Gino Marchetti Jones insists that the people who donated their cars to him were helping Baltimore's needy. But state police beg to differ, and yesterday they raided Mr. Jones' used car lot, saying the cars that were supposed be donated to charity were being sold instead, with Mr. Jones pocketing the money.
Police officers served three search warrants at Mr. Jones' Columbia home, a towing company in Elkridge and a used car dealership in Hanover, seizing boxes of files and recording information on hundreds of cars jammed onto a lot on Dorsey Road.
Mr. Jones, a convicted car thief labeled a "very good con man" by his probation officer, was not charged in connection with the alleged scheme. Police said information gathered in yesterday's raids will be turned over to a grand jury.
The 34-year-old man was arrested as he left his home in the 11000 block of Bare Sky Lane in his BMW and charged with driving on a suspended license, driving an uninsured car and theft of a dealer's license plate.
Mr. Jones posted $2,500 bail and was released yesterday afternoon by a District Court commissioner. No court date has been set.
Investigators said it could take a while to track down the owners of the 220 cars parked in the unnamed lot -- formerly called A&B; Auto Sales -- in the 1800 block of Dorsey Road near the Howard-Anne Arundel County line, and to determine how many of those owners thought they were donating their cars to charity.
Sgt. Michael E. Davey of the state police said Mr. Jones took out classified ads in 17 newspapers in Howard and Anne Arundel counties, including The Sun, that included a toll-free telephone number. The ad solicited car donations for the "Baltimore City Therapeutic Fund for Mentally and Physically Challenged Citizens."
But instead of giving the cars to the charity, he resold the cars and "simply pocketed the money," said Lt. Gregory M. Shipley, a state police spokesman. Meanwhile, people who donated the cars are waiting for receipts so that they can claim tax deductions.
In a short telephone interview yesterday evening, Mr. Jones said the episode was nothing more then "a mix-up in paperwork."
He said the therapeutic fund should have been listed as a nonprofit organization, not a charitable one. He said it is legitimate but would not provide the name of a person at the fund to contact.
"There are perfect records of every car that came in and went out," Mr. Jones said, and all the money is in a bank account waiting to be donated. "Nobody defrauded anybody," he said, referring further questions to his lawyer.
While police were photographing and recording the identification numbers of the cars on the Dorsey Road lot, Jacqueline Bahar of Severn showed up to claim a small trailer she had bought from the dealership for $750 earlier in the week.
"I saw it, I liked it, and I bought it," she said. "I didn't think there was anything wrong until I remembered there was no name to this place."
While she was there, Sergeant Davey looked up her paperwork and said he found that the original owner thought he was donating to a charity. "I feel like a fool, I really do," Ms. Bahar said. "I feel cheated, and I feel used."
Mr. Jones has been in and out of jail often over the past 12 years, on charges ranging from making crank telephone calls to selling cocaine.
He has claimed police harassment and said in an interview two years ago that he had gone legitimate as a self-employed "car cleaner."
He is known for the trouble he gets into -- and for his ability to escape tough jams. In 1988, he got a suspended 20-year sentence after pleading guilty to four counts of cocaine distribution and 11 counts of auto theft after reminding the judge that he had cooperated with the police investigation.
Since then, he has been charged with a variety of crimes, from burglary to credit card fraud, but has been convicted only of driving with a suspended license.
Prosecutors said Mr. Jones had the ability to "make a fortune" in car sales if he stayed legitimate, and his probation officer has called him a "slick and manipulative individual" in reports.
Probation officer Mallory S. Fisher wrote that she "would rate Mr. Jones as a very good con man who knows the system well and can manipulate it to his advantage."
After one arrest in 1989, he vowed to a reporter that he would move to Florida, prompting MVA administrator Robert Bower to say he wished the promise would be kept.
Mr. Jones was considered an expert in "curbstoning," as dealing in used cars for profit by selling them by the side of the road is called. Yesterday, state police officers pointed out several cars parked along U.S. 1 bearing Mr. Jones' trademark -- markings on the windshield made with white shoe polish.
It was a such a car that led to the most recent police investigation. A man who bought a car displayed on U.S. 1 in Elkridge in August complained to state police when he was unable to obtain a title for it at the Motor Vehicle Administration.
After finding several cars for sale along the highway, Sergeant Davey and Trooper Robert Myers contacted the original owners and found they thought they had donated the cars to charity.
A few weeks ago, Sergeant Davey said, he called the toll-free number and asked about buying a van that a customer had given to Mr. Jones for the charity.
"Gino Jones himself met me and attempted to sell me the van," Sergeant Davey said.
Information gathered from that incident and from 10 other people who gave their cars to Mr. Jones led to yesterday's search warrants. If the cars were to be donated to charity, police said, they will give the cars to the Kidney Foundation and forward the receipts to the original owners.
Police said they have no idea how many victims there might be. Sergeant Davey said 326 calls had been made to the toll-free number since the ads began appearing two months ago.