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.