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Former auto dealer now in a family feud

Published Sep. 24, 1991|Updated Oct. 14, 2005

Used to be, you could hardly turn on your TV in the bay area without quickly hearing a familiar high-pitched voice exhorting viewers to "shop anywhere in the world you want first, but check with Chick last."' Chick was Charles William "Chick" Smith Sr., of Chick Smith Ford in "the heart of sparkling, downtown Clearwater."

Smith owned the Ford dealership at the corner of Myrtle and Cleveland streets for 12 years. Wearing his trademark bright-colored and crazy-patterned sport coats, the burly Smith deluged viewers with his commercials.

But in 1980, he moved to Houston after selling his Ford dealership to Ken Marks Ford. Not much was heard from him since, until last year when he appeared on TV's Unsolved Mysteries. He was being sought in connection with the abduction of his grandsons, who are 11 and 13.

Now Smith has resurfaced. He and his wife, Patricia Ann, filed a petition in bankruptcy court in Tampa last week. On Monday, the Smiths appeared before a federal judge in Atlanta who is considering jurisdiction in the child custody case involving Smith's grandchildren.

While federal court is not the usual scene of a custody fight, the fierce struggle between the former car dealer and Carolyn Smith, his ex-daughter-in-law, over her two sons is no ordinary family feud.

Mrs. Smith's sons, Christopher and Charles, were kidnapped by her ex-husband, Charles William (Chuck) Smith, in 1984. She claims that Chick Smith, his wife and his sister Kim Smith Chavarria helped her estranged husband steal away the two boys, despite a court order awarding her custody. She also says they provided a steady stream of money to the fugitive father.

Carolyn Smith's struggle with the Smiths began in 1984 when her six-year marriage to Chuck Smith began to fall apart and the contentious custody battle began. She said that Chuck had been completely dominated by his wealthy and politically well-connected father.

"Chick ran our family," she said.

On Sept. 23, 1984, after a Texas judge awarded custody of the boys to Carolyn, Chuck and Chick picked up the two little boys for a weekend visit. The boys and their father never returned.

Carolyn believes they were taken to Clearwater and then to Scotland.

On Jan. 21, 1985, Carolyn's divorce from Chuck was made final and she was granted permanent custody of the children. She pursued her in-laws from Texas to a remote ski resort in the Scottish highlands, only to learn that Chuck Smith had fled with her two boys just ahead of her. The FBI has been looking for Chuck Smith since then.

That summer, Carolyn took the Smiths to court, charging they "knowingly and willfully acted with malice in concealing the whereabouts of the Smith children." The jury agreed and returned a $53-million verdict.

Chick Smith told his former daughter-in-law she would never see the money or her sons, according to documents her attorneys filed. He liquidated his car dealerships, declared bankruptcy and disappeared.

The mother's lawyers finally discovered that Chick and Pat Smith and Kim Chavarria were living in Sharpsburg outside Atlanta and they asked the federal judge to intervene.

Her attorneys hope that stripping Chick Smith of his money and the possible threat of criminal charges would flush Chuck Smith, and the boys, from hiding.

"I know that Chuck has been living somewhere off Chick's money," Carolyn Smith said. "Chuck doesn't know how to do anything except sell cars. He didn't even finish high school."

Last week Mrs. Smith's attorney, Michael Weathersby, argued in federal court in Atlanta that the Smith family's assets were hidden in corporate holding and bank accounts and that those corporate assets still are financing the abduction.

Since the money was being used to finance a criminal enterprise, he argued that those assets could be attached through federal anti-racketeering laws.

Chick Smith skipped the hearing Thursday and began bankruptcy proceedings in Tampa instead. The contents of the file were not available Monday.

Atlanta District Judge Marvin Shoob was incredulous last week that Chick Smith had skipped the hearing.

"Does he (Chick Smith) think that this bankruptcy will stop this court's authority to proceed?" the judge said. "Because I don't think so."

The Smiths appeared for a hearing before Shoob on Monday. The attorneys now have 10 days to submit arguments concerning whether the federal court has jurisdiction in the case, according to a court clerk.

Weathersby told Shoob last week that his client would gladly abandon her pursuit of the Smiths and their financial assets. "We would trade it all for the children," he said.

"How long has it been since you've seen your children?" Shoob asked Carolyn Smith.

"Seven years," the 33-year-old mother answered.

Information from staff writers Otis White and Laura Griffin, Associated Press and Miami Herald and Times files was used in this report.

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