I escaped the drug business by selling highline cars—to drug dealers

2007 Mercedes-Benz S550

I’m Ethan. Nice to meet you. I sold drugs and did various other crimes as a young adult, but I let it go so I could sell cars to North Carolina’s finest criminals. That S550 on Forgiatos in front of a housing project? I sold it. Your weed man just pulled up in a $60,000 QX80? Money in my pocket. That 7-Series blowing out blue smoke near a luxury shopping mall? It was me. This is a deep game—and the game is sold, not told.

Episode #1: Bunk Coast Motorsports

First of all, I'm an idiot. I woke up one day in 2014 and agreed to partner in a used car dealership. Not to start one, mind you—everything was already there, but some management changes were in order. The place was started by a Greek dude named Gerald, a wannabe playboy who shared a terrible haircut with Dario Franchitti. Gerald was a great guy. He was also criminally lazy, so he refused to come to work before 4 p.m. Obviously, that wasn't great for business, and he found himself in tremendous debt. He reached out to an old partner of mine for help. Tom couldn't put all the money up himself, so he reached out to a couple of fellows who had some cash from, ahem, extracurricular pharmaceutical activities. And that’s where I came in. I was looking to turn over a new leaf, because regardless of what you see on television, the dope game isn’t glamorous. It’s like working at McDonald’s, only everybody carries a gun to go with their short temper. Selling cars had to be better.

And we sold cars at Best Coast Motorsports. Did we ever. We sold every shifty secondhand highline car we could get our hands on, from used Ferraris to drug dealer fodder like our 2007 S550 4Matic. Why Tom was so proud to get that piece of trash on our floorplan I'll never know. It came off the truck with four bald-ass tires, a radio that worked intermittently, 99K miles on the clock, and new paint that looked like it was applied in a barn in upstate New York. We had a word around here for bad cars: bunk. I don't think there was a better word for this S550.

Despite this, every day at least one dude pulled up in some sort of LX platform car with cheap rims and asked how much we need down like we had a Buy-Here-Pay-Here sign above the front door.

"What y'all want, like fo' racks down on that joint?" That’s $4000.

"It depends on what the bank wants and your credit..."

"My girl got good credit and she make like three stacks a month."

"So you aren't buying it?"

"Nah, see imma pay for it, but I ain't got no credit, plus I don't get no paycheck, man."

But one Sunday as we were packing up to go home, I noticed a mid-2000s E500 pull in. Out popped a short black man around 60 years old. I asked if he would he like to see the S-Class closer, he says he doesn't have the time but he'll return tomorrow. I got his phone number, and he left. Usually in this business when you let someone leave, they never come back.

I came back fresh the next day and before I could get a good chance to sit down and make a phone call, the same old man hopped out of a mid-2000s Dodge Ram with the name of his “cleaning business” on the side of it. I didn’t even get a chance to look up and he was in the showroom drooling on the 2008 CL550 we had in the showroom next to our 997 Turbo. I quickly approached him with a kind face.

2007 Mercedes-Benz S550 interior
Mercedes-Benz
2007 Mercedes-Benz S550

“I was just preparing to call you, how are you man?”

“I’m good, man, you ain’t tell me you had this in here!”

“What, the CL? Yeah, it’s been in here because we already sold it to someone.”

“Shit, I want this one. What y’all want for it?”

“I think we’re at 40 on it.”

“Lemme get this one, I got cash.”

I immediately ran to Gerald and explained the situation. Here is a good opportunity for me to tell you how we allowed a 2008 CL550 to sit in our showroom, and on our very expensive “floorplan” rotating loan, for over three months. Gerald had a “friend” of his come through who was interested in buying the CL but refused to finance it. So he put $10K down in cash and set up a layaway payment plan with Gerald for four monthly payments of $7K on the same date each month. Long story short, he was supposed to be making his final payment on June 27. The problem with that was that he’d never made any payments beyond the first one. If he’d put down a $100 deposit that would be one thing—but we were sitting on 10 grand of the man’s money.

