It seemed just a fateful incident: Canadian man buys a 1970 Shelby Mustang from Golden Classics of Clearwater in late 2004, but it turns out to be stolen.
Now investigators sifting through documents at the classic car dealership have found that it wasn't just the Shelby.
Last week, state troopers in Massachusetts impounded a 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle that Patrick King bought from Golden Classics in 2006.
Officers matched the vehicle identification number to a car reported stolen more than two years ago in Tennessee.
"That stuff was supposed to be checked out," King lamented. "I still owe $22,000 on the car."
How, in just more than a year, did the same classic car dealership sell two stolen cars?
Daniel Newcombe, owner of Golden Classics, which describes itself as "one of the world's leading dealerships'' in collector and antique cars, calls it an unusual sequence of events — but one of the risks in the classic used car business.
And he warns consumers: Get insurance when you buy classic cars, because dealers often land hot vehicles.
"It happens to dealers all over the country all the time," Newcombe said.
He said dealers rely on state motor vehicle departments to ensure that a title is clean, which he said happened with both the Mustang and the Chevelle.
"We did nothing wrong," he said. "There's nothing that we're doing wrong in this business."
Ann Nucatola, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, agreed that much of the onus falls on the consumer. The buyer must vet the vehicle before purchase or rely on his insurance companies or the bond that the dealer is required to carry.
The bond is insurance for the dealer that helps cover such costs as reimbursement for a customer that received a stolen car.
Nucatola said the motor vehicle department does not have the manpower to run all titles for dealerships before cars are sold.
Stolen cars can get chopped and shopped from state to state without any uniform, national way of tracking the cars' titles.
Matthew Fafard, a Massachusetts state trooper who handled the Chevelle case, said law enforcement has been pushing for a national car titling system to track the life of all vehicles.
"The difficulty sometimes is that every state operates differently," Fafard said. "That can be an advantage to the criminal."
Some states allow a person to bring a bill of sale to the motor vehicle agency and receive a "tag certificate,'' which can be taken to another state to receive a title.
That happened with the Chevelle. The man who sold the car to Golden Classics got a certificate in Georgia; the dealership got a so-called "fast title" from Florida.
At the time, Florida did not run a history check on vehicle identification numbers when it issued fast titles. That has since changed; now identification numbers are run at the same time that a fast title is issued.
So "these kinds of things should happen a lot less frequently," Nucatola said.
But it has been part of the way thieves have laundered stolen cars.
Classic models that are 30 years old can make it impossible to find answers: Are the body and frame original parts? Are they the parts for that particular car?
Finding the answer can require removing the body from the frame to see if the identification numbers on the parts match. That's costly to the dealer and an improbable task for a consumer.
"You have to take the car apart," said Newcombe. "We're not going to do that. They're hidden to where we can't get to them.
"I can't tell if it's stolen or not. I don't know what to do in these situations.''
Authorities say that car theft rings stole both cars that Golden Classics ended up selling.
The 1970 Shelby Mustang was laundered through a New York ring that stole cars and parts, ran chop shops and produced fraudulent vehicle titles for almost 20 years, including a fraudulent title for the VIN-altered Mustang.
The customer who bought the Mustang was compensated for being sold a stolen car, but not until after he filed a lawsuit and the St. Petersburg Times reported his case. "I would not characterize him as happy,'' said his lawyer, Carter Anderson. "He would rather have the Mustang."
Police have not disclosed details about the ring that stole the Chevelle.
Paris Keck, a 50-year-old electrician from New Tazewell, Tenn., reported that it disappeared from his yard about 8:30 a.m. on Feb. 26, 2006. He said his neighbor saw a white Chevy pickup pulling the car down the road.
Keck bought the $30,000 Chevelle for his daughter as a college graduation present. It was a Super Sport model, metallic blue.
Now it's red. It has been upgraded with at least $8,000 worth of improvements, so he'll get a better car when he picks it up from Massachusetts.
But King, who found Golden Classics over the Internet, now has an empty parking space at his home.
Golden Classics says when it receives formal evidence that the car was stolen, King will be compensated — but not for any improvements.
King sees it differently: "I'm going to get refunded for this car plus expenses. The vehicle wasn't what was described to be. That was not my fault."
Ivan Penn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2332.