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Bait and switch? Or bait and sue?

Arden Dittmer doesn't trust car dealers. He says they rip him off.

So in April he showed up at Ed Morse Cadillac with an ad for a 2002 Cadillac Escalade priced at $16,990, enough cash to buy it and a witness to catch the dealer in case the price climbed.

He had never done business there before. But he called his lawyer ahead of time, just to be safe.

Sure enough, a salesperson handed him a letter of retraction from Auto Mart magazine, saying the price was in error. The Escalade was $34,990.

"Are you refusing to sell me the vehicle at the advertised price?" Dittmer says he asked the salesperson and a manager.

Now, Dittmer, 42, of Clearwater is suing Morse Operations Inc. for breach of contract, seeking $18,000 from the company for not honoring the ad.

The dealership's attorney, Michael Siegel, said Dittmer knew enough about cars to know that the low advertised price for the luxury sport utility vehicle must have been a mistake. He also said Dittmer wasn't really interested in buying the SUV.

"This lawsuit was a setup from the very beginning," Siegel told a jury Monday as this week's civil trial began in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

On April 5, two days after Dittmer's 10-year-old son spotted the ad, Dittmer took time off from his then-job as a Clearwater city planner to drive to Tampa and see the SUV. He paid a private investigator to watch the transaction, on advice from his lawyer, Richard Heiner.

Dittmer and Heiner had heard of the old "bait and switch" tactic - reeling customers in with a low price, claiming the car in the ad already has been sold and shifting attention to a more expensive, available car.

"I just didn't want to get taken," Dittmer testified.

Dittmer arrived at the dealership with $20,000 in $100 bills stuffed into his pockets, he said. The private investigator snapped photos of the SUV while Dittmer walked around it.

But Siegel, referring to Dittmer's deposition in the case, said that instead of test-driving the SUV, Dittmer started the engine and then simply pulled the SUV 1 inch forward and 1 inch backward before offering to buy it. He never tried to negotiate a price, Siegel said. He said that if Dittmer had been legitimately interested in buying the SUV, he would not have needed a private investigator to document the purchase.

"Mr. Dittmer prepared himself to be a victim," Siegel said.

Dittmer, who now works as director of planning for St. Petersburg developer Sun Vista, said he had been a victim too many times.

His Volkswagen Cabriolet stopped working eight months after he bought it, he said. His Ford Centurion payments left him with sticker shock. A man selling a Hummer in Portugal demanded that Dittmer send money before seeing the vehicle. Dittmer's mind was sealed on car dealers.

"I didn't trust them as far as I could throw them," Dittmer said.

Siegel said the price was a simple misprint and that the same SUV was advertised in the Tampa Tribune the same day for $34,990.

"You were laying a trap, weren't you?" Siegel asked Dittmer.

"No," Dittmer answered. "I was not."

The jury trial continues today.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at (813) 226-3354 or azayas@spttmes.com.

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