Without thinking, Gerald told this new customer he’d allow him to buy it even though it had been on hold for somebody else that had $10K invested in it. So we sat down with the guy and he says he will pay cash, only if we don’t report it to the IRS. Russ immediately thinks the guy is a cop and instantly has a prison flashback. He asks him if he’s wearing a wire. Since we wouldn’t play ball his way, he went to his truck and brought back some motivation. He sat back down in the office and opened a Gucci messenger bag with at least $150K in C notes, and placed two large stacks on the table.

“That’s forty thousand. Now will y’all stop playing.”

Gerald, scared out of his mind, retorts, “Not unless we sign that slip for the IRS, man.”

“I ain’t about to do that man. I’m trying to keep them out of this.” Then I jumped in with my less criminal two cents.

“Why don’t you put less than $10K down, then finance the rest? You’ll pay it off early anyway. Better yet, you have any cars you can trade?”

“Yeah, I got a Mercedes.”

“What, that E500 you had the other day?”

“No, I got another Mercedes it's like a ’01 or ’02. It's just been sitting."

"Good, we'll take like $9500 and give you something for that, and financing won't be a problem. Come back tomorrow with the trade and we'll start getting you set up."

2007 Mercedes-Benz S550 engine
Mercedes-Benz
2007 Mercedes-Benz S550

The next morning he came in (with another bag of cash) and started the finance paperwork. We got everything into the computer and the deal was done. He pulls out $10K in $20 bills, whips some cash off the top without counting and says "that’s $9500." He told me his trade-in would be delivered later that day. I didn't believe him at first, but sure enough at 3 p.m. a guy walks in the showroom and hands me an ancient Mercedes key and quickly leaves in another car. I walked outside and there sat a 2002 CL500 on 22-inch Lowenhart wheels.

My first reaction was laughter. My next reaction was me questioning the existence of the vehicle and myself as a sentient being. Then I got in the car. Nav, an upgraded stereo, and all the electrics work. Then the kicker: it showed 218K miles. TWO-ONE-EIGHT THOUSAND. Then I drove it around the block. For some reason it charmed me. It was the single stupidest vehicle ever and I loved it.

So we called our loving bank, Westlake Financial, and talk to our guy. He asked us about the down payment, like we didn't text him a picture of $9500 in $20 bills.

"We need proof of down payment."

"Well, can't we send you a deposit receipt from the bank?"

"No, that won't work."

"He doesn't have checks?"

"No, the f***ing guy walked in here with $150K. I think not."

"How about you write a check from your account for the down payment and send that with the deal?"

"So you want us to put his dirty ass money in the bank, and write a check out for the same amount? Do you not realize what you just asked us to do?"

For some reason the moron couldn’t get his head around the fact that he’d just asked us to launder money to complete a deal for a guy who, as we would later find out, had ended an 18-year stint in federal prison in 2010. So we went back and forth until we agreed on a different way to handle it. We’d “discount” the car 10 grand and they’d write the loan on the discounted price. And the $9500 “down payment”? It found its way into our safe—or maybe it didn’t. I’m a little fuzzy on that detail.

But that's not even the good part. A couple days later our customer pulled on the lot in an orange 2013 Corvette Grand Sport. Where’d that come from? He went into the office to sign his registration paperwork with Tom. They had a heartfelt conversation about spending years in prison and how different life got outside. Tom had just done eight years himself, so it was a real Harvard reunion up in there. As they’re finishing, he tells Tom he’d bought another S550 in cash off the street nearby. For the same kinda money.

At the time, you could put your hands on a brand-new S550 for just a bit over 80 grand. But that involves walking into a respectable dealership and having the proctologist look you over to make sure you’re not straw-purchasing for Shanghai or Bogota. So instead of having one great big-body Benz, he had two beaters. For the same price.

And they say crime doesn’t pay. It pays. It just doesn’t always pay the people doing the crime. He walked out the office and thanked us for the deal.

"My girl gonna come by and pick up the car later."

"Good deal, man. Thanks for everything."

I haven't seen him since. But our floorplan was cleaner to the tune of 40 grand. And that friend of my partner? The rather dangerous individual who’d put 10 grand on the hood of a car we’d just sold out from under him? Well, that’s a story for another time...