In Corvallis auto fraud case, 1 car with 3 owners
CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) — Kristin Ellenson loves everything about her 2012 Cadillac SRX, from the satiny silver paint job and sporty styling to the leather upholstery and wood-trimmed interior.
"The heated steering wheel," she confides, "is awesome!"
She and her husband, Jim, bought the luxury sport-utility vehicle used from Jones 5 Auto Sales in November 2015, but within a week of bringing it home they realized they had a big problem: The Corvallis car dealership had shut down amid a criminal investigation, owner Shannon Jones had dropped out of sight, and dozens of people were coming forward claiming they had been ripped off.
The couple soon learned that the victims included two men who claimed to be the rightful owners of their Cadillac SRX — and that's when they really started to worry.
"We have the car, but we don't have the title," Jim Ellenson remembers thinking. "All of a sudden it's like, what just happened?"
In October 2016, Shannon Jones pleaded guilty to federal charges that he systematically defrauded customers, lenders and associates of Jones 5 Auto from early 2012 until Nov. 18, 2015, when the whole elaborate scheme came crashing down around his ears. He remains free on his own recognizance while he awaits sentencing April 24 in U.S. District Court in Eugene.
Prosecutors and investigators have been tight-lipped about the case, and Jones himself has made no statements to the press or the public. Recent court filings state that 119 victims have been identified so far but that still more are expected to emerge.
By sifting through court documents and interviewing victims, the Gazette-Times has been able to piece together a partial picture of Jones' shady deals. Tracking the long, strange journey of the Ellensons' Cadillac may help bring that picture into sharper focus.
The Cadillac SRX came into the story back in February 2012, not long after it rolled off the assembly line. That's when John Robinson, a retired wholesale beverage distributor from Corvallis, purchased the luxury SUV new from Kendall Auto Group in Eugene. With his trade-in allowance and the options package he chose, the Caddy cost him about $60,000.
He enjoyed driving it, but after three-plus years the warranty was getting ready to expire, so he decided it was time for a new ride.
"I was wondering what I was going to do," Robinson said, "trade it in at the dealer or put an ad in the paper?"
But then a friend at Timberhill Athletic Club offered another suggestion: put the Cadillac up for sale at Jones 5 Auto.
Unlike most used car dealerships, Jones 5 offered a consignment option. While he knew he would take a big hit for depreciation, Robinson figured consignment might be his best chance to get a good price without the hassle of selling the car himself.
So, in October 2015, he went to see Shannon Jones.
Jones grew up in the car business, learning the trade by working at his father's Corvallis Chevy dealership. After Randy Jones Chevrolet closed down in 2009, the younger Jones went into business for himself, opening a used car lot.
Like his father before him, Shannon Jones was well-liked and had a good reputation around town. By all accounts Jones 5 Auto Sales was a legitimate and successful enterprise, so Robinson had no concerns when he sat down across the desk from the dealership's friendly, smiling owner.
After hammering out a few details, they arrived at a deal and Robinson signed a consignment agreement that specified he was to be paid $26,500 when his Caddy was sold.
That sale appeared imminent in mid-November, when Jones called Robinson and asked him to bring in the vehicle's title documents — unsigned.
That request, Robinson now acknowledges, should have been a red flag.
"You'd think anyone who's halfway smart would say, 'No, I can't do that,' but he specifically said unsigned," Robinson said. "I guess I was lulled."
Jones told Robinson he would get his money as soon as the sale went through.
"I was to be paid Wednesday night, and I was waiting for the phone call," Robinson recalled. "Five o'clock came and went. No call. I thought, 'I don't want to bug him.'"
That was the 18th — the day Corvallis police, outraged creditors and panicked car owners descended on Jones 5 Auto Sales. By late afternoon, virtually every vehicle had been removed from the premises, the cops had taken the dealership's business records into evidence and Jones had dropped out of sight.
Robinson read about it in the next morning's Gazette-Times.
"I sat down for coffee Thursday morning and opened the paper, and there it was," Robinson said.
He immediately called the police to report his car stolen, but he couldn't get any information about what had happened to his Cadillac. Or his money. Or his title.
