A whodunit of the '65 Nova SS
The Saginaw County Sheriff’s Department has yet to explain how 56,000 miles were added to the odometer of a classic muscle car that it seized and held for over a year before selling it. The county also denied a Freedom of Information Act request for more documents regarding the vehicle following a previous article detailing the civil asset forfeiture case.
On Sept. 13, it was reported that 56,000 miles had been added to a 1965 Chevy Nova SS, which was owned by Shiawassee County couple Gerald and Royetta Ostipow, while it was in the possession of the department. Information in the report came from a seizure-related form from the department as well as a title transfer document.
A day later, Saginaw County Sheriff William Federspiel went on the Frank Beckmann Show and said allegations were not fact-based, citing the same title documents.
“A lot of what I’ve seen reported is allegation not based on fact and we have copies of the title and the mileage and all that,” he said.
Days later, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy sent the county a FOIA request asking for the Chevy Nova’s vehicle logs, or sign-out sheets.
On Sept. 26, the county denied the FOIA request, saying it did not have the requested documents. It added that the previous news report was “based on inaccurate factual representations, including the false premise that the 1965 Chevrolet Nova seized by the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Department was subsequently operated by the Saginaw County Sheriff’s Department.”
The Ostipows filed the lawsuit on Aug. 24 with the U.S. District Court in Detroit against Federspiel, the department and a number of unnamed sheriff's deputies, alleging that the department seized hundreds of thousands of dollars of the couple’s property. The suit also said that the department sold the seized property — including the Nova — before there was a final determination of forfeitability and despite the Ostipows never being charged with a crime.
The lawsuit stems from a series of searches in April 2008 of the Ostipows' two Shiawassee County properties. In addition to seizing the vehicle and an accompanying trailer, deputies also took dozens of animal mounts, tools, deer blinds and farming implements. Those items were stored on a farmhouse property the Ostipows owned, down the street from their residence. Their grown son, Steven Ostipow, lived in the farmhouse.
Deputies found marijuana plants and seeds from a growing operation their son maintained before the department seized various items. The elder Ostipows have claimed they did not know he was growing marijuana.
A trial court later ruled that Ostipows were not, in fact, innocent owners, but knew about the marijuana operation. The Michigan Court of Appeals later found that Royetta Ostipow’s portion of property seized from the farmhouse — including the Nova — should be returned. Another trial court found that “most of the personal property seized was improperly taken and was ordered non-forfeitable.” The lawsuit filed by the senior Ostipows alleges Federspiel and his department sold off the property before a ruling came down on the forfeitability of the seized items.
The title and seizure documents show that 56,000 miles were added to the vehicle.
According to an official forfeiture document dated April 24, 2008, a detective wrote that the vehicle’s odometer read 73,865. According to the “title assignment by seller” form dated June 2009 — around the time the department sold the vehicle for $1,500 — the mileage was recorded as 130,000 and signed by Federspiel.
Federspiel and Saginaw County did not respond to questions asking for an explanation of how, if nobody in the department had driven the vehicle, 56,000 miles were add to the odometer.
In his radio interview, Federspiel blamed his predecessor for the car’s seizure. He did not become sheriff until January 2009, after the seizure, as was noted on Beckmann’s show.
“This case originated under my predecessor, the sheriff who was before me,” he said. “Nine months worth before I ever became sheriff.” Federspiel added everything his department does related to forfeitures is at the direction of the county prosecutor’s office.
Philip Ellison, one of the Ostipows' lawyers, contends the lawsuit isn’t challenging the seizure of the property, but the sale of the property under Federspiel’s watch.
In the radio interview, Federspiel also said that the Nova, which was on a trailer at the time it was seized, was not operable.
Ellison disputes this, saying that the Nova was operable — its engine was working and the vehicle could be driven — although it was missing seats that were being reupholstered when the department seized the car.
“There are a lot of questions surrounding what Sheriff Federspiel and those under his command did or did not do with the Ostipows' property — property that took a lifetime of hard work to obtain and a few hours for the deputies to improperly seize,” Ellison said. “One of those questions is the mileage discrepancy with the restored 1965 Nova.”
On his radio interview, Federspiel also said the department would release a formal statement and a timeline detailing events involving the Ostipows' case. Emails asking for the statement and timeline were not returned.
In a response to the complaint filed with the federal court, Federspiel and 10 other unnamed sheriff’s deputies denied nearly every accusation.
“We expect the federal lawsuit will force the sheriff to admit his department's cavalier attitude to the Ostipows and many others who have been wrongfully treated by questionable use of the civil forfeiture statute,” Ellison added.
Correction: This story originally reported the mileage at 54,000 extra miles. The correct mileage was 56,000.