A few days ago, 60 Minutes released on YouTube what has to be one of the greatest pieces of investigative video journalism I have ever seen. It’s an episode called “Cream Puff,” and it features awesome ’80s-era cars, absurdly eccentric personalities that seem as if they come from a movie and utterly audacious fraud. The fact that this is real is just remarkable.
Everything about this 60 Minutes episode fascinates me. There are, of course, the mint-condition cars like Pontiac Fieros, first-gen Ford Rangers, boxy Chrysler minivans, Jeep Grand Wagoneers and other extremely 1980s automobiles:
Then there’s the brazen odometer fraud (probably the most classic of car crimes, right up there with catalytic converter theft), which 60 Minutes somehow captured in stunning, up-close footage by hiding a cameraperson in a trailer right next to the perpetrating technician.
It’s incredible how that technician — who apparently made $50 per car and could score $400 a day rolling back odometers — had no clue that the film crew was watching right over his shoulder. Seriously, look how close 60 Minutes got to the illegal action:
Then there’s the antagonist, Bill Whitlow, a heavy-set Houston wholesale used-car dealer with an extreme Southern accent, a Boss Hog hat and an animated, almost jovial/naive demeanor. He somewhat reminds me of
O Brother Where Art Thou’s character Pappy O’Daniel (who’s apparently based loosely on a Texas governor, William Lee O’Daniel).
Called “the granddaddy of the Houston mile-busters,” Whitlow is as unique a character as I’ve ever seen in a news story.
What’s most amazing about this video is just how revealing the footage is. The hidden cameras show Whitlow in an office admitting to pretty much everything, laughing that rolling back odometers is “not exactly legal” and saying he doesn’t know any used car wholesalers in the whole of Houston who don’t “whip miles.”
Then there’s Charles, one of the two former used car dealers who tipped off 60 Minutes in an attempt to get rid of the fraud that forced him and his friend John out of the business. These two, shown below, are the protagonists, along with reporter Steve Kroft.
Another camera shot has Whitlow discussing with Charles and John the strategy for forging titles to match the new, fraudulent mileage on the cars. Whitlow points out two vehicles whose odometers he’s rolled back, and even performs the forging operation on one of the vehicles’ titles, proudly showing his work right in front of the camera.
There are so many interesting characters in this piece. There’s the tall, imposing dealership sales manager who was not thrilled with 60 Minutes when Kroft told him an Oldsmobile Toronado on the dealership lot had had its odometer rolled back roughly 30,000 miles.
There’s the suited-up security chief of an automobile auction house. He’s the serious man in this wacky tale:
The third protagonist is Kroft, the reporter, who’s wearing an extremely old-school suit:
Toward the end of the piece, 60 Minutes has a Mercedes buyer tell his tale of purchasing a car whose odometer had been “whipped.” His description of what happened is told in a bizarrely energetic manner, with hand gestures and a raised, overconfident voice:
The whole thing is just ridiculous, with peak absurdity happening at the end of the video, when 60 Minutes reveals that someone shot up the office of two protagonists, and when the news program shares a voicemail that someone left. That voicemail message:
The bullet holes you found in your building are nothing compared to the bullet holes you’re gonna find in your body. If you and John don’t stop this **** on 60 Minutes, ah, do you understand what I’m saying? This is your last warning I’m telling you this right now.
Things actually got wilder after the 60 Minutes episode. Whitlow, who in the episode seemed nonchalant when he learned of the film crew, ended up being indicted for allegedly shooting up Charles’s mobile home, according to an Associated Press story in February 1991:
A used car dealer implicated on ″60 Minutes″ in an alleged odometer rollback scam has been charged with firing shots at the home of the program’s informant.
William Frank Whitlow, 70, was indicted on a charge of felony retaliation Wednesday.
Shots were fired Nov. 1 at a mobile home belonging to Charles Vance, a former used car dealer who told the TV program of an alleged multimillion- dollar scam operated by several Houston dealers to roll back odometers.
But that’s not all. This story just gets crazier and crazier when you learn what happened to his previous mobile home: It exploded due to an apparent “fire bomb.” From an Associated Press article in December 1990:
HOUSTON (AP) - An explosion early Wednesday destroyed the mobile home of a man who appeared on “60 Minutes” to expose odometer tampering by used car dealers.
“It’s really something, driving up on your home … and seeing it going up in flames. It’s a travesty,” said Charles Vance, a Houston construction company owner and former used car dealer.
Investigators said Vance’s Houston home, unoccupied at the time, exploded about 3 a.m. after someone apparently threw a fire bomb made with a flammable liquid at the trailer.
A November 1992 court document in which Whitlow was appealing a previous sentence details the man’s scheme:
Whitlow operated three wholesale used-car dealerships in Houston between 1986 and 1991. Around ninety percent of the vehicles sold by those dealerships had altered odometers. NHTSA estimated that Whitlow altered the odometers of 1,500-2,500 automobiles.
Whitlow instructed his buyers to locate late-model, high-mileage cars. He would purchase those cars in the names of his “floorplanners,” Jamal Nickmard, Doug Noack, and Bobbie Barrington. Whitlow and buyer Jerry Don Branson then would determine how much they could roll back the odometers. They improved the cars cosmetically and sent them to “spinners,” who actually altered the odometers. Timothy Bryson, Monroe Kirkpatrick, Robert Sprague, and other, unnamed individuals worked as “spinners” for Whitlow.
Whitlow employed Liz Whitley and Pamela Rochford to alter title documents, then sold the altered cars and delivered the altered titles to car dealerships.
The document goes on to describe just how much trouble Whitlow found himself in:
Whitlow pleaded guilty of conspiracy, odometer-tampering, failing to retain certain records, and interstate transportation of forged and altered securities. The probation officer found that the average price paid by Whitlow’s victims for their cars was $10,450 and that the average amount those victims could recover was $1,635. She thus calculated the loss per vehicle as $8,800. Finding that Whitlow adjusted at least 1,500 odometers, she calculated the total loss as $13,222,500. She thus added 15 levels to Whitlow’s base offense level of six. See U.S.S.G. §§ 2F1.1(b) (1) (P), 2N3.1(b) (1).
The probation officer added four additional levels because she found that Whitlow was the leader and organizer of the odometer-tampering scheme; two levels because the scheme involved more than minimal planning by Whitlow; and two levels for obstruction of justice because of the incidents involving Vance and Barrington. The probation officer thus arrived at a total offense level of 29. The probation officer calculated Whitlow’s criminal history score as four, thus placing Whitlow in criminal history category III.
Then comes a description of the sentence. Lots of prison time:
The district court determined the amount of loss per car as $4,000 and calculated the total amount of loss as $6,000,000. It thus added fourteen levels to the base offense level for amount of loss. The court added two levels for more than minimal planning; four levels for Whitlow’s role as an organizer or leader; and two levels for obstruction of justice. The district court subtracted two levels for acceptance of responsibility and arrived at a total offense level of 26. The court sentenced Whitlow to four concurrent 36-month sentences and concurrent 60- and 84-month sentences. It also prohibited Whitlow from employment in the used-car industry while on supervised release.
Wild. Just wild.