Detroit gawked. Even the Motor City hadn't seen anything quite like Maurice Larry's chrome-wrapped 2011 Chevrolet Camaro, with its red leather and suede seats, 48 speakers, five flat-screen TVs, a 6.2-liter V8 supercharged engine and 32-inch Forgiato wheels.
Never mind that it was once a Tampa tax felon's ill-gotten ride.
"The awe factor is just insane," said John Martin, 50, a Detroit gold broker now at the wheel.
"It actually stopped traffic and caused accidents," said Gordon Jones, whose dealership found the car at a Treasury auction.
Read it and weep, Maurice Larry. The so-called King Camaro — on your lucky days, the chariot of Tampa tax fraud queen Rashia Wilson — answers to another man now, one who isn't serving 14 years for partying with other people's Social Security numbers.
As the big wheels of tax refund fraud retire to federal prison, their own wheels are rolling into new garages for fresh starts. The cars, forfeited under order of federal judges, sell at online auctions under government contract along with the seized assets of other criminal investigations, including yachts and jewelry. The IRS screens high bidders. Proceeds trickle back to the Treasury.
Russell B. Simmons' 2005 Bentley GT drew a high bid of $53,450 when the latest auction closed Wednesday. He's serving 15 years for tax refund fraud.
Wilson's 2013 Audi A8, purchased with a $90,000 cashier's check and driven 8,960 miles, sold for $65,050 in February, even before a U.S. district judge sent her to prison for 21 years.
And the chrome Camaro?
Some say Larry sank $100,000 into it. Some say $258,000. Despite all the bling, it sold at auction for just $36,551. That's what the dealer paid before selling to Martin — owner of Cash For Karats in Detroit — and business partner Miles Ross.
Chump change in the tax fraud underworld. Authorities say that Wilson, with Larry's help, cheated the IRS out of at least $3 million and up to $20 million by claiming tax refunds using other people's names.
Not the car's fault, though.
Even before Larry's December indictment, King Camaro was an Internet sensation, spawning both envy and mockery after a spread in Rides magazine. With a shiny body and big wheels, it looked like the dreamy love child of Barbie's convertible and a monster truck.
Car bloggers speculated that the sound system, formerly known as the back seat, could cause a fatal concussion even if muted. Owner Martin says the rims and tires are worth $38,000; the brakes, $14,000.
"There's definitely no car like that in Detroit," said Jones, finance manager at Choice Automotive Group in Michigan. "People were stopping their cars in the middle of the street to take pictures with their phones."
It was the sort of car that could get a man noticed back home in Tampa, too. Even 120-pound Larry, 27, a high-school dropout who fathered five children outside marriage.
"Without question, that automobile gave Maurice Larry notoriety beyond Tampa, Florida and it looks like beyond the United States," said his defense attorney, Grady Irvin. "It probably also was his undoing."
For all the fuss, when Choice Automotive tried to resell the car on eBay in February it didn't sell. It was still there in July. No one went for the "Buy It Now" price: $79,500. And then Martin came along.
"It's sort of like when you put too much money into your kitchen remodeling," concluded Anita Cream, chief of the Asset Recovery and Victims' Rights Division at the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa. Her division goes after debt owed by felons. Her attorneys file the court papers necessary for forfeiture.
"Oddly enough, it's not uncommon for defendants to be more upset about the loss of their property than they are about going to jail," she said.
Most possessions forfeited from tax fraud are liquidated through a Department of Treasury contract with property manager VSE Corp. of Alexandria, Va., which uses the online auction site ricklevin.com.
No one associated with the process is allowed to buy; nor is it easy for felons to send someone after their belongings.
"The IRS has the right to approve or deny anyone at the point of sale," said Bryan Gault, a VSE marketing analyst.
He usually doesn't know a car's criminal history, though some are more obvious than others. His company liquidated the assets of Fort Lauderdale Ponzi schemer Scott Rothstein in 2010, including a Bugatti Veyron sports car that sold for $858,000 and a yacht that sold for $2.5 million.
Likely coming soon to the auction: Two more customized 2010 Camaros, seized in 2011 as part of a tax fraud case against Marterrence "Quat" Holloway, an accomplice of Larry's.
Serving a warrant, police long ago followed drug dealer Holloway to a now-famous tax return filing party at a motel and discovered the new fraud wave.
As for the King Camaro, Martin says he bought it for charity. So he's putting it up for sale. The asking price: $120,000.
He says he'll donate part of the proceeds to Detroit's branch of Covenant House, a shelter that takes in inner-city children.
One more thing: King Camaro won't be parked outside any tax return filing parties.
"I pay my taxes," Martin said, "and I have an accounting firm that I've used for 26 years."
Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.