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Young mechanic gets a lift from a friend

Mike Bagarus should have been celebrating the purchase of his new home. Instead, he and his wife, Mischelle, were trying to figure out how they would pay for it.

Their sons, Michael and Kenny, both 2, were oblivious to the problem. They had no idea that their parents had obligated themselves to hefty house payments and that Daddy had been fired from the job that secured the purchase that same day last February.

"I was depressed," said Bagarus, 24.

Then came salvation.

As a young man in his 20s, Charles Casciotta lacked direction and struggled to make ends meet. A friend of a friend lent him the use of a building and enough money to open a delicatessen in New York.

Now, he saw a chance to return the favor.

"I said, "Well, maybe someday I can do that for somebody else,' " said Casciotta, 43, secondary curriculum coordinator for the Hernando County school district.

Casciotta opened his heart and his wallet to Bagarus, a former Central High School student, giving him a chance to fulfill a dream and succeed on his own.

"He's a good kid and a good mechanic, and that's basically why I did it," said Casciotta, who gave Bagarus a loan "in the thousands" to start his own business.

In April, Bagarus opened M&M Automotive at 15536 Cortez Blvd., west of Brooksville, no strings attached.

"It was on a handshake, on good faith," Casciotta said. "Sometimes you just have to trust people. I haven't gotten burned too many times."

Casciotta asked only that Bagarus repay him when he is able and that Bagarus repair his cars for free.

That is something at which Bagarus is a master.

At age 10, Bagarus said, he maintained lawn mowers for friends and family in the New Jersey neighborhood where he grew up. Having mastered the skill, he soon moved from repairing small engines to large ones.

At 15, he moved to Spring Hill and attended Central High School. He said he took auto shop classes every year and was a good all-around student, scoring five A's and one B his last semester.

"I took five periods of auto shop and one class of English," Bagarus said. "Of course, the B was in English."

After graduation, Bagarus worked in various auto shops. In 1994, he opened his own business, Mike's Mobile Auto Repair, which lasted about a year.

"It was great for a while, and then all of a sudden . . .," Bagarus said. "Well, a lot of times I got stiffed for money."

Then, in 1995, Bagarus began work as an auto technician at a local air-conditioning and brake repair shop. The job lasted only seven months because of what Bagarus said were differences between him and his boss. But it was there that Bagarus met and became good friends with Casciotta.

Casciotta had taken his car in for repairs.

"Everybody there said, "Wait till Mike comes; wait till Mike comes.' They were confident he could fix it," Casciotta said. "I just got a good feeling about him."

"We just got along," Bagarus said. "He knew that I knew what I was doing."

Shortly after Bagarus' termination, Casciotta stopped at his house to have him check out a car problem. He wound up writing Bagarus a check big enough to make a "sufficient down payment on a house."

"He loaned me money," Bagarus said. "That was it, bottom line. No paper exchanged hands. He gave me enough to get me started, to lease the building."

Since then, Casciotta also has helped Bagarus promote M&M Automotive by passing out fliers and sending him referrals.

"I treat him like he's my father," said Bagarus, whose real father, Mihaly Bagarus, 61, helps answer the phone at the shop. "He takes care of me like I'm his son."

Business has been a little slow getting started. But Bagarus said he is determined to make the business a success and to repay Casciotta.

"We're trying to come back out of the hole," Bagarus said. "I would've never gotten here without him."

Casciotta is not worried about his investment.

"I figure if it works out, over the next 20 years, I'll save plenty of money," he said.