PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — The owner of a once-popular auto dealership has been convicted of ripping off customers.
Ed Stackhouse was among more than 30 people who claim Fred Najjar’s Pinellas Park dealership, Park Auto Mall, took their vehicles in on trade but never paid off the loans on their old cars.
“You know you go to a car dealership they take the trade-in and they are supposed to pay off the other guys,” said Stackhouse, one of more than 100 people called to testify in the case.
Pinellas County detectives arrested Najjar in 2018 after a three-year investigation into his business dealings. The trial lasted three weeks but jurors needed only a few hours to return guilty verdicts for scheming to defraud and theft.
Another witness, former Park Auto Mall customer Donnell Wilson, testified Najjar’s failure to pay off his trade and the vehicle he bought there, ruined his family financially and destroyed his credit. Wilson also stated he was not able to register the SUV he bought from Park Auto Mall because it had not been paid off. Wilson, a Pinellas County bus driver, said he spent thousands in legal fees trying to get his new vehicle registered.
Stackhouse said he got lucky. His bank forgave the loan after he was able to prove he had been defrauded.
The I-team began investigating Park Auto Mall in 2015. Najjar closed the dealership doors for good in February 2016. In 2018, Pinellas County detectives charged the then 53-year-old after a three-year investigation.
Over the course of the trial, prosecutors built their case on victim testimony and hundreds of documents including bounced checks for trade-ins. The defense countered that some of the transactions took place just as Najjar’s accounts were frozen and his business closed. Najjar’s attorney also blamed bad business practices saying there was never an intent to commit fraud.
After the guilty verdict was read, the judge ordered Fred Najjjar to be transported to the Pinellas County Jail, where he will remain until his sentencing on January 14. The maximum sentence of 30 years on each count is not expected in this case as Najjar has no prior criminal history.