Dealer's death leaves Jeep buyers in limbo
By Sandy Semans Ross
Special to The Daily Advance
Tuesday, January 8, 2019
MANTEO — Mario Sanchez of Montgomery County, Md., bought and paid for a customized Jeep Wrangler from a Currituck County dealer. Now he wants to know where it is.
But he’s not the only customer of Wells Auto on the hunt for their purchased vehicle from the now-closed dealership.
There could be as many as dozen others stuck in the same predicament.
Like Sanchez they purchased a Jeep Wrangler from Wells Auto in Lower Currituck. Mike Wells, managing member of a limited liability company that owned the business, previously told The Daily Advance the business was expected to open sometime about Labor Day of last year and that he and his wife, Beverly, were working to make the dealership a reality.
Approximately three months after the projected opening, however, Mike Wells committed suicide.
Because the company was set up as a limited liability company which protects owners from individual liabilities, Wells’ death left a very complex legal situation.
Wells died on Nov. 25, just five days after Sanchez said his second and final installment payment check was cashed for a total cost of $55,000.
But Sanchez said he has not received a vehicle and has been told that there is no money to refund his investment.
All of Wells Auto’s assets have been frozen by the N.C. Division of Motor Vehicles License and Theft Bureau, which also secured the vehicles at the dealership shortly after Well’s death until ownership could be determined.
The agency’s involvement was prompted by multiple complaints from customers like Sanchez left in the lurch following Wells’ death. Some customers also have filed complaints with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.
It appears that Wells took what might be simple answers to some of the queries with him when he died.
As of yet, there is no estate for Wells recorded, and questions remain about whether the assets of a limited liability company can be merged with an individual’s estate.
In an effort to resolve the issue, Sanchez and others who either did not receive their Jeeps or never received a signed title have been corresponding with attorney J. Patrick Haygood and a colleague at the Greensboro law firm of Carruthers & Roth. The firm has been working to help settle title issues, find vehicles and whittle down the list of concerned buyers from about 35-40 to perhaps 10-12.
Making Wells Auto customers whole appears to be a work in progress as attorneys and state investigators work to tease apart the threads of a tapestry that began in many cases with a company website for the business that operated for about 16 years in Warrenton, Va.
The used Jeep dealer purchased relatively new Jeep Wranglers for customers who also wanted him to customize their purchases. That work was done onsite.
Some buyers found the dealership through other satisfied customers while others located it by surfing the internet and finding the website. The majority of buyers appear to have dealt long distance with the company without ever visiting Wells Auto’s business location.
Wells Auto’s online “store” included photos of Jeeps that were available for purchase and listed the advantages of dealing with the company, which included help finding financing and warranties. Social media and online Jeep forums often mentioned the company, which seemed to draw consistently high praise.
According to emails from the law firm to customers left in the lurch following Wells’ death, Carruthers & Roth also has been working with the DMV License and Theft agency.
On Dec. 19, Haygood’s colleague, Trish Barfield, emailed an update to the frustrated consumers who found themselves with titles without Wells’ signature or, in some instances, with no clue as to where their purchased vehicles are.
“We continue to work directly with the NC DMV, out-of-state licensing agencies and lenders. However, this situation is far from resolved,” Barfield noted. “There is nothing that can be done to expedite this process because of the magnitude of the issues and parties involved.”
She alerted those customers who have titles that they will experience “issues in trying to register your vehicle because the title is still (in most cases) in the name of Wells Auto and there is not a proper signatory at this time to sign the title over to the new owner… As I receive information about how a respective state will handle it, I will share that with the group....”
Barfield also noted that “the other big question” buyers have is when their vehicle can be picked up.
“We do not have an answer to that yet,” she said in the email. “I recognize that everyone is anxious, your money has been invested, and you have been already waiting for a while, possibly even before the death of Mike Wells. However, this is a very complicated matter and it is going to take time and the amount of time it will take is going be different than the amount of time you expect.”
Several sources have said that some, if not all, the vehicles held at the company’s location in Currituck will be released by DMV to those owners whom officials have been able to identify within the next few days.
Asked to confirm the Jeep handover and the status of the case, DMV communications officer John Brockwell declined comment this week, citing the ongoing investigation.