LEXINGTON, Ky. - Antoinette Frink was in San Francisco wrapping up her second National Automobile Dealers Association convention in February 1988 when her lawyer called: FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency agents had descended upon her Delaware, Ohio, dealership.
Armed with a subpoena, the agents seized paperwork related to vehicles Frink sold or retitled to an acquaintance named James Lon Callier and his associates.
At the time, Frink didn't fully understand what was happening - something about selling vehicles to suspected drug dealers.
Frink was stunned. But the former teacher and novice businesswoman thought the whole thing would blow over. After all, the Chevrolet and Cadillac dealer reasoned, she was not involved in drugs, had never used them, and never sold them.
Things didn't blow over - they hit the fan.
In December 1988 Frink was indicted by a federal grand jury in Valdosta, Ga., and in May 1989 Frink was convicted of:
Conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine.
Aiding and abetting in the distribution of cocaine.
Use of interstate travel to aid in the distribution of cocaine.
According to the federal government, Frink knew that the vehicles she sold or retitled for Callier were used to transport 750 pounds of cocaine along I-75 from Florida to Detroit.
But of the six people convicted in the case, Frink and Callier got the harshest jail terms. Three of the others are back on the streets.
For 41/2 years Frink has resided with about 1,600 other inmates in the Federal Medical Center, a women's prison in Lexington, Ky. She claims she knew nothing of the drug dealing scheme and violated no laws - she was simply duped by an acquaintance and former car sales-man who she thought managed fleets for companies in Florida that were relocating to Ohio.
An attractive, petite woman who will be 43 in July, Frink still talks like a car dealer. Her conversation remains sprinkled with dealer jargon, terms such as 'floorplanning,' and 'dealer trades.' Allowing for time off for good behavior, she expects to be freed in 2003.
Most of the drug dealers involved in the case cut deals with federal prosecutors. Even though the prosecutors said they were part of a big cocaine network, all but one of the drug dealers got off easier than Frink. Most of them pleaded guilty and already are out of prison.
Frink and James Lon Callier pleaded innocent, were tried and convicted. Frink was found guilty on all three counts by a federal jury and sentenced to 151/2 years in prison. Based on the guidelines under which Frink and Callier were sentenced, they have no chance for parole.
Despite the conviction, Frink vehemently denies all charges of wrongdoing. The government's case against her centered on 'two or three' vehicles bought in Florida and retitled in Ohio and on the sale of '10 or 12' other vehicles to Callier and his acquaintances. Compounding matters, Frink didn't report the cash transactions to the IRS.
Frink says she didn't know that the people who requested the retitled vehicles and bought the cars were drug dealers who used phony business names and addresses.
But the government didn't charge Frink with titling or cash-reporting violations. Instead, federal prosecutors said the titling and cash-reporting violations proved that Frink knowingly helped the drug dealers.
Frink is adamant that she did not violate the law that requires cash transactions over $10,000 to be reported, because Callier and his associates did not pay her $10,000 or more at one time.
But according to the law, she could be mistaken.
The cash reporting law that went into effect in July 1984 states that any trade or business which receives $10,000 in cash in one transaction or two or more related transactions must report the transaction to the IRS.
The law was amended to include car dealers in October 1986 and further amended in November 1990 to include 'anti-structuring' - making it a felony to deliberately break up cash payments to avoid the IRS reporting requirement.
Frink still maintains that the title transfers were legal.
'My only motive was to promote the profits of McFrink Chevrolet-Cadillac - to make it a profitable, reputable company,' she says. 'Not one car purchased from my dealership was ever apprehended with drugs. Not one prosecution witness was able to link me to their illicit activities. Most did not know me, had never head of me.'
Frink's case is currently under review by the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia. On Nov. 24, 1993, Frink's attorney filed a motion that claims that Frink's conviction should be set aside because she had inadequate legal representation.
Neither Ross Nabatoff, Frink's fourth attorney, nor U.S. prosecutors would comment on the case because the judge has not ruled on the motion. Nabatoff's firm, Brand & Lowell in Washington, is handling Frink's case pro bono.
AID DIDN'T COME
Frink got the least help from those who were in positions to do the most.
General Motors declined to talk to Automotive News about the Frink case. Frink says GM didn't answer her calls for help in 1988 either.
The National Automobile Dealers Association said it is not familiar with Frink's plight.
The Ohio Automobile Dealers Association was aware of Frink's indictment, but does not get involved in such matters, said Executive Director Tim Doran.
