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One year in the life of a lemon: three victims, 70,000 missing miles

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A WGVU News probe uncovers three victims, fraudulent paperwork and a doctored odometer rolled back 70,000 miles. It also triggers an investigation by the Secretary of State.

Hear part two of 'The Life of a Lemon' here.

It starts with Sara Zainabo, who needed a car.

The mother of seven is a Congolese refugee who resettled in west Michigan several years ago.

Sara didn’t need anything fancy - a vehicle large enough to ferry her kids around. Reliable enough to get back and forth from work.

So in February 2015, Sara buys a 2004 Honda Odyssey with 131,000 miles. She spends $4,200.

Her troubles start the next day. 

Sara tells her story with the help of her social worker and interpreter, Patient Baraka, who translates from Swahili.

"I drove it one day and the same day the vehicle got some problem – mechanical problem. And the next day, I went [back] to see him [Tam]." 

Sara says when she goes back, Tam Van Vo – the man who sold her the vehicle - tells her, no problem. He’ll get her another car. He gives her the title to an Acura MDX and says, just drive the Honda for now.

So she does.

"When I call him, he say no, no, no, no – [the new vehicle] is not ready. Took one month. Took two months," she says. "And I keep driving the broken vehicle until it stops on the street."

That happens in June.

Sara says she takes it back to Tam, who refuses to give her the other vehicle or fix the one she has – unless she pays again. So she leaves the car there.

In July, she files a small claims suit for the $4,200. That’s decided in her favor in September.

We meet her in November.

Both Sara and the court are so far unable to collect what’s owed. 

And when we take a deeper look at court records, we find about a dozen cases against Tam Van Vo, spanning from 2000 to 2015, under several personal and business names: Tam’s Auto Repair, Tam’s Auto Shop, Vo’s Motor Sports. Kytam Van, and Vam, Vo.

Then we meet Roger Sheehy.

"The car looked beautiful. And it had 134,000 miles, I think." 

Roger was in the market for a vehicle for his grandson last December. He says they find a car on Craigslist – a 2004 Honda Odyssey. $4,200.

Roger says they buy the car, cash-only, from a woman. A name is already on the vehicle’s title – a Sara Zainabo. He assumes that’s the woman he’s buying it from.

They drive it home.

"But it had [a] leak," Roger says. "And so my grandson took it to a dealer – a friend of his, who told him the car’s been in a wreck."

Roger calls the man he was first in contact with - who refuses to take the car back. And out of other options, he says he trades the car in, for another vehicle, to a dealership in Grand Haven.

Which is where we find the car, in January, for sale.

Again.

This time, it's more than $6,000.

But there’s another problem.

Unbeknownst to Roger, Sara or the Grand Haven dealership – someone has rolled back the Honda’s odometer 70,000 miles.

According to state paperwork, the Honda had 204,004 miles when it was sold at salvage.

As of February 2015, it had 131,000. 

"No. I buy the car like that.”

That’s Tam.

Tam confirms most of this: he sold the car to Sara, then to Roger, with Sara’s name forged on the new sale title. He says he thought that was OK because of the judge's ruling, and that his girlfriend was the one who wrote Sara's name.

But he says he didn’t have anything to do with the odometer.

Tam says he bought it as-is from an agent of Lee Auto Export – a Grand Rapids-area dealer – who bought it at salvage. 

Lee Auto Export confirms the purchase and sale, but say they had nothing to do with the odometer either.

State paperwork shows the car had 204,004 miles in January 2015. The next record - the first title to Sara - gives an odometer reading of 131,000.

A corporate representative of Insurance Auto Auctions was unable to definitively confirm the auction's sale with the information provided - which included the vehicle's VIN number and applicable state sale history.

But odometer fraud wasn't the only issue.

"I ask him, do you have a license to buy and sell cars?," Roger says. "He didn’t answer me." 

Because Tam does operate a storefront – at least he did earlier in 2015, when Sara bought her car.

What he doesn’t have is a license.

"You can face some pretty hefty fines if you’re found to be acting as an auto dealer in an unlicensed way." 

And that’s Fred Woodhams with the Secretary of State.

Woodhams says Tam has never been licensed with the state as an auto dealership. Tam has been licensed before as a repair facility, but that expired years ago. He’s also received four complaints.

We ask Tam about his repair history as well.

"… No more, no more." 

But you’re still repairing cars? 

"Ah – not really, you know."

There are court cases that say you did a bad job on repairing a car in 2012, and in 2014.

"Yeah, that ah …. Yeah. I don’t know."

After we uncover the situation and report it to the Secretary of State, an inquiry is opened. That shortly becomes an investigation.

And then, coming into February, Sara and Roger both receive their money back.

Woodhams confirms the investigation includes odometer fraud, and that Tam isn’t the only person under the spotlight.

The Honda itself has been returned to Tam. 

According to state regulations, the Honda cannot be sold as a road-legal vehicle now. It can be sold again, at auction, for parts.

But with any luck, the life of this particular lemon is over.

Hear part two of 'The Life of a Lemon' here.

Hilary is a General Assignment and Enterprise reporter for WGVU Public Media. She joined WGVU in September 2014 after several years of experience as a local news reporter, anchor and photojournalist in Midland, Saginaw and Bay counties. She's also worked as a financial and business reporter and audio field producer.
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