoed through the warehouse. Immigration and Customs photographer Ron Rogers stepped quickly back from the eight-cylinder, yellow 2000 Ferrari 360 Modena F1, worth an estimated $150,000.

"I didn't have to slam it. It would have shut automatically," marveled Rogers, of Aliso Viejo.

"Careful, Ron!" teased customs agent Hayes. "You break it, you've bought it."

bob.pool@latimes.com

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