Frink said she appealed to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. It, too, declined to get involved.
Although GM is officially silent, George Habersetzer doesn't mind talking. Habersetzer was the Motors Holdings branch manager who worked with Frink when she applied to GM's dealer development program.
In fact, Habersetzer and Gregory Baranco, the dealer who trained Frink, believed so strongly in her innocence that they volunteered to be character witnesses on her behalf during the trial.
Both sat outside the courtroom during the trial, but neither was called to testify. They say they still believe in Frink.
Baranco, president of Baranco Automotive Group (Pontiac-GMC-Lincoln-Mercury-Acura) in Decatur, Ga., describes Frink as 'a decent, hard-working individual... who had a commitment to succeed. Because of what amounts to an administrative error on her part, and a series of unusual legal circumstances, she has become a victim of the system. It does not appear that justice has been served,' he said.
Habersetzer, who retired in 1986 after 31 years with GM, said he believes the sentence is usually harsh and the justice system's treatment of Frink is 'unconscionable.'
CAR DEALER BY FATE
Frink says she got into the retail automobile business 'almost as a fluke.'
It was 1978 and Frink had moved to Miami from McRae, Ga., where she grew up. She was a special education teacher with a master's degree in school psychology and five years of experience. But she needed a change.
She considered going back to school to earn a doctorate degree, but pondered whether as a divorced mother with a young daughter she could get by on part-time pay.
Then fate stepped in.
One day, while on her way home from the movies with a friend who was a salesman at a local Ford dealership she passed Braman Cadillac.
'He said, 'Gee, I wish I worked there. If I make money selling Fords you know they make all kinds of money selling Cadillacs,' ' Frink recalls.
'I was looking for something different. I couldn't wait to get home. I got home, looked in the paper and Braman Cadillac was advertising for salespeople.'
The very next day Frink applied for the job at Braman. It was 1978 and women - especially black women - were not a familiar sight in the retail auto industry.
At first, she said, they gave her 'the runaround.' But Frink was persistent. About six weeks later she was hired.
Frink made more money her first full month on the sales floor than she made her entire first year as a teacher.
She had found her niche.
'I started to like it; I liked dealing with the people,' she said.
SACRIFICES FOR STORE
Frink sold vehicles for five years as a salesperson and sales manager in Miami and Atlanta before entering GM's minority dealer development program in October 1983.
GM required $60,000 in unencumbered capital before she could get a dealership, so Frink saved everything she possibly could - and sold her house.
In 1988, she became president of her own dealership. It was a GM Motors Holding deal: GM held the majority interest, but Frink was working and saving to buy out GM's interest.
Frink was going to be a full-fledged car dealer. Now, she spends her days working in her assigned job as a clerk in the education department at the prison. She files and types and teaches other inmates to read. She is on the prison's hospice team, which assists terminally ill inmates, speaks at church services and is coordinator of the prison's Black History Month activities.
CONTACT WITH CALLIER
Frink had been a dealer for less than a year when fate stepped into her life again.
Frink says she met James Callier in passing when she was selling cars in Florida. She became reacquainted with him in spring 1987, through one of her sisters, who ran into Callier at a Miami restaurant.
Callier and Frink had both sold cars at the same Miami dealership, but at different times.
Proud of her sister Toni's accomplishments, Frink's sister passed along the dealer's business card to Callier. Several weeks later Callier contacted Frink.
Callier told the dealer that he was a businessman who bought vehicles for video and electronic companies and carpet businesses.
'He said he was an 'outside salesman'... and that he knew a lot of people, that he could give me some business,' recalls Frink. 'I said, 'Sure.' '
She believed him; there was no reason not to, she said.
Frink said she agreed to sell Callier vehicles at $500 over cost if the vehicle came from her inventory and $1,000 over cost if she had to do a dealer trade.
She said she received no compensation for retitling vehicles for Callier, but did it as a professional courtesy. The retitling involved filling out and filing paperwork with the state to have the vehicle titled in Ohio even though it was purchased in Florida.
Callier asked Frink to find him a Winnebago motor home. She located a Winnebago dealership in Ohio. But when Callier showed up at Frink's dealership about a month later, he had changed his mind, Frink said.
'He said he didn't have time to go (to the Winnebago dealership) because he had to look for an apartment, that he and his family were moving to Ohio,' she said.
Callier left the dealership empty-handed but called her back later. He said he had found a Winnebago in Florida.
