MOUNT VERNON — A Mount Vernon News investigation of the Mount Vernon Police Department’s impound lot uncovered a “deal” that left a Mount Vernon man feeling taken advantage of by someone who took an oath to serve and protect him — and the citizens of Mount Vernon.
Andrew Barber’s 1994 Jeep Wrangler was placed in the city impound lot on July 7, 2011, after it was towed from South Main Street as a result of 10 unpaid parking tickets. It stayed there until March 28, 2012, after a deal was authorized by Police Chief Mike Merrilees that allowed then Cpl. Robert “Kit” Morgan to buy Barber’s Jeep while in impound. The city of Mount Vernon charges a $90 tow fee and $12 a day for storage fees on impounded vehicles. To have his Jeep released from impound, Barber would also be required to pay the $200 he owed for the parking tickets. In reality, the Jeep was in storage for more than 250 days with a potential storage bill of over $3,000.
Merrilees said, at times, the city has offered the opportunity for owners to pay the tow fee and 30 days worth of storage in order to clear vehicles from the lot. Even with the 30-day deal, Barber would need a total of $650 ($90 towing, $200 tickets and $360 storage) for his Jeep to be released.
“Kit said the Jeep was going to be auctioned off if I didn’t pay the fees,” Barber told the News. “Then he asked me if I would be interested in selling my Jeep. ... [The fees were] going to be more than I could afford.”
When weighing his options, Barber said he called Morgan and accepted his offer to pay the $650 in fees and give him $1,000 in cash, even if it wasn’t a fair deal.
“I just knew they were going to auction my Jeep off. I was either going to get zero dollars or some dollars. In that case, I’m going to take the money,” he said.
The two met a few days later at MVPD where Barber said he was presented a contract.
“He had a contract that stated everything that would happen. Then he said he had to go to the chief to say it was OK that he could buy my Jeep.”
According to Barber, a few days later, Morgan let him know Merrilees approved the deal and they scheduled a time for him to get his things out of the Jeep and sign the title over to Morgan.
“It never crossed my mind until about a month later,” Barber said. “I was like, ‘He just got a heck of a deal off me because he knew I was in a bind.’” When asked how he felt after he came to that realization, Barber said, “I felt like he saw a situation from a perspective and took advantage of my situation.”
Merrilees admits that he gave the go ahead for Morgan to pay Barber’s fees and purchase the Jeep, but told the News he never saw the vehicle and he never personally checked its market value.
“He did tell me when he was going through it,” Merrilees said. “I wasn’t sure about it then. He assured me that ‘I’m giving him what it’s worth. ... I’m helping him out, he’s helping me out and everyone is happy.’ At that point, I assumed Kit was being straight with me on every part of it. And from the information he gave me, then it becomes my responsibility. He didn’t do this behind my back.”
While Merrilees contends the deal was aboveboard, he said he realizes the importance of public perception.
“Some people might think it looks wrong and I can see how it would have,” he said. “It was fair market value. That was my first and main concern because if he paid $1,000 for a vehicle and we find out it was worth $3,000, that’s fishy and obviously red lights everywhere and that would be a problem.”
Barber said he paid $4,000 for the Jeep when he purchased it in 2011, just four months before it was towed to impound. The current Kelley Blue Book value for a private sale of the 4-cylinder vehicle, with very few bells and whistles, is $3,013 in fair condition.
“There are no numbers that I’ve heard that really throw up any warning signs that scare me,” Merrilees said. “Kit just wanted it.”
During an interview with the News, Merrilees said Morgan told him that Barber wanted to sell the vehicle. Barber said that wasn’t true.
“He asked me if I would be interested in selling it to him,” Barber said.
There were several other points Merrilees made that Barber disagrees with including Merrilees’ statement that Barber was willing to sell the Jeep “to get out from under the debt.” Barber said he owned the vehicle free and clear.
“I’m still convinced it’s not a dirty deal,” Merrilees said.
Morgan sold the vehicle recently for $2,700, according to Merrilees. During the News’ investigation, it was discovered the title says it was purchased for $2,000. At the time he purchased the Jeep, Morgan was performing the duties of the administrative supervisor’s position while former MVPD Sgt. Mark Perkins was deployed with the Ohio National Guard. Those duties included oversight of the impound lot.
City Law Director Chip McConville told the News this morning that any decision on disciplinary action would come from the safety-service director. As far as the possibility of criminal proceedings, if his office feels there could be possible criminal charges, the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and Identification will be called in order to be confident in the findings.
“If this strays from internal disciplinary issues, we will have to call in a neutral third party to do investigation,” McConville said.
City Safety-Service Director Dave Glass said he didn’t know enough facts about the situation to make a statement.
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