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    They moved, but their cars are missing

    Months later, three newcomers to Florida don't have their cars. A disgruntled trucker appears to have taken them hostage in a pay dispute.

    By RICHARD DANIELSON, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 19, 2002


    PALM HARBOR -- For William and Patricia Kurtz, the decision to buy a house in Palm Harbor and to retire there was so easy that they made it in just one day.

    By comparison, shipping their 1999 Saturn from Long Island, N.Y., to Pinellas County has proved to be much harder. A trip that was supposed to take a week or so has dragged on for nearly three months. The only people who can say where their car is aren't talking.

    The best guess is that a trucker in North Carolina is holding the car hostage in a pay dispute with the moving company that the Kurtzes hired.

    "This is an outrageous thing that these people have done to us and others; and, so far, they've gotten away with it," said Patricia Kurtz, 73, a retired teacher and bank employee. "We're powerless to do anything about it."

    In a way, it could be worse. The Kurtzes at least have a second car that they did not trust to the moving company, Kingsway Auto Transport of Long Island.

    Maria Hoffmann of Sun City Center is not as fortunate.

    She shipped her only car, a 1990 Mercury Grand Marquis, on the same transport truck as the Kurtzes. It also has disappeared.

    Left without a car, Hoffmann bought a used golf cart that she uses, like many Sun City Center residents, to go to the grocery store and neighborhood clubhouse. If she needs a ride to the doctor, she has to rely on Sun City Center's Good Samaritan Services.

    "Nobody knows where the car is," said Mrs. Hoffmann, 67, a retired bookkeeper. "I have trouble with the insurance company (because) they don't want to recognize it as stolen. . . . I haven't heard anything in weeks. The detectives supposely are working on this, but they're not getting anywhere."

    Both Mrs. Hoffmann and the Kurtzes said that when they first called Kingsway, they got a series of evasions and suspicious stories about mechanical problems. Told of engine trouble, William Kurtz went so far as to find a parts supplier near where the breakdown supposedly took place.

    "I've told you where to get the parts," he said in a fax to the company. "Now go get them."

    These days, he suspects the truck never broke down at all. Given the circumstances, he said, "the delivery of our car has now converted into a theft."

    His insurance company is "ready to pay if we file a claim for a lost car," said Kurtz, 75, a retired executive vice president for JCPenney's real estate development operation. "I don't want to do that. We're not claims-filing people."

    At Kingsway Auto Transport, company owner Betty LaChance said she also is baffled and frustrated.

    "As far as I know, (Kurtz's car) is in the Carolinas," LaChance said last week. "They could be hidden anywhere in that area. There could be a barn someplace with three cars in it."

    LaChance said the cars were being held by an independent contractor who has carried cars between New York and Florida for her for years. She said he is paid by the week and usually gets $6,000 for making the trip up and back with eight or nine cars. But now she said he has demanded a month's pay -- more than $20,000 -- and is holding the cars hostage in the meantime. She has offered to give him $8,000; but she has not heard from him in weeks and says his mobile phone has been turned off.

    "I don't know what he was thinking," said LaChance, 58, who has filed a stolen vehicle report with New York authorities. "Now I can't even get hold of him. . . . I'll press charges. There's nothing else I can do."

    LaChance said she thinks that the stories about mechanical trouble that she passed on to customers were true -- at least at first.

    "That's what (the trucker and his brother) were telling me, so who knows?" she said.

    Both the Kurtzes and Mrs. Hoffman said they have spoken to detectives in New York and North Carolina. Mrs. Hoffman said a sheriff's official in North Carolina told her that his agency has used a helicopter to try to find the cars.

    In response to a reporter's inquiries last week, authorities in the two states did not provide information about the status of their investigations. A woman who answered the telephone at the driver's home in North Carolina said, "There's no cars around here;" and hung up on a Times reporter.

    In their frustration, the Kurtzes have appealed to the office of U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, which notified the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, an agency that regulates trucks and buses.

    Kingsway Auto Transport does not have a required federal motor carrier number -- a violation that could leave the company open to civil penalties -- but a spokesman said Friday that the agency is not investigating Kingsway or the North Carolina trucker.

    The agency's main mission is to prevent injuries and deaths from accidents involving trucks and buses, spokesman David Longo said. The agency does investigate cases in which movers have held household goods hostage. Last month, for example, it fined eight moving companies doing business in Florida a total of $365,500 for violating federal regulations.

    Usually in cases of goods being held hostage, the moving company agrees to deliver property for one price and then dramatically jacks up that price en route. Typically, the agency waits until it gets a series of allegations against a carrier to open an investigation.

    "One would not do it," Longo said.

    In Kingsway's case, a New York television station reported in May that several customers complained that it took more than a month to get their cars shipped from Florida to New York, but those customers eventually got their cars. LaChance told the station that she didn't know that trucks would not be available to deliver about 300 cars that were delayed.

    Last week, LaChance said she would refund the $510 that the Kurtzes paid to have their car shipped south. For Mrs. Hoffmann, the issue of a refund is moot because she did not pay in advance.

    "That's no problem," LaChance said. "I'll be happy to give them a refund. That's the least of my problems."

    After three months of waiting, what William Kurtz wants most is straight answers.

    "We would like to see the man picked up and sat in a chair and asked point-blank, 'Where are the cars?' " he said.

    He and his wife muse that by now their Saturn could have been sent to a chop shop, put on a boat to Russia or sent to Latin America to serve as a taxi.

    "The car may no longer exist," he said. "If so, we'd like to know that, too."

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