Choosing vehicles was the name of the game Thursday afternoon in the parking lot of the Huron County Sheriff's Office.
To be more accurate, it was the culmination of a deal between Willard defendant Jose E. Hernandez's attorney and Huron County Prosecutor Russell Leffler. Hernandez chose a vehicle, followed by Sheriff Richard Sutherland and then the Norwalk Police Department, represented by Officer Seth Fry, until all 31 vehicles were dispersed.
"My attorney talked to him (Leffler) and they made this deal," Hernandez said before the process started.
"He's going to get dibs on the first vehicle he wants," Sutherland also said beforehand. "This is a first time deal for us."
Authorities seized the vehicles, 200 car titles and about $24,000 in cash when they used two search warrants simultaneously Sept. 5 at Hernandez's home and Townline Road 12.
Hernandez, 36, of 24 Motson St., was sentenced March 7 to three years of probation and fined $3,000 for three misdemeanor counts of attempted transfer of motor vehicles without a certificate title. The court suspended a six-month jail term.
He faces a May 6 trial on two counts of prohibition of incomplete, false and fraudulent returns, both fifth-degree felonies. Leffler said the court "is about to place him on diversion" in connection with failing to file tax returns for two years.
Before the vehicle disbursement, Sutherland contacted Huron County Commissioner Ralph Fegley and Carl Essex of the Huron County Engineer and Highway Department. The sheriff chose vehicles for his office and several county agencies to possibly use. The commissioners started evaluating when and how to replace various vehicles with high mileage and maintenance costs this year.
"It's been on the back-burner for a couple years," Sutherland said.
Essex, the county engineer's assistant, called Thursday's arrangement "one of the oddest settlements of a criminal case ever experienced in Huron County" in an e-mail message.
Sutherland ultimately chose about five cars with the rest being pickup trucks and vans.
The sheriff estimated about half of the vehicles he acquired Thursday are in good condition. He explained that some have "motors that have seized up" while others won't start.
"They are such an eye sore," Sutherland said.
"I know there are vehicles out there that aren't worth anything. They'll be taken to the junkyard and sold," the sheriff continued. "That money will be turned over to the general fund."
Hernandez described how he acquired the vehicles, which have been parked at the sheriff's office since mid-September.
"I was working with a guy with a license. He didn't fill out the right forms. He tricked me. He made me believe I could sell and buy vehicles," he said.
Investigators, in mid-September, accused Hernandez of buying multiple vehicles illegally using other people's names without their permission. On Thursday, Hernandez said he didn't intend to avoid "doing the proper thing."
Leffler said the vehicle disbursement may have to be redone because he gave "specific instructions" in open court about Hernandez and authorities getting a 50/50 split.