By Michael E. Miller
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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.
For the past few weeks, now reasonably healthy and mobile despite a pronounced limp, McDonald has had little to do while awaiting another surgery on his leg. "I was basically laying around, healing," he says. "Then I got bored a couple of weeks ago and thought, 'Hey, I already put all this time and money in this website. I might as well make sure people know about it. '"
So far, McDonald claims he has invested $10,000 in his anti-AutoNation website. That money has gone to pay for the development of the site, the billboard and trailer, and the dozens of picket signs he's planted.
Matt Santangelo, a 42-year-old registered nurse from Fort Lauderdale, is one of the many people who have seen McDonald's signs and posted a story on the website. Last April, Santangelo received a call from Maroone Dodge in North Miami regarding his 2000 Durango. The dealership had a special going for the purchase or lease of a new Dodge, the salesman told him. They'd give him six months free on a new lease or his current one. "I've got three months left on my lease," Santangelo told him, "and I'm already 2,000 miles over my limit. I'm just going to purchase the car."
"Oh, don't worry about it," Santangelo remembers the Maroone salesman telling him. "We'll take care of the extra miles. You're covered." At the dealership, the salesman told him that Maroone would let him out of his lease early and cover the extra miles if he'd buy a new Durango. And that's exactly what he did.
Then, on June 26, Santangelo received a letter from Chrysler informing him that he owed $2,100 on the old Durango. He called Maroone Dodge, angry as hell. They refused to help him, he contends. Then he called Chrysler. A representative for the carmaker told him that a dealership does not have authority to waive fees for additional mileage on a lease. Maroone Dodge had duped him, he claims. "They don't care anymore," Santangelo says. "The deal's done."
A Maroone Dodge representative did not return calls for comment.
Another person who posted his story on the website identifies himself as Jason from Miami. (In a phone interview, Jason requested that his last name not be used.) Jason claims Maroone hired him under the table to rig car auctions. For $100 a day, Jason would pretend to be an independent car dealer, and when a particular car wasn't fetching a price suitable to Maroone salesmen, the auctioneer would signal to him. Jason would then chime in, he claims. "[The auctioneer] would wave his finger up and down to bring it up $200, $300, maybe even $1,000," Jason recalls. "Nobody would ever get their money's worth."
Other postings about AutoNation and Maroone are just plain mean (and downright funny), such as this one, which parodies a popular commercial for the dealership: "For the biggest scams... in the land... who you gonna call... MAROONE!"
Company executives in the 410-foot-tall AutoNation tower in downtown Fort Lauderdale aren't laughing at McDonald's stunt. "Yeah, I've seen it," Marc Cannon, vice president of corporate communications, says of the website. "It's not worth my time commenting."
But it is worth AutoNation's money. On Friday, McDonald says, the company offered him $10,000 to kill the website. He turned down the offer.
So c'mon, Marc, for this guy to spend so much time and money on a website and then have dozens of other South Floridians complain about similarly poor treatment at AutoNation and Maroone dealerships, there must be some issue here, no? "We've got a tremendous amount of satisfied customers," Cannon answers. "For every person like this gentleman with the website, we have thousands and thousands of satisfied customers who have made us the number one car dealership in South Florida."
And that's probably true, if a bit exaggerated. In addition to nasty comments about crooked car salesmen, McDonald has received other messages that praise AutoNation and Maroone. He deletes them as fast as they come and makes no apologies, explaining that he believes many of those messages come from AutoNation employees. "This isn't a website for people who love Maroone," he says. "This is a website for people who had a problem with Maroone. They can start their own website, ilovemaroone.com. But mine isn't the place for them."
McDonald calls New Times late one afternoon in early October, his voice giddy. "The billboard's back up," he says, laughing. "I took it to an old strip mall at Stirling and Davie Road Extension."
Can you keep it there?
"We'll see," McDonald answers. "If they hit me with code violations, I'll just move it somewhere else. I've got plans. This could be huge. I'm entertaining the thought of doing some cable spots and buying a billboard on I-95. If I can hit the entire tricounty area, this might really be something."
Yeah, and maybe he can get Dan Marino as pitchman.