The president of Priority Chevrolet apologized Wednesday for the arrest of a customer in June whom the dealership mistakenly undercharged for an SUV and who resisted the company's efforts to get him to sign a new, costlier contract.
Dennis Ellmer said he's heard from Chesapeake police that one of his managers told an officer that Danny Sawyer of Chesapeake had stolen a 2012 Chevrolet Traverse.
"I owe Mr. Sawyer a big apology," said Ellmer, who manages the entire Priority Auto Group - which includes 11 dealerships in Virginia and North Carolina.
He said his staff erred when they sold the SUV to Sawyer for about $5,600 too little and erred again when they went to police. He said Sawyer should not have been arrested and definitely should not have spent four hours in jail.
"It is my plan to let him keep the $5,600 and to make Mr. Sawyer right. I can't tell you how I plan to fix it, but it is my intention to make it right," said Ellmer, adding that he would like to sit down and talk with Sawyer.
Rebecca Colaw, Sawyer's attorney, said she appreciates that Ellmer is taking responsibility for what happened. But she said he will have to do more than say he's sorry and let Sawyer keep the SUV.
"An apology is not enough," she said.
Earlier this month, Sawyer, 40, a registered nurse, filed two lawsuits against the dealership accusing it of malicious prosecution, slander, defamation and abuse of process, among other things. The lawsuits seek $2.2 million in damages, plus attorney fees.
Ellmer and his vice president, Stacy Cummings, said they were unaware of the lawsuits until they read about them Tuesday on the front page of The Virginian-Pilot. Two managers at Priority Chevrolet declined Monday to comment on the lawsuits, and two phone calls and an email to an attorney for the dealership were not returned.
According to the lawsuits, Sawyer test-drove a blue Chevrolet Traverse on May 7 but ultimately decided to buy a black one. He traded in his 2008 Saturn Vue, signed a promissory note and left in his new SUV.
The next morning, Sawyer returned and asked to exchange the black Traverse for the blue one.
The lawsuit claims Wib Davenport, a sales manager, agreed to the trade without discussing how much more the blue Traverse would cost. Cummings disputed that, saying Davenport told Sawyer it would cost about $5,500 more than the black one and that Sawyer orally agreed to the higher price.
Regardless, the final contract Sawyer signed did not reflect the higher price, which Cummings said should have been in the area of $39,000. He blamed a clerical error.
"We definitely made a mistake there. There is no doubt about it," said Ellmer.
After signing the contract - which listed a sale price of about $34,000 - Sawyer immediately left the dealership and returned with a cashier's check covering what he owed after dealer incentives and his trade-in.
A week later, Sawyer came back from a vacation to find numerous voicemails and a letter from the dealership, the suit said. In a phone conversation, Davenport explained they had made a mistake on the contract and sold the car for too little. He asked Sawyer to return to the dealership and sign a new contract.
The lawsuit claims Sawyer refused. Cummings said Sawyer initially agreed but never followed through.
When Sawyer did not return to the dealership, Priority staff continued their attempts to contact him via phone, text message and hand-delivered letters. They eventually contacted police.
On June 15, three Chesapeake police officers arrested Sawyer in his front yard and took him before a magistrate judge. He was released on bond after about four hours at the Chesapeake jail, the suit said.
Commonwealth's Attorney Nancy Parr said her office dropped all charges Aug. 23 after speaking with representatives of the dealership and determining there was insufficient evidence to pursue the case.
In an interview Tuesday, Ellmer and Cummings said their staff never reported the SUV stolen and never asked for Sawyer to be arrested. They said they called police only for help locating the SUV while they pursued the civil action.
After speaking with police Wednesday, however, Ellmer said he'd learned one of his managers, Brad Anderson, had indeed said the SUV was stolen.
Kelly O'Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Chesapeake Police Department, said the officer told Anderson in advance he was going to secure a warrant for Sawyer's arrest.
Ellmer described what happened to Sawyer as an isolated incident. He noted that his dealerships sell about 13,000 cars a year.
"This shouldn't have happened," he said.