"They wouldn't tell me anything," he said.
Robinson wasn't the only one who was shocked by that morning's headlines.
Twenty-five miles down the road in Junction City, Shannon Nill was waking up to the fact that he, too, had been taken for a ride.
Like Jones, Nill had been raised in the auto trade, the son of a Chevy dealer. The two had gotten to know each other a little during Nill's college days, when he had come to Corvallis to attend Oregon State University.
By the fall of 2015, Nill had taken over as owner of his father's dealership, Guaranty Chevrolet, so he wasn't too surprised when he got a call from Jones. After all, it's hardly unusual for car dealers to do business with one another.
But Jones wasn't looking for a straightforward business deal. He was looking for a loan.
"I didn't have much contact with Shannon till he called me up and tried to borrow money," Nill said. "I thought it was a little peculiar that he was asking me. I dodged talking about it with him as long as I could."
After being put off repeatedly by Nill, Jones changed his tune. He said he had a car to sell: a 3-year-old Cadillac SRX.
That was different. It was business.
Sometime around the second week in November, Jones brought the SUV down to Junction City and sold it to Guaranty for $26,500, handing over what appeared to be a legitimate title for the vehicle. But after he got his check from Nill, the story took another unexpected turn.
"He starts to walk out the door and then he stops and says, 'Hey, I've got a good idea,'" Nill recalled. "'Why don't I flip this truck? I've got a buyer.'"
Jones told Nill that another interested party had cropped up in Corvallis. He said he thought he could make a quick sale, turn a few hundred bucks in profit, and repay Nill the $26,500 he had just shelled out for the Cadillac.
Nill is still kicking himself for saying yes.
"I should have known better," he says now. "I'm really disappointed I allowed this to happen."
Before tossing the keys back to Jones, Nill had him sign a document called a "borrowed car agreement" to protect Guaranty's ownership interest in the vehicle until Jones could buy it back.
Somehow, that document got lost, a mistake that would come back to haunt Nill later.
It was about this time that the Ellensons entered the narrative.
The couple had put a lot of miles on their Ford Freestyle station wagon carting their two teenage sons around to sporting events and other activities, and the time had come to buy a new family vehicle. When Kristin Ellenson laid eyes on the Cadillac SRX at Jones 5 Auto, it was love at first sight.
"I saw it on the lot, and then I took it for a test drive," she remembered. "I thought, 'This is a really nice car!'"
Jones told the couple he could let them have the Caddy for $28,000. They got $1,500 in trade-in value for their old Ford and took out a loan from their credit union for the balance: $26,500.
They took possession of their shiny new SUV on Nov. 12. For an extra $77, Jones promised to complete all the paperwork on the transaction and mail them the title.
Six days later, on Nov. 18, Jones 5 Auto Sales imploded. The news broke on the Gazette-Times website that same day, but it was a follow-up report in the Nov. 20 print edition that really caught the Ellensons' attention. The story featured interviews with a number of Jones 5 victims, including Robinson, who described his missing Cadillac.
"Somebody," he told the newspaper, "is driving around in a stolen car."
That quote sent a jolt through Kristin Ellenson, who said she remembers the feeling vividly. "Sucker-punched" is the way she describes it.
At that point, she and her husband still held out some hope that their title might arrive in the mail, establishing them as the Cadillac's rightful owners. But it never did. The title, with John Robinson's forged signature, was in Junction City with Shannon Nill.
'ROLLIN' IN THE STOLEN'
When they came to grips with the fact that the title wasn't coming, they set about trying to convince the Oregon Division of Driver and Motor Vehicle Services to recognize them as the car's legitimate owners. It was to be a long and agonizing journey. Along the way they came to know several DMV workers on a first-name basis and accumulated a stack of paperwork an inch high, which they now keep in a three-ring binder.
In the meantime, the temporary registration tags on their new Caddy were about to expire, so they had to apply for replacements. Then those expired, and they had to get more.
"We were attempting to register and title the car, but we couldn't," Kristin Ellenson recalled.
They thought the fact that they had taken out a car loan might enable them to establish possession, but their credit union said it couldn't help. They called their insurance company and were advised that the title might be branded if the car was considered stolen, seriously reducing its resale value.
