By Michael E. Miller
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By Jake Rossen
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By Chris Joseph
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A shiny gray Chevy Silverado propped up by oversized tires pulls into the Home Depot parking lot on the corner of Stirling Road and University Avenue in Davie. Rick McDonald, a fair-skinned 33-year-old wearing an orange baseball cap, climbs down slowly and deliberately from the truck cab, unable to conceal his mischievous grin. "They're making me take it away," he says, pointing to a 10-foot-by-20-foot billboard he's erected. "Code violations."
Resting on an unhitched trailer, McDonald's white billboard reads in large black letters: "AutoNationRippedMeOff.com." Behind the white canvas, traces of another billboard can be seen on close examination: "Sub Central," it reads. "Just Great Sandwiches."
"That was for my old restaurant," explains McDonald, a lifelong entrepreneur who moved from California to South Florida eight years ago. "I sold it a few months back."
McDonald has become a one-man public-relations nuisance for H. Wayne Huizenga's $19 billion AutoNation, the largest new and used-car seller in the United States, as well as for Maroone, a division of the company. McDonald's website (which is also accessible at www.MarooneRippedMeOff.com) details almost 100 horror stories from dissatisfied customers. One warns of the bait and switch; Mike from Pembroke Pines thought he was buying a car when Maroone gave him paperwork for a lease. Another, Cathy from Davie, complains of "poor workmanship" at a Maroone dealership that, according to independent mechanics, ruined a transmission and caused more than $3,000 in damage that was not covered under warranty. Even a man who says he was a Maroone insider, Jason, jumps into the action, claiming he was hired to rig auctions for Huizenga's company.
Most of the stories come from people who have seen McDonald's billboard or one of his many picket signs, which have been planted on the corners of busy intersections and at I-95 exit ramps. In the past month, McDonald has placed dozens of 3-by-1-foot placards along busy roads in Broward County. On September 20, he even put one in front of the AutoNation headquarters in downtown Fort Lauderdale. It was quickly removed.
The man's grudge against AutoNation dates back to November 2001, when he visited Maroone Chevrolet in Pembroke Pines intent on purchasing a little red Corvette. Although the dealership's manager disputes the disgruntled car buyer's story, this is what McDonald claims happened:
About two years ago, he walked into the dealership on Pines Boulevard and told Maroone salesman Patrick Robinson that he wanted to buy the Corvette and park that sweet ride in front of his $356,240 home in Cooper City. Robinson then informed McDonald that he wasn't approved to buy it. The salesman suggested a lease. Reluctantly, McDonald agreed, handing over a $5,000 personal check and authorizing a $5,000 charge to his credit card as a deposit.
"After I contracted and was waiting in the lobby for my new Corvette to be delivered to me," McDonald writes on his website, "I changed my mind and said, as I originally stated, I do not want to lease this vehicle. They came over to me, patted me on the back, and told me to just take it home and sleep on it and show it to my wife. If I still felt I didn't want the car in the morning, they would tear up the contract and refund my deposit."
The next day, McDonald says he returned the Corvette at 11 a.m. The Maroone representatives, he alleges, said they'd tear up the contract and return his money as promised. He maintains he'd put no more than 100 miles on the odometer.
A week passed. There was no refund check. McDonald called.
Robinson, the salesman, told McDonald that the manager, Ken Graham, had finalized the lease. The contract was binding. A furious McDonald drove to the Maroone dealership. Graham refused to see him and then threatened to call the police if he didn't leave, according to the Cooper City man. The next day, he received a call from Graham. The dealership would release him from the contract, the manager explained, if he paid $5,000 to compensate for the vehicle's depreciation. It was, after all, a used Corvette now. "My credit was on the line," McDonald recalls. "If I wouldn't have given them the $5,000, they would have ruined my credit. I'd still have that car hanging over me."
Graham contends that McDonald kept the Corvette for five days, not one, and that he returned it with 462 miles. "It was an issue for us that we had an expensive car like that with so many miles," Graham says.
In the months following the incident, McDonald set up the website and pulled stunts to advertise it, including hiring day laborers one afternoon to picket in front of Maroone Chevrolet. He received limited response: a few postings by fellow disgruntled car buyers. By the end of February 2002, McDonald had abandoned the project, giving up on his street-level advertising campaign and allowing the website to languish.
Then tragedy struck. On March 1, 2002, a Ford F-150 broadsided McDonald while he was riding his custom Big Dog motorcycle. His left leg was mangled in the accident, the flesh torn away to expose the bone. He was in the hospital for four months. Since then, he's been in and out of the operating room, arguing with insurance companies and living off his savings.