FROM DEFENDER TO DEFENDANT

How tale of heroism turned into trouble for Houston dealership

Rik Melartin as The Finnisher" "I'm here to defend your right to a good deal."
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Last year Rik Melartin became known throughout Houston as "The Finnisher," an Olympic athlete turned car dealer who, in his underwear, captured an armed robber on his tony suburban street and then played on his sudden fame with a series of quirky commercials.

"I'm here to defend your right to a good deal," the 6-foot-4-inch Melar-tin, who has said he's from a family of reindeer herders in Finland, deadpanned in one spot as he emerged from John Keating Chevrolet wielding a .50-caliber Desert Eagle handgun.

But before long Melartin's superhero persona began to crumble. Today he wears a GPS tether as he awaits trial on nine felony charges related to allegations of sexual assault involving two teenage girls.

Meanwhile, John Keating Chevrolet, which says it had cut ties with Melartin before the criminal charges, has been trying to escape negative publicity. It recently began broadcasting new, more conventional commercials in which owner Tina Jou promotes the store as having "big-city selection, big-city service, country-friendly atmosphere."

"It's hurt the business here, certainly," General Manager Darrell Daigle told Automotive News. "Distance has been set between this company and Mr. Melartin. There's been a total separation between the two."

Many details about Melartin's links to the dealership and his relationship with Jou are murky. They now dispute public records showing that the two were married and news coverage that consistently characterized them as jointly running the store. Melartin also disputes former employees' claims that he managed the store, saying he was merely a hired spokesman. His home country denies he is a former Olympian.

One of his accusers was a 16-year-old receptionist for the dealership at the time of the alleged assault.

Melartin, who turned 52 last week, is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday, Dec. 18, in connection with the charges.

Melartin's saga, part media circus and part cautionary tale, illustrates the risks of making one person the public face of a dealership, linking the store's reputation to that person's image. For dealers selling stores, it raises the issue of including the family name in the transaction, entrusting the family legacy to a new owner, as founder John Keating did when he retired in 2011.

Reporter Nick Bunkley talks 'The Finnisher'

Heroic businessman


Melartin, whose full first name is Riku, told reporters who flocked to his 7,000-square-foot home in Bellaire, Texas, on Valentine's Day in 2012 that he ran outside in his boxer shorts with his pistol after hearing a neighbor screaming from across the street. He re-enacted the incident repeatedly for the cameras while clutching a gun that he called his "dancing partner."

"I fired a warning shot, out of my friendly dancing partner, into the ground," he told local TV station KHOU-TV. "He turned around, he put his hands in the air and said, 'Please don't shoot! Please don't shoot!' At which time, with one hand I grabbed him by the throat, put him down to the ground. I frisked him and I said, 'All right, I'm sorry, your nightly escapade is over.'"

The seemingly fearless, straight-talking businessman with a thick accent became the talk of the town. A local radio station dubbed him "The Finnisher," a Nordic version of Arnold Schwarzenegger -- whom Melartin insisted he could take in a fight with his bare hands.

KHOU-TV showed Melartin at what it said was his day job: running John Keating Chevrolet, which, according to news reports, was winning new customers from the widespread attention.

The dealership, about 20 miles northeast of downtown Houston in the small town of Crosby, soon began broadcasting commercials featuring a gun-toting Melartin. They ran for about six months on cable TV, Daigle said.

But off-screen, things were unraveling.

Just three days after Melartin had thwarted the neighborhood thief, authorities raided Babes, a Houston strip club. News that Melartin owned the club surfaced in September 2012, when he pleaded guilty to operating an unlicensed sexually oriented enterprise. He was sentenced to a year of probation, which was revoked after the sexual-assault charges were filed.

In a brief telephone conversation with Automotive News last month, Melartin vigorously denied the sexual-assault charges. "They're absolutely false," he said.

And Melartin now says he never even worked at John Keating Chevrolet. He insists his only connection to the business was as a paid spokesman, "just like Brad Pitt doesn't own Versace," as he said in a July 2013 affidavit filed in a civil lawsuit seeking to collect on a $109,000 judgment against him.

He told Automotive News: "I've never been an employee, except to do a few of these commercials that we ran -- that they ran -- on TV and on YouTube."

In those commercials, though, Melartin seemed quite explicit about the connection. "I have a wife and a dog. I also have a .50-caliber Desert Eagle. And I have a car dealership," he says in one. "It's called John Keating Chevrolet in Crosby, Texas. What I don't have is you. Come and see me."

Daigle, who became general manager in June 2013, said the ad campaign was "an ad agency-created idea" to take advantage of the media frenzy about Melartin's heroism.

"Because we're in kind of a rural part of Houston, it was a good fit when that situation occurred," Daigle said. "Of course, in retrospect, it didn't work well."

Daigle said Jou would not comment for this story, and she did not return a message left at a Houston manufacturing company she owns.

Keating, who agreed to let Jou continue using his name on the dealership after the sale, also could not be reached for comment.

Back in the news


In January 2013, 11 months after TV news broadcasts had gushed about Melartin's bravery, he was back in the news. But this time police accused him of being the bad guy.

Prosecutors allege in court documents that Melartin gave an alcohol-spiked energy drink to a 16-year-old receptionist at the dealership near closing time one evening in August 2012. According to prosecutors' allegations, he exposed himself to her and gave her $200 to take off her clothes. On later occasions Melartin also is accused of paying her to let him touch her and to have intercourse with her.