Without some proof of ownership, they worried constantly that the SUV could be taken away from them and they would lose their investment.
Last spring, the family drove to Boise for a high school baseball tournament. It was a long haul that took even longer than it should have because they were afraid to exceed the speed limit on the interstate.
"What if we get pulled over?" Jim Ellenson remembers worrying. "How are we going to explain this car?"
After a while, his wife said, they learned to laugh about it.
"Rollin' in the stolen, that's what we call it," she said.
Eventually, their persistence paid off. Last November, they finally obtained a clear title to the vehicle they had purchased 12 months before.
"It was a year's worth of work and frustration and anxiety," Jim Ellenson said, "to get a car . you already paid for."
THE DAMAGE DONE
Even though authorities weren't talking about the Jones 5 Auto case in public, behind the scenes investigators with the Corvallis Police Department, the DMV and the U.S. Department of Justice were working to unravel the tangled web of fraudulent transactions Shannon Jones had left in his wake (with some help from Jones, according to the most recent court filings in the case).
Some of the competing ownership claims were sorted out in civil court, and some of the victims received insurance settlements — including Robinson, who got the consignment sale price he was asking for his Cadillac, minus his policy's $1,000 deductible.
Getting the money back was a big relief, Robinson said, but he can't shake a lingering sense of being victimized.
"It's just horrible," he said. "You absorb it, and as time goes on all these emotions hit you, and it's not good."
Those emotions came flooding back a few months ago when Robinson went to Timberhill Athletic Club to work out and ran into the man who victimized him.
"I had come around the corner and taken a few steps and I realized I'm looking right at Shannon Jones — and then he smiles," Robinson said. "What do you do? Do you punch the guy? Get in his face? I certainly didn't want to say, 'Hi, how you doing?'"
Robinson didn't know what to do, so he just kept going. He's still fuming over the encounter.
"He was just standing there like nothing ever happened," Robinson huffed. "That's not right."
PAYING THE PRICE
Despite the restitution provisions in the federal plea deal, it's hard to see how some victims in the Jones 5 case will ever be made whole.
A number of people came forward after the dealership shut down to say they had made personal loans to Shannon Jones that were never repaid. His former wife, Jennifer Seesz, testified in their divorce proceeding that Jones siphoned more than $100,000 out of the couple's bank account from the sale of their house and claimed he had no idea where the money went, leaving her with unpaid bills and delinquent income taxes.
After Jones left Guaranty Chevrolet in Robinson's Cadillac and failed to return, Nill pressed him for payment. Jones sent him a check, but it bounced. He promised to wire the money, then didn't. When Nill threatened to drive up to Corvallis to collect, Jones said he would drive down to Junction City with his father as guarantor of the debt, but he never showed.
Then the cops raided Jones 5 Auto, and Nill knew he'd been had.
When the dealership's surety company announced it was making Jones' performance bond available to creditors, Guaranty was one of numerous businesses and individuals to petition for a share, but the value of the claims far exceeded the $40,000 bond the state requires of car dealers. Nill's piece of the pie was $3,500.
He filed an insurance claim to cover the rest of his loss, but so far his carrier has refused to pay off. This is where the missing borrowed car agreement with Jones' signature on it would have come in very, very handy.
"If we had that," Nill lamented, "we could have been protected."
He still had the original title to the Cadillac, of course, but since the signature on it was forged, that didn't help. In the end, Nill agreed to hand it over to the Department of Justice so the Ellensons' claim to the car could be honored.
"I got a nice letter from the DOJ," Nill said. "I guess that's worth something."
Like a lot of people, Nill can't help wondering what could have happened to transform Shannon Jones from a respected member of the business community to a con artist who could perpetrate a $1.3 million fraud.
Nill doesn't know. But when Jones is sentenced next month for his crimes, he plans to be in the courtroom, bearing witness.
"Consequences are important in order to prevent this from happening again," Nill said. "White-collar crimes are still crimes, and at least we'll finally get some justice."
Information from: Gazette-Times, http://www.gtconnect.com
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