The owner of an Arroyo Grande auto repair shop was recently dealt his punishment at the end of a fraud and theft case that involved more than two dozen customers.
David Allen Connor, owner of Sonny's Automotive and Marine repair shop in Arroyo Grande, was sentenced May 23 in the San Luis Obispo Superior Court to serve nine months in jail and three years of probation. He'll also pay about $40,000 in restitution.
Connor's attorney, Ilan Funke-Bilu, believes that the sentencing was inconsistent with the county's past rulings. Probation, he said, was "misguided" in that, based on the amount of money involved, the sentence should be closer to 30 days in jail. He blames media attention for compelling the court to make an example of Connor.
"One of the rules of suit is uniformity," Funke-Bilu said after the sentencing. "If you look at past sentencing, I think nine months is way, way over the line."
Connor, a 54-year-old Grover Beach resident, accepted a plea bargain, pleading guilty to five felony counts of grand theft from an elderly adult. Originally he was charged with 28 counts of theft and fraud and faced up to 24 years behind bars following his arrest on December 13, 2006.
For nearly two decades, Connor's shop at 414 Traffic Way in Arroyo Grande ran without any formal complaints. That changed in 2005. According to Richard Leonard of the state Department of Consumer Affairs Bureau of Automotive Repair, Connor charged one senior citizen about $12,000 in repair fees over a six-month period that year.
When the customer suspected foul play, he took his vehicle to a dealership and filed a complaint alleging poor workmanship and excessive charges. The case was sent to Leonard, whose investigation ultimately revealed evidence of theft on 17 of 19 vehicles he inspected 13 of which would qualify as grand theft, he said.
At the sentencing, Connor made an apology for a loss of trust, but expressed that he felt the prosecution portrayed him as a monster.
"I'm not the person they made me out to be," he said.
Julie Brandt, who sensed wrongdoing and took her Toyota Tacoma to another shop after dealing with Connor, said in an interview that he deserves to go to jail.
"Hopefully this sends a message to other mechanics that they need to be honest with the public," she said.
According to Leonard, there are several precautionary tactics automobile owners can do to help ensure fair treatment at repair shops.
He suggests checking the general appearance of the shop and the workers does the grime only lie under the mechanic's fingernails, or are the moral standards soiled as well? He also suggests getting a second opinion from a different shop if a customer is unsure about the validity of a proposed repair. Customers, he said, are entitled to a written estimate for a specific price on a specific job. In other words, the mechanic can't add any surprise fees without notifying the customer first. And the main preventive strategy is to always ask to see old parts. Even if the consumer doesn't know anything about cars, the shop doesn't know that.