Dozens wait for justice from man accused in 'Smokey and the Bandit' car scam

akenney@newsobserver.comFebruary 5, 2014 

Burt Reynolds and the famous Pontiac Trans-Am that appeared in the 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS

— The state of North Carolina has permanently banned a man accused of preying on his customers’ nostalgia for the 1977 hit “Smokey and the Bandit.”

A judge on Tuesday assessed a $28 million penalty against Robert Allen McElreath, ordered the car-builder to pay refunds, and forbade him and his numerous companies from conducting business in North Carolina.

The scam’s victims spanned the globe, including cancer patients, returning veterans and at least one bereaved woman. McElreath is accused of collecting nearly $1 million in false orders for restored Pontiac Trans Am vehicles, a model that had a starring role in the Burt Reynolds movie.

Like “the Bandit,” McElreath is on the run from the law. Authorities in Buncombe County are pursuing more than two dozen felony charges of obtaining property by false pretense, but they haven’t found him yet.

Edward Thompson had loved the Pontiac Trans Am for decades, since he first saw the movie “Smokey and the Bandit.” When he was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease last year, he decided it was time to buy.

“Before he can’t drive anymore at all, he’s going to get in the car he always dreamed of,” said his widow, Carol Thompson. So he lined up a purchase – $15,000 for a 1978 Pontiac Trans Am “Bandit” from McElreath, who said he knew someone with the same disease and that he’d cut a special deal.

“I don’t know if it was the drug he was on, but he fell for it,” Carol Thompson said. “Hook, line and sinker.”

Almost two years later, Carol Thompson has not received the car that was her husband’s last wish. She got a refund of only $2,000, and even that’s better than what many have received, she said.

In court filings, the attorney general’s office accused McElreath of doing business under names like Build-A-Bandit, Pick-a-Pony, Pontiac Pros and Common Man Classic Hot Rods and collecting at least $840,000 for orders he never fulfilled, often demanding that customers wire money before work could begin.

Operating out of businesses listed in Black Mountain and Fairview, near Asheville, McElreath is accused of scamming customers between 2011 and 2012, according to Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the attorney general. Many of the would-be customers were from Georgia, the setting for the movie that made the car famous.

Thompson had a long series of exchanges with the man behind the business, whom she calls “Bob.” As things got tenser, he accused her of spitting on his employees and manipulating a young man into giving her a new contract on her late husband’s purchase, she said.

Thompson last heard from McElreath in early February 2012, when he wrote in a mass email that a complaining customer had finally “won” and that he was entering bankruptcy.

“They just have zero conscience, and it’s awful,” Thompson said, referring to McElreath and business associates. “They have no sense of guilt or shame for what they’ve done to families.”

McElreath has not made any filings or defended himself against a civil suit filed by the attorney general’s office, which resulted in Tuesday’s default judgment, according to court documents.

However, Thompson figures she’s unlikely to see any refund. It appears that McElreath “does not have any of the money left,” according to Talley. Thompson doesn’t care about that.

“It’s not about the money anymore. Everybody’s written it off,” she said. “They can pay it off with jail.”

Jail time will depend on the authorities finding McElreath. Thompson also wants to see charges pressed against McElreath’s employees and a close relation. Buncombe County officials, who likely would handle those charges, weren’t available for comment Wednesday on their investigation.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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