Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Public safety

Cars being used as camouflage for criminals

TAMPA — Weldon Malveau, 37, was arrested last summer after fleeing police in a Porsche and getting pulled over 11 hours later in a Monte Carlo.

It was a feat on multiple levels.

The 2010 Porsche reportedly cost $85,000, a nice ride for a self-described barber. Secondly, the repeat DUI offender and convicted cocaine trafficker had no legal right to operate any car, given that his license was revoked until 2022.

But he did have a mother and a girlfriend. The Porsche was registered to Eloise Malveau, 71, and the Monte Carlo, to Deanna Celes Johnson, 22.

"Ms. Malveau advised me that the vehicle belongs to her son," Tampa police Officer Jeremy Fung wrote in a report. "She stated that he pays all of the bills, maintains the vehicle, and is the sole driver of the vehicle. Having it registered in her name is her only involvement."

All around us, outlawed drivers stay on the road with help from family and friends who let them hide behind borrowed credibility. The practice does more than imperil bystanders. It provides camouflage for criminals who try to shield their ill-gotten assets from law enforcement agencies.

Tampa police have seen an uptick in titles and registrations that don't fit drivers, amid a wave of tax fraud that has glutted urban streets with hundreds of millions of dollars in stolen federal money.

About half of the cars impounded for criminal offenses are registered to someone other than the driver, said Assistant City Attorney Laurie Woodham, who specializes in police forfeiture cases.

St. Petersburg police aren't seeing the trend but, like Tampa counterparts, they witness rental cars being used in a similar loose fashion.

"The vast majority seem to be male, people who don't have a credit history," said St. Petersburg police spokesman Mike Puetz. "They will get the girlfriend, mother, sister or other person to rent a car and let them use it," and sometimes to commit a crime, he said.

In Tampa, registration oddities turn up daily: A man with a history of dealing cocaine steals a bicycle and six months later is co-owner of a Mercedes. A woman with a history of food stamp and Medicaid fraud registers a Jaguar, a Lexus and a Land Rover, all within 16 months.

In a pending federal tax fraud case against defendants Marterrence Holloway and Maurice Larry, the government lists four cars and a scooter that may be subject to forfeiture. Not one of the five vehicles is registered to Holloway or Larry.

And then there's Malveau, who has caught the attention of law enforcement both for his habitual unpermitted driving and for that pricey Porsche.

• • •

Malveau has a history of arrests on drug, driving and gun charges. He served 18 months in state prison for cocaine trafficking and, in bits and pieces, spent 32 months in the Hillsborough County jail.

Three times, he has lost his Florida license to DUI stops, the latest earning a 10-year revocation. Over the past decade, his record states, he has carried open containers, refused chemical tests, ignored fines, skipped a substance abuse program and failed to obtain insurance.

Yet patrol officers keep catching him at the wheel, at times with evidence that leads to other charges.

In March, the cruising Monte Carlo snarled traffic around KoKo's Lounge in east Tampa as the men inside stopped to talk to women in the road. An officer smelled alcohol and a drug dog signaled narcotics, reports state.

Malveau, the driver, had $4,003 in his pants. He referred to the Monte Carlo as "my car" and its trunk as "my trunk,' police reported, until the search turned up a .40-caliber semi-automatic Smith & Wesson, loaded with seven cartridges. As a felon, he wasn't supposed to have a gun.

There were also signs of tax refund fraud, including 26 reloadable debit cards in other people's names, along with social security numbers.

An investigator later located one of the victims, a Plant City man in his 80s whose identity had been used to fraudulently collect a $9,612 refund. Surveillance video showed Malveau spending the money, police said.

Against that backdrop, law enforcement took note on July 22 when Malveau was seen driving the Porsche. Records reflected that he paid $85,000 for it in 2011 but transferred the title to his mother shortly after he was found with the gun and tax fraud evidence.

Patrol officers tried to stop the Porsche for a seat belt violation but ended their pursuit because its flight along Second Avenue in Ybor City posed a danger to others. The report notes that Malveau ran every stop sign from 17th Street to Channelside Drive.

Later that July day, officers were watching as he climbed, again, into the Monte Carlo with girlfriend Johnson in the passenger seat. This time, he was arrested.

The charges: fleeing and eluding police, driving on a revoked license by a habitual offender.

Malveau is in jail, awaiting Feb. 4 trial. His mother did not respond to an interview request.

He could have bigger problems. Police turned the suspected tax fraud case over to IRS-Criminal Investigations, which has jurisdiction. An IRS-CI spokesman declined to comment.

The Porsche? The Monte Carlo? Still under impound, held for the feds.

• • •

It isn't illegal to own a vehicle without a valid driver's license.

It's illegal to operate one and mostly likely not possible to insure one, said Kirsten Olsen-Doolan, spokeswoman for the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

People transfer car ownership for a variety of reasons, she said, and it's up to law enforcement to notice who's driving, legally or not.

Attorney Woodham said straw title transactions are sometime facilitated by less reputable dealerships. A buyer must provide proof of insurance to obtain a temporary registration — a challenge for an unlicensed driver.

That's when a friend or relative might be called in.

Not surprisingly, the insurance industry isn't keen on deception.

"That means, No. 1, that risky drivers are on the road when they shouldn't be," said Lynne McChristian, Florida representative for the Insurance Information Institute. "That's a law enforcement problem, but it also means someone isn't paying the insurance premium for the risk they represent."

In a crash, an insurance company could choose to deny a claim over an unlicensed driver, she said, leaving the title holder exposed to liability.

She said people should be careful about lending out cars, especially if they want them back.

Woodham regularly sees the proof of that.

She tells of a third-grade teacher who let her boyfriend of one month take her car on shopping trips. It turned out he was dealing pills out of it, Woodham said. The Honda was impounded. Woodham might have fought to keep it under the Florida Contraband Forfeiture Act, but she gave the woman the benefit of the doubt.

Not so for a man who deals cocaine and launders proceeds by putting two cars and four houses in the names of others, turning extra profit by renting the homes. Woodham went after it all.

People are aware, usually, that cars are in their names, she said. They have to sign paperwork, obtain insurance and show a driver's license.

"What they may not know is why they are doing it," she said. "Maybe their son just asked them to while he 'gets his license straightened out' or 'catches up on his support.' Some may think they are just doing a favor."

In trying to establish a car's true owner or primary user, police forfeiture units consider the vehicle's contents.

In Malveau's case, the Porsche inventory included men's clothing, men's cologne and a men's wrist watch case.

Woodham said they also keep a record of released vehicles so that people can't claim more than once that they're innocent owners.

"You only get one bite of the apple," she said.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Staff writer Patty Ryan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3382.

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