Explaining that the companies he represented were moving to Ohio anyway, Callier said he wanted the Winnebago titled in Ohio. He suggested that Frink buy the vehicle and that he would buy it from her.
A couple of weeks later, Callier called and said he needed a couple of vans. Frink arranged a dealer trade and told Callier he could pick up the vans.
And so it went.
Frink said she sold and/or retitled '10 or 12' vehicles for Callier and his associates over the next year. Most were new Chevrolet trucks and Cavaliers, but there was even a used Plymouth Reliant and a used Datsun.
Most of the vehicles were titled to companies Callier said he represented, including National Carpet and Ultra Carpet.
TRUCK TRACED TO DEALER
According to court documents, the federal investigation was sparked on Oct. 27, 1987. That day a state trooper in Lowndes County, Ga., pulled over a 1987 Chevrolet pickup for speeding north on I-75.
The trooper noticed that the truck sat low, and its bed was unusually shallow.
A search revealed 61 kilos (134 pounds) of cocaine. The truck was registered to National Carpets in Powell, Ohio, a company that 'existed only on paper as a cover for an illegal drug organization,' government prosecutors said.
The truck was purchased at a dealership in Florida but traced to McFrink Chevrolet-Cadillac because it had been retitled in Ohio.
The Winnebago was also traced back to Frink. A few weeks after Callier bought the motor home, U.S. Customs agents seized it from a Miami 'chop shop,' where it was being modified to transport drugs.
The government said the Winnebago's paperwork listed Callier as the president of Ultra Carpets in Columbus, Ohio, although Callier was not the president of Ultra Carpets and the address did not exist.
The government subsequently charged that Frink knew the Winnebago would be used to transport drugs.
Frink says that is not true. She says Callier told her the Winnebago was seized because the shop that was working on it was being run by illegal aliens.
She said Callier suggested she try to buy the Winnebago back from the U.S. Customs Service. She refused.
Frink said she figured the Winnebago was not her concern, and forgot about it. The federal government didn't.
In February 1988, just four months after the truck loaded with cocaine was stopped in Georgia, and while Frink was at the NADA convention in San Francisco, the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency agents arrived at her dealership.
'It still seems pretty bizarre to me,' she says. 'A truck gets stopped and they ask, 'What dealership did you buy it from?' I've never heard of anything like that.'
Even before the trial, her business started to suffer.
Prior to the indictments, the dealership was doing OK, says Frink. In the 21/2 years she had the dealership she sold a about 2,600 units, she said, an average of about 86 vehicles a month.
The case attracted widespread publicity in the Columbus and Delaware, Ohio, areas where her store was located. In the wake of the bad publicity, business began to dry up.
Frink says she called and wrote to GM's Motors Holding after the indictments were issued to ask them what she should she do to make sure the dealership's interests were protected.
She says she never got a response. What she did get was representatives from General Motors Acceptance Corp., who showed up at the dealership almost daily to inspect the vehicles on the lot. It was as if she had become a pariah and GM wanted nothing to do with her.
Finally, in desperation, Frink wrote to then-GM chairman Roger Smith.
'I needed someone to talk to,' she said. 'At first everybody refused.'
She never heard from Smith, but she was invited to Detroit to make arrangements to sell the dealership.
Learning of Frink's troubles, several dealers approached her about buying the store. She passed the names of the dealers to GM. After she met several times with GM officials, GM selected a buyer for the store. Frink sold the dealership in February 1989 and broke even.
AID FROM MINORITY GROUP
Frink did find a few supporters.
During the trial, the National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers set up a fund to help pay for her defense.
Even today, NAMAD hasn't forgotten Frink. Some NAMAD members want the organization to hold its next annual meeting in Lexington, Ky., as a show of support for Frink - should her pending legal motion be denied.
'NAMAD is aware of Antoinette's situation and is in the process of looking at ways to support her in conjunction with legal actions taken through her attorney,' said NAMAD President Ed Fitzpatrick, owner of Puget Sound Chrysler-Plymouth in Renton, Wash.
'It doesn't seem right that she is still behind bars when other people involved in the situation are now free.'
-----------------------------------------------------------------------AUTOMOTIVE CAREER PATH
November 1978: Frink gets new-car sales position
October 1983: Frink enters GM Dealer Academy
August 1986: Frink becomes president of McFrink Chevrolet-Cadillac Inc.
April 1987: James Callier contacts Frink
February 1988: Feds raid McFrink dealership
December 1988: Frink indicted
February 1989: Frink's dealership sold
May 1989: Frink convicted