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Wisconsin court: Bid to recover smuggled car can continue

By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — An attempt to recover a rare car that thieves smuggled from Milwaukee to Europe more than a decade ago can continue, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

According to court documents and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper reports, the millionaire Roy Leiske’s 1938 Talbot Lago, a rare French sports car, was stolen from a Milwaukee factory where he’d been restoring it in March 2001.

The vehicle was one of only about 16 of its kind produced. Justice Brian Hagedorn, writing for the majority in the ruling, said the car “is considered by some one of the most beautiful and innovative cars in the world.”

Leiske died in 2005 and bequeathed the car to his cousin, Richard Mueller, who in turn sold a percentage of it to Joseph Ford III, a classic-car seller from Florida. Together they tried to find the car without success.

In 2015, Rick Workman, the founder of an Illinois dental company, bought the car from Christopher Gardner, an American living in Switzerland. The asking price? $7.6 million, of which $6.8 million went directly to Gardner.

Gardner shipped the car from Switzerland to Chicago. Workman’s holding company — TL90108 LLC, named for the car’s serial number — tried to register it in Illinois, triggering a hit on a stolen vehicle report.

A federal grand jury in Milwaukee indicted Gardner this past May on four counts of wire fraud and one count of transporting a stolen car in foreign commerce.

According to the indictment, Gardner stole the Talbot Lago from the Milwaukee factory, stored it until mid-2005 and forged documents showing he was the legal owner. In 2006 he shipped the car to Switzerland and restored it in France before selling it to Workman, falsely representing to Workman that he was the legal owner.

Workman’s attorney, Larry Heftman, told the Journal Sentinel in June that Workman bought the car in good faith.

Mueller and Ford demanded TL90108 return the car to them and sued the company in 2017 when the company refused to hand it over.

Then-Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet, now a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, dismissed the case, finding a six-year statute of limitations on such action had expired in 2007 and the clock hadn’t restarted when the company acquired the car.

A state appeals court reversed Dallet. The company subsequently asked the state Supreme Court to reinstate her ruling.

The court upheld the appellate ruling, finding unanimously that Mueller and Ford aren’t time-barred from trying to recover the car because the clock started when TL90108 acquired it in 2015. Therefore their lawsuit was filed within the six-year window, the court found.

Dallet didn’t participate in the Supreme Court ruling.

Heftman didn’t immediately return a voicemail on Tuesday. Mueller’s attorney, Matthew Fisher, also didn’t immediately return a message. Online court records didn’t list an attorney for Gardner.

Ford is representing himself in the case.

“I’m really pleased with the decision,” he said. “Very pleased it was unanimous and look forward to taking the next step.”

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