TAMPA — Nearly four months ago, lenders served notice to the owners of Tampa Mitsubishi that they were in default on $6.5 million in loans.
The letter to Tony Mirabella and his out-of-town business partner, Stuart Roffman, gave the pair two months to pay up. Otherwise Kentucky-based Republic Bank said it would seize vehicles from the dealership's lots as partial payment for its losses.
Tampa Mitsubishi closed suddenly this week. Hillsborough County Sheriff's deputies descended on the property to begin towing away vehicles.
Some customers were stunned and panicked. But court records show the dealership was facing a series complaints that accused it of failing to pay bills and engaging in deceptive sales practices. At least five customers claimed the dealership failed to pay off loans on vehicles they used as trade-ins.
"We want to be clear that at no time have we misrepresented or been deceitful to current or former customers," said Lisa Brock, a spokeswoman for Mirabella, in a written statement Friday. "We are sincerely sorry for the inconvenience of closing our store. We do, however, have every intention of seeing that all of our obligations are met as we manage through this to ensure that our customers are fairly treated."
Tampa police confirmed they are investigating at least one complaint by a customer who reported not receiving a title for a vehicle purchased two months ago.
"Right now we don't know if there's anything criminal," said police spokesman Steve Hegarty. "It could be a consumer complaint."
Gina Hutchins told the Tampa Bay Times that her father, Vern Hutchins, bought a 2016 Mercedes E-class in March for nearly $40,000 in cash. The father and daughter are from Vermont but live in Florida during the winter. They called Tampa police on Friday after learning the dealership had shut down.
They're well versed in how auto dealerships work: The family business, up until six years ago, was selling John Deere tractors at a dealership of their own.
Hutchins said while she wasn't impressed with the service at Tampa Mitsubishi, nothing during the purchase set off red flags. But two months later, they still don't have a title. The temporary plates have expired, leaving the new ride illegal to drive.
"They won't send it," Gina Hutchins said. "They've been unreachable and when you do reach someone, it's a bad attitude."
The fallout from defaulting on the type of loans used to front the cost of cars inside auto dealerships never ends well, according to banking expert Don Coker.
"I handle all sorts of banking and finance cases," said Coker, who has been an expert witness in hundreds of trials. "This is one of the sloppiest areas in all of it. It's a messy field."
In order for car dealerships to have rows and rows of sparkly new and used cars, they often take out what's known as a floor plan loan, Coker said. This is a rolling loan that requires regular updates. Once a car is sold, the dealership usually has a week to send that money to its lender. Often the bank will hold on to the car title as collateral, only releasing it once it has its payment.
Coker, who lives in Atlanta, said a local dealership in his area defaulted recently, prompting law enforcement, acting for the bank, to lock up the entire facility. Customers' cars were still inside getting serviced. It took months for people to get their vehicles back, he said.
In its early May court filings, Republic Bank attorneys said it did not receive payment for 71 cars that were sold. Later court filings indicate that the dealership voluntarily returned 119 cars this month, but at least 12 were still unaccounted as of May 14.
Brock said Mirabella was unaware the bank had sought court permission to begin seizing vehicles. In the statement issued through his spokeswoman, he said the bank told him the original Jan. 31 letter warning the dealership was in danger of defaulting on its loans was a formality. Mirabella was told that "everything would be okay and he continued to work with them in good faith," Brock said.
The attorney handling the case for Republic Bank declined comment while the ligation is ongoing.
Before the bank came to collect, the dealership was already facing at least six open lawsuits in Hillsborough County Civil Court.
One, from iHeart Radio, says the dealership owes roughly $30,000 for unpaid on-air commercials. A company out of Texas is suing for at least $15,000 for missed payments on rotating car display. Customer lawsuits accuse salesmen of being deceptive or falsifying documents.
In one lawsuit filed last month, Lake County couple Alaina and Sean Samuel's lawyer described the 2015 GMC Yukon they purchased as a "damaged, unsafe money pit."
The couple said in their lawsuit they were sold the car under the false pretense it had been in no accidents and had only one previous owner. They say they later found out it had three previous owners and had been used as a taxi. The lawsuit also alleges Alaina Samuel was coerced into signing a document a month after the car was purchased that said the vehicle's history was properly disclosed.
Attempts to reach the couple were unsuccessful. Brock said they were given accurate information about the vehicle's history, as well as a good price on the Yukon.
Another lawsuit accuses a salesman of forging a customer's signature for an extended warranty she didn't want. The lawsuit says that employee was fired for stealing. Brock said Mirabella declined to comment on what he described as a personnel issue, but said the woman was refunded her money.
"One can file a lawsuit without merit but it does not mean it is true," Brock said.
Brock said the Better Business Bureau complaints regarding trade-in loans have been resolved and that the dealership's current records show "no outstanding issues." But because the bank seized its records Mirabella is unsure what cars do or do not have titles.
On Friday, another dealership owned by Mirabella — Mirabella Motors on W Spruce Street — was closed for business. Deputies with the Sheriff's Office continued seizing vehicles at the Mitsubishi dealership at 4636 N Dale Mabry. A slick black BMW was hitched on to a tow truck and deputies filed in and out of the vacant white building.
The day before, deputies cleared out the desks, computers, fixtures — anything the bank deemed had value. Not all of the cars taken were ones Republic Bank had financed.
Based on its calculations, the bank reported Roffman, who could not be reached for comment, and Mirabella owed roughly $5.9 million as of May 6.
Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writer Martha Asensio Rhine contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at email@example.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.