NEW PORT RICHEY — George Savvas went to Gulfview Motors to trade in a 2004 Chevy Trailblazer. He was out of work, but he says he was offered a unique deal: If Savvas would give the general manager part of his sports memorabilia collection and buy a car, he could have a sales job.
So Savvas said he turned over $3,000 worth of items, including a 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card. He signed papers and drove away in a 2004 Kia Rio that September of 2007.
When Savvas showed up for work a few weeks later, the deal went sour. So he picketed the dealership on U.S. 19, suggesting he was discriminated against because of his American Indian heritage.
Then on Oct. 6, two Gulfview salesmen were arrested in connection with a break-in at Savvas' Port Richey home that netted $46,000 worth of collectibles, including, according to a sheriff's report, an autographed Tampa Bay Buccaneers Super Bowl football.
Now Savvas, 53, is suing the dealership and its then-general manager, Nelson Valdes. The complaint, filed this month in Circuit Court, says "Gulfview management" sent its salesmen to burglarize Savvas' home and steal his property to "punish, intimidate and discourage George during a period when management perceived that he was interrupting its business."
Savvas' attorney, Robert Peterson of Tampa, said Savvas is "a good guy" who now lives at an undisclosed location. "He was bullied, he was threatened, and now he had to move to another place," Peterson said. "He fears for his safety."
The lawsuit says the items, which were never recovered, included some things that carried sentimental value, such as a feather. It was a gift from Savvas' late father, who said it belonged to a great Indian warrior.
The suit also says the two salesmen had criminal records. So did Valdes, who before joining Gulfview had founded a dealership in Tampa called ValuCar. In 2000, the FBI raided ValuCar Sales and Superstar, a used-car lot on Bearss Avenue. In 2005, Valdes was arrested and charged with grand theft. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement said he directed employees to deceive Ford Motor Credit, which loaned ValuCar money to buy vehicles for its inventory. Among his employees was Vincent Salvatore LoScalzo, a man the FDLE once referred to in a report as "reputed boss of the Trafficante crime family."
Valdes helped the FBI investigate LoScalzo by wearing a concealed listening device. A judge made note of his cooperation when he sentenced him in May 2006 to six months in jail, five years' probation and up to $550,000 in restitution.
ValuCar is now defunct. The FBI never disclosed why it raided ValuCar or how LoScalzo factored into the investigation. Search warrants were sealed, and LoScalzo has never been charged.
Savvas' lawsuit says Gulfview knew or should have known about the staffers' criminal backgrounds and never hired them.
"When you go to the car dealership, you are expecting to deal with people who are honest citizens," Peterson said.
The 23-page suit asks the court for actual and punitive damages against Gulfview Motors and Valdes. Gulfview Motors, which had car lots in Pasco and Hernando counties, closed suddenly in May, citing the poor economy.
On Tuesday, Valdes vehemently denied the allegations. He said the two salesmen did break into Savvas' home but he had nothing to do with it.
Court records show James Buchs and Michael Becker were charged with the burglary. They were convicted of third-degree larceny and grand theft. Buchs received three years' probation, while Becker was sentenced to five years' probation.
"All this is completely false and malicious," Valdes said. "The truth will come out in a court of law."
He also defended Gulfview's owner, Leon Kreisler, who was not named in the suit, saying "it's a shame someone's trying to mess up Leon Kreisler's name after 29 years of doing good in the community."
Attempts to reach Kreisler on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lisa Buie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4604.