By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
He calls himself a "DMV Specialist," but his clients call Randolph Williams "the Title Man." Williams' numerous customers hire him to obtain Florida titles -- legal documents of ownership. And for a $150 fee, he has an uncanny ability to get the documents quickly and easily, be they for a car, a boat, or a piece of heavy machinery. In his seven years in the business, he's gotten thousands of titles for used-car dealers, body shops, mechanics, marinas, and towing companies from Miami to West Palm Beach.
Williams' success is based on his mastery of state laws, which he routinely uses -- and, records show, he routinely breaks. Title applications that Williams has submitted to the state contain lies, forgeries, false notaries, and fictitious names and addresses, a New Times investigation has found. Each untruth and misrepresentation on those documents, according to Florida law, is a third-degree felony. The New Times investigation has also found that Williams has held phony auctions that he advertises in local newspapers, where his client is the only "bidder" and gets the car for well under its market value.
Police call it title fraud, which is a third-degree felony itself and can also legitimize other serious crimes, like car theft, odometer fraud, the "washing" of insurance claims and wrecks from cars' histories, and the illegal taking of cars by unethical auto mechanics, towing companies, and any other business that has access to vehicles. Some of the cars Williams tried to title for his clients were stolen; others were wrongly taken from their owners. Two million dollars' worth of luxury cars that he titled went to one Fort Lauderdale dealership, the Sako Leasing Company. While the paperwork Williams filed with the state claims that many of the Sako cars were "abandoned" in Broward County, Williams admits now that they actually came from another Sako dealership in Canada, which, if true, indicates that numerous laws were broken in those transactions, as well.
Other cars Williams titled were involved in various types of disputes. For instance, when a mechanic claims, rightly or wrongly, that a car owner hasn't paid him for work he's done, the mechanic hires Williams and soon gains title to the car, whether the mechanic should have it or not. Same thing with towing companies and marinas that have disputes over storage charges. While no criminal charge has ever been filed in these types of cases, several civil lawsuits claiming theft and fraud have been filed against either Williams or the company that hired him. Still other vehicles, listed by Williams as "foreign," which means simply that they come from out of state, remain mysteries.
The victims of title fraud include the owners of cars that have been taken, finance companies that had liens on the cars, insurance companies and their customers (who inevitably bear the burden of these crimes with rate hikes), and the state itself when both the spirit and the letter of the law are broken by fraud artists.
Though it's an inherent part of most vehicular crimes, rampant title fraud in South Florida is all but hidden -- from both police and the public, say law-enforcement officers. Virtually no one is watching over companies that do title work. Title businesses like Williams' require no state license; there is no state certification or education required for it. Because state regulators have no control over these businesses, the task of stopping fraud is left to law-enforcement agencies. Williams -- who boasts an extensive education and says he used to be a certified public accountant -- has been investigated for title fraud in the past, and the Florida Highway Patrol (FHP) claims to be investigating him right now. In Palm Beach County, a previous FHP investigation, beginning in 1997 and spanning 18 months, ended with nine felony counts of title fraud against Williams, who has yet to go to trial on any. The Florida Marine Patrol charged him with two felonies last year in a case involving a stolen boat. But the charges haven't come close to stopping him. Williams, who works in Deerfield Beach and is still hustling business at the age of 62, says he isn't about to stop doing title work.
"Fuck them," Williams says of state investigators. Sitting in his cluttered, book-lined office, he promises to fight the charges against him in court. "This is America. This is not a police state. I don't think they know what to do in these cases.... Cops are always making boo-boos and making asses out of themselves."
Even if Williams is convicted of title fraud, prosecutors say he'll likely get only probation because the alleged crimes are nonviolent, white-collar, third-degree felonies. Williams calls them "practically misdemeanors," and he swears he's never titled a car knowing that it was stolen or that there was any other illegality involved with it.
"Is this a crooked operation? Do I deal with crooks? Occasionally," Williams says, breaking into laughter.
Later he says, "If what I do is so wrong, then why am I still sitting here?"
Law-enforcement officials say the answer to that question is that the State of Florida and the federal government have failed to implement laws and needed information systems that would make it exceedingly more difficult to successfully commit title fraud. As long as the laws don't change, they say, neither will men like Randolph Williams.