In February, 2019, a peculiar news story made its way around the car internet. In what appeared to be yet another horror story about electric vehicle battery fires, a burned-out Tesla Model X carcass was found atop a frozen lake just outside Burlington, Vermont, as Jalopnik reported at the time. The local fire department said the owner was driving out to go ice fishing, hit a rock, heard hissing noises, and then later caught fire. Popular Mechanics then speculated the battery pack was damaged somehow in the impact with the rock.
But it turns out that the entire story was fabricated to cover up what was allegedly a basic Tesla theft scheme, according to an indictment filed by the United States Attorney for the District of Vermont. According to the press release announcing the charges, which was first spotted by Jalopnik, Michael A. Gonzalez of Colchester, Vermont did the digital equivalent of passing bad checks.
Tesla has famously eschewed the traditional car dealership model and promoted online sales. The company even briefly flirted with closing all of its retail locations, a move Elon Musk quickly pulled back from. To buy online, customers put a down payment of about $2,500 at time of purchase, then provide bank account details for either a wire or Automated Clearing House (ACH) transfer. Then, the customer either goes to a store and picks up the car or it is delivered to them. The customer also receives a Manufacturer’s Certificate of Origin so the customer can register the car under their name with the DMV. It appears Gonzalez noticed that Teslas could be picked up from the stores before the actual money is transferred. So if someone were to, say, have insufficient funds in their bank account to buy a $150,000 car, they would have the car registered in their name and be long gone by the time Tesla figured that out.
Gonzalez “bought” his first Tesla, a Model 3 priced at $58,200, in September 2018, according to the indictment. He used his real driver’s license and bank account, paying the $2,500 down payment, leaving $55,700 owed. On October 31, Gonzalez emailed Tesla to confirm he had received the car. In early November, Tesla tried and failed to bill him for that car because of insufficient funds in his account. In early December, Gonzalez sold the car to a used car dealership for about $42,500. He then repeated this process four more times with the more expensive Model X and roping in friends and relatives to buy the cars from Tesla before transferring the cars to his own name after delivery. In some cases, he made up fake bank account numbers altogether.
Teslas weren’t the only things Gonzalez allegedly stole. At one point, Gonzalez allegedly stole a $1,200 rocking chair from an unnamed store while charging his Tesla in Berlin, Vermont. This theft, while mentioned in the indictment, does not appear to be included in the list of charges.
All together, Gonzalez allegedly stole $607,000 in Teslas. Three were turned around and sold (one to the aforementioned dealer, another on Craigslist, and a third on eBay). One was repossessed for failure of payment. And the last burned on the lake.
Why did Gonzalez allegedly light one of the Teslas on fire? It appears to have been part of a half-baked attempt at an insurance scam. Gonzalez bought that particular Tesla in Tampa, Florida, using a Florida driver’s license. For whatever reason, Gonzalez was never given the Manufacturer’s Certificate of Origin, so he couldn’t register the car under his own name to re-sell it. After the car burned to the ice, Gonzalez filed a claim for damage with GEICO. But, as anyone who has ever filed a car insurance claim knows, you need to have the car registered under your name to make a valid claim. Gonzalez didn’t have that. So GEICO denied the claim. He bought another Tesla Model X three weeks later.
Gonzalez faces up to ten years for each count, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office press release. His attorney, Chandler Maston, told Motherboard via email, “This case has some sensational components to it, and it has drawn a lot of interest, understandably. We all have a natural tendency to rush to judgment, and the attention has certainly drawn with it that tendency. But our entire system is designed to be fair to people in Michael’s position, and we achieve fairness by requiring that judgment be reserved until all of the facts are out and presented to an impartial fact finder—be it judge or jury. I look forward to representing Michael in that process, and we’re confident that the facts will dispel the conceptions that are currently out there.” He added that if rocking chairs are worth $1,200 now, “I guess I better go through the attic again.”
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