A 1938 Talbot-Lago T150C-SS Goutte d’Eau Coupé “Teardrop Coupe,” serial number 90108, one of 16 believed to be made, is at the center of a complicated case that recently took a new turn. In June, the purported mastermind of its 2001 theft, Chris Gardner, was extradited from Switzerland.
The car had resurfaced in 2015 after being purchased by well-known car collector Rick Workman. When he tried to register the car in Illinois, it turned up on the stolen-car database and was confiscated. Litigation has gone on ever since, including getting the FBI involved.
The facts of the story as presented here come from the FBI and the plaintiffs.
The Talbot-Lago was originally imported to the U.S. by Luigi Chinetti, who sold it to radio- and TV-station owner Tommy Lee. After Lee’s death, ownership changed hands several times, ultimately passing to Roy Leiske, the owner of a successful plastics company in Milwaukee, WI. The car was partially disassembled for restoration and stored in his company’s warehouse.
At age 90 and with the car facing a lengthy restoration process, Leiske had given some thought to selling it. Gardner visited him to examine it and discuss a purchase. An offer was made but rejected by Leiske. Gardner then recruited the son of a girlfriend to break into the warehouse and steal the Talbot-Lago. The son, in turn, recruited another accomplice at a local bar.
The three men arrived at the warehouse about midnight, cut the alarm wires and broke in. Unable to move the car, they further dismantled it and carried the pieces out, the process made easier by the engine being out of the car. Masquerading as warehouse employees, they loaded everything into a truck and drove off. All in all, the heist took about seven hours.
Sale and discovery
After a few years, Gardner smuggled the Talbot-Lago, still in pieces, to Switzerland. He then had it restored in France. In late 2015, he sold the car for $7.6 million to an LLC owned by Workman, who was unaware of the theft.
Leiske died in 2005, passing his estate to his cousin, Richard Mueller. Mueller then teamed up with Joseph L. Ford III, who acquired a partial interest in the car. You might remember Ford from the saga of the Jack Swaters stolen Ferrari 375 Plus that was the subject of multiple “Legal Files” columns from 2010 to 2015. After learning about Workman’s innocent effort to title the car, they filed suit to recover it.
This has been anything but an open-and-shut case. The trial judge ruled that even though Mueller and Ford were the rightful owners of the Talbot-Lago, they could not get it back from Workman because the six-year statute of limitations had expired. Mueller and Ford appealed, and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed the decision, holding that the statute of limitations did not begin to run until return of the car was demanded. Workman appealed to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
“Legal Files” has often said that a thief cannot pass good title. While that is true, this case addresses how long the owner has to get the car back. The legal claim involved is called replevin, which is Latin for “It’s mine and I want it back.” Wisconsin has a six-year statute of limitations (actually a statute of repose), but the question is when the clock starts to run. Workman claimed it started with the theft, so Mueller and Ford were too late.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court focused on the statutory language referring to “wrongful detention.” The car was wrongfully detained by the thief, of course. But it was again wrongfully detained by Workman once he acquired it. So, every time a stolen car changes hands, a new six-year statute of limitations begins. The case was sent back to the trial court to apply the correct law.
Other states have different approaches to these timelines, with a common version being that the statute of limitations starts to run when the true owner first discovers the whereabouts of the stolen car. Either way, the result is similar, and the true owner can pursue a claim against the innocent purchaser, who then has to chase after the person from whom he purchased the car.
Meanwhile, the FBI became interested in the situation. After investigation, it concluded that federal crimes had been committed by Gardner in connection with the sale of the Talbot-Lago to Workman, but that the theft itself was a matter for state law. The FBI went to a federal grand jury and obtained an indictment. The charges are four counts of wire fraud using forged and fraudulent documents (20 years maximum each) and causing the car to be transported in foreign commerce from Switzerland to Chicago (10 years maximum).
Gardner was apprehended in Italy and placed under house arrest. He subsequently escaped and fled to Switzerland. The FBI had him extradited from there and imprisoned him at the Dodge Correctional Institution in Wisconsin, where he is currently being held without bail.
The engine currently in the Talbot-Lago is period-correct but stamped with counterfeit numbers. The original engine, which was also stolen from Leiske’s warehouse, disappeared for a while but turned up later. A French mechanic who claimed a lien for unpaid work on the engine offered it to Workman through intermediaries. Thinking that he already had the original engine in the car, Workman declined to buy it. The FBI went to France to retrieve the engine, and it is currently held in custody, its originality proved by chemically raising the numbers that had been ground off. The FBI has informed Mueller and Ford that they can take the engine at any time.
Gardner’s attorney, Jason Luczak, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the case against his client is “flimsy.” He alleged the case to be largely based upon information provided by Ford, who was previously Gardner’s attorney, and said Ford is out to get his client. If successful in convincing a judge of this, evidence provided by Ford could potentially be excluded. Ford, however, states that he does not practice law, has never represented Gardner, and in fact has been litigating against Gardner in multiple courts here and abroad since 2013.
Gardner and his attorney have insisted that he was not even in the country when the theft occurred, offering his passport as proof of the alibi. But the FBI discovered that Gardner actually had two passports, and the second one did establish his presence in the U.S. on the day of the theft. Also, Gardner’s co-conspirators in the theft are providing damaging testimony, independent from Ford.
Certainly, more litigation is inevitable. Although the Wisconsin Supreme Court decision seems to crater his case, Workman hasn’t given up on owning the car he bought in 2015. He is pressing the idea that Ford and Gardner were in cahoots, so it would be unfair to let the car go back to Ford and Mueller, who have the original ownership claim. That issue is set for summary judgment. If the judge rejects it, the Talbot-Lago would seem to be headed to Mueller and Ford.
But, of course, Workman could appeal that as well. If the judge decides there is any validity to Ford’s involvement with Gardner, the case will continue to trial. It seems that Workman has spent a considerable amount on legal representation on a case that is unlikely to go his way. He undoubtedly believes he has no choice, since it doesn’t look like he would ever be able to recover what he paid Gardner for the car if Gardner gets sentenced to prison. But, at some point, you have to come to grips with reality and cut your losses.
Mueller and Ford have every incentive to continue the battle. The Talbot-Lago could be worth eight figures, and their investment in additional legal fees could reward them well. As for Gardner, his situation looks pretty bleak, at least as the story is told by the FBI and the plaintiffs. Currently in his mid-60s, a conviction could effectively become a life sentence. We often see plea bargains in such situations. That always involves a guilty plea to something, and usually the admission of sufficient facts about the circumstances of the crime to support the plea. If that occurs, it could offer assistance to Mueller and Ford in resolving the civil litigation with Workman. Prosecutors are fully aware of that, and routinely try to manage plea bargains to assist victims.
The other possibility is that everyone sticks to their positions, and this drags on for years. ♦