The girl's mother had a janitorial contract with the dealership, and the girl's stepfather was a finance manager at John Keating Used Cars. In a lawsuit against John Keating Chev-rolet, the girl's mother and stepfather allege that after they learned of the incidents, Melartin fired the stepfather and created "such a hostile work environment" that the mother lost her contract. The dealership has denied the allegations.

More charges were filed in June against Melartin and 38-year-old George Koutani -- identified in news reports and in a civil lawsuit as Melartin's assistant at the dealership -- after another teenager accused them of sex-related crimes.

Prosecutors also have charged Melartin and Koutani with attempting to influence the girls' statements. And they allege Koutani destroyed video surveillance footage.

A phone call to Koutani's lawyer seeking comment was not returned.

The Finnisher commercials ran for about six months. In one, Rick Melartin said: "I have a wife and a dog. I also have a .50-caliber Desert Eagle. And I have a car dealership. It's called John Keating Chevrolet in Crosby, Texas. What I don't have is you. Come and see me."

Colorful past


Much of what fascinated people about Melartin was the colorful background he described to reporters. A reporter from KHOU-TV said Melartin claimed the incident that made him famous was the third time he had apprehended a criminal since moving to Houston 15 years earlier.

It's unclear whether that was true, but several other interesting details he has cited don't stand up to scrutiny. He told the Lake Houston Observer newspaper for a 2011 article about the sale of John Keating Chevrolet that he was a discus thrower on Finland's Olympic team. After the Bellaire incident, he said several times that he played volleyball for Finland, where he said his family castrated the reindeer they raised the old-fashioned way: with their teeth.

But a spokesman for the Finnish Olympic Committee, Mika Noronen, wrote in an e-mail to Automotive News that "no person named Riku Melartin has ever represented Finland in the Olympic Games."

Daigle said "The Finnisher" was basically a character created to promote the dealership, and he blamed local media for spinning the story into more than that.

"That image of The Finnisher having been in the Olympics, having bitten reindeer," Daigle said, "all that is just imagery that was blown way out of proportion by the media."

According to Texas Medical Board records, Melartin graduated from a surgical internship program in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1994 and received a permit to practice medicine in Texas in 1996. He registered with the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which oversees U.S. brokerages, as a stockbroker in 2003.

Melartin was president of a Houston company, Heckofay Deal Enterprises, that ran a used-car lot called Melartin Motors, according to its August 2011 bankruptcy filing, which Melartin signed. Its address matches online listings for John Keating Used Cars. But Melartin told Automotive News that he had "no affiliation with Melartin Motors," despite calling from a telephone number identified on the caller ID as "Melartin Motors."

"I don't have any expertise to run a dealership," Melartin said. "I've never run a dealership. I've never been an employee of a dealership."

But the civil suit brought by the receptionist's parents against John Keating Chevrolet and Melartin describes Melartin as the store's general manager. And court filings in several cases involving Melartin indicate that the dealership was where process servers were able to find him.

Questions about Melartin and Jou's relationship also linger. The Observer story quotes Jou as saying Melartin proposed to her a week after the two met in Canada, where he owned an information technology firm.

In the July affidavit, in the civil suit related to Melartin Motors, Melartin said he is still married to another woman but admitted he "formerly had a personal relationship with Ms. Jou that resulted in us having a child."

Automotive News found public records showing that Melartin in 1997 was divorced from the woman he told the court is his wife. A marriage certificate filed in Nevada shows that Melartin and Jou married there on March 23, 2002, and the caption of a photo of them posted online by a Las Vegas wedding chapel says they "were joined in holy matrimony in a dual skydiving marriage at Las Vegas Gravity Zone" on that date.

"That's false information -- I need to look into that," Melartin said when asked about the marriage certificate. He said he has never been married to Jou.

Melartin and Jou described themselves as "a married couple" in a 2010 lawsuit against the University of Texas after they both were dismissed from an M.B.A. program.

'The nicest folks'


Before selling his dealership to Jou, Keating, who started it in 1993, twice declined to sell toother would-be buyers with whom he felt less comfortable, according to the Observer. But he described Jou and Melartin as "the nicest folks you'll ever want to meet," according to the newspaper.

Keating was introduced to Jou through Michael Henderson, whom she initially hired to be her general manager. Henderson was terminated later that year, according to the lawsuit he filed in January 2012. He declined to comment for this story.

Jou's purchase was approved by GM as part of its "minority, women-owned business initiative," she said in a June affidavit. A GM spokeswoman, Ryndee Carney, said company records list Jou as the sole owner.

Carney said GM is aware of the charges against Melartin. "If these allegations are true, we are thoroughly disgusted by the behaviors demonstrated," Carney said.

But whether or not he is convicted, "legally, there's not a lot that we can do," Carney said. "At the end of the day, they're an independent business."

In action unrelated to Melartin's legal problems, the Houston Better Business Bureau revoked John Keating Chevrolet's accreditation in July 2012, according to Monica Russo, a BBB spokeswoman. According to the bureau's Web site, the store has not responded to 16 complaints filed against it since then.

Russo said the bureau assigned an F rating to the store after it refused to cooperate with an investigation of complaints that the dealership did not honor winning scratch-off game pieces it distributed in an ad.

Daigle said Jou was not to blame for the low rating, describing her as a novice dealer who delegated day-to-day operations to others: "She's had a hard first three years of training in the automobile business."

You can reach Nick Bunkley at nbunkley@crain.com. -- Follow Nick on Twitter


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