On frozen Lake Champlain, burned one he couldn’t sell
by Mike Donoghue, Vermont News First
RUTLAND — A Chittenden County man who made international news when he stole five Teslas valued at over $600,000 in 2018 and 2019 was sentenced in federal court in Rutland on Wednesday to 48 months in prison.
Michael A. Gonzalez, 34, fraudulently obtained the five Teslas valued at about $607,000 from car dealerships in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Florida and had them brought across state lines to Vermont in 2018 and 2019.
One Tesla was destroyed during a suspicious fire after he drove it onto a frozen portion of Shelburne Bay on Lake Champlain in February 2019, the U.S. Secret Service has said. Gonzalez torched the luxury car when he was unable to sell it, records show. An insurance claim to GEICO was denied when Gonzalez failed to appear – twice — to give his statement under oath, records show.
Gonzalez was scheduled for a jury trial earlier this year, but he opted to plead guilty to all five felony counts without negotiating a plea deal with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Each charge carried a possible 10-year prison sentence.
Chief Federal Judge Geoffrey W. Crawford told Gonzalez during the sentencing that once he is discharged from prison he will be under three years of supervised release conditions monitored by the U.S. Probation Office.
Crawford ordered Gonzalez to pay $493,044 in the remaining restitution to Tesla. The judge also ordered Gonzalez to forfeit $231,900 to the government for the gross proceeds Gonzalez received from selling three of the stolen cars.
Gonzalez will get credit for about 12 months he has been detained since violating his release conditions by testing positive at least four times for cocaine between March and August 2022 and never telling his probation about five interactions with police in 2022, records show.
Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael P. Drescher had maintained in court papers that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines made clear that a prison term of at least 51 months was proper.
Defense lawyer Chandler Matson had countered that he thought a time served sentence — since his detention in October 2022 — was proper.
Drescher said Tesla was not the only victim of Gonzalez’s crimes. He had placed others in danger, including Shelburne Volunteer Firefighters when they had to go out onto the ice to battle the car fire, Drescher said. He added it was fortunate for the environment that the Telsa did not go through the ice.
Gonzalez “coopted a girlfriend he had abused to sign the paperwork” for two of the five fake purchases, Drescher wrote. Three buyers had no idea the cars had been obtained fraudulently and that Gonzalez had lied repeatedly on forms for the Department of Motor Vehicles.
However, Seabrook Police interrupted the expected sale in 2021. The police arrested the unsuspecting tow driver and lodged him until the case was sorted out, Drescher said. The tow truck was impounded and the driver ended up spending $1,700 to clear the case, he said.
The indictment, court records and interviews outlined the following:
Gonzalez made initial down payments of $2,500 for each of the five Teslas and then arranged for electronic transfer of funds to cover the balance of each vehicle, but the accounts lacked sufficient money or were from phony accounts. The 20-page indictment maintained an elaborate sequence of events to create the alleged fraud.
He took delivery of each of the five cars before Tesla discovered his failure to complete the final payments. Gonzalez resold or attempted to resell four of the five vehicles.
Gonzalez never received the proper paperwork to resell the fifth car, which later burned on Shelburne Bay in 2019.
While the stolen car case was pending, Gonzalez finished serving a 13-month federal sentence for making a false written statement about his criminal record when he unlawfully attempted to buy a firearm in September 2019.
Gonzalez, who was living in Hinesburg at the time, failed to disclose to the Williston gun dealer he had a pending felony charge of aggravated domestic assault involving the mother of his child, police said. Gonzalez threatened to kill the woman by trying to drive his truck over her and then ramming her van twice with her in it in Colchester in August 2019, records show. They note he continued to threaten to kill her as she called 911.
Gonzalez, who has lived in several Chittenden County communities including South Burlington, Colchester Hinesburg and Burlington, is well known to police in Vermont for a wide range of cases.
Before the Tesla case he was perhaps best known as “Pizza Boy” after a mistaken identity case at a drug house in Stonehedge North Condominiums in South Burlington in April 2018. When Gonzalez came outside to get his pizza, he mistook a uniformed South Burlington Police Officer in a fully marked blue and gray cruiser with a blue light bar as the late-night local pizza delivery person. Gonzalez had a pending warrant from Franklin County and city police said he was in possession for a small amount of heroin and MDMA, also known as ecstasy, records show.
He has four siblings in Vermont, grew up in Franklin County and graduated from BFA-Fairfax before heading to the University of Vermont, records indicated. During a 2021 court hearing it was mentioned he had a 3-year-old son that he hoped to regain custody from the Department for Children and Families.
Tesla has been one of the best-selling plug-in and battery electric passenger car manufacturers. In reserving a Tesla online or in a company store, the customer gets to choose the model, color and options while making a $2,500 deposit. Once the car is ready the customer can collect it from a Tesla store or have it delivered. Payments would be completed through a wire transfer, loan financing, or an automated clearing house (ACH) transfer, the indictment said.
The 20-page federal indictment maintains the following elaborate sequence of events:
In the first case after making a deposit on Sept. 12, 2018 and following a $55,700 ACH transfer in late October, Gonzalez had a 2018 Tesla Model 3 delivered from New Jersey to Vermont on Oct. 30, 2018. However, Tesla could never collect on the ACH account, which had a balance between $1,400 and $9,400 at the time.
Gonzalez later sold the Tesla to a used car dealership in Williston for about $42,000 and he supplied the manufacturer’s certificate of origin.
The second case involved ordering a 2018 Tesla Model X for about $144,200 on Dec. 31, 2018. Gonzalez made the $2,500 deposit using a bank account from a woman identified as K.C. – the mother of his child.
For the $141,700 balance he used four bank accounts when Gonzalez knew there were insufficient funds to pay Tesla. The car was delivered to Gonzalez from Dedham, Mass to Burlington.
By early January 2018 Fidelity Investment rejected the follow-up payments because one account had nothing in it and the other had only a $31,500 balance. The New England Federal Credit Union also rejected payment from a Gonzalez family member because the balance was $110, while the fourth — TD Bank – had noted there was a stop payment on the account, which had a $1,350 balance.
Gonzalez used a Tesla Supercharger Station near a store in Berlin to power the vehicle on Jan. 21, 2019 and then he was spotted on surveillance cameras stealing a $1,200 rocking chair from the store and putting it into his car.
The next day Gonzalez listed the car on Craigslist for $108,000. The ad said in part: “mint condition… highest end Tesla model, 2,000 miles. Was $149,000 new. Mike.”
Gonzalez sold it in South Burlington to a person with the initials J.E. for $60,000 cash and a $30,000 check, which the defendant deposited in one of his Fidelity accounts. Gonzalez provided the new owner with the certificate of origin, but never paid Tesla the $141,700 balance.
Gonzalez bought the third Tesla, a 2018 Model X, in Florida for $152,664 by using his Florida driver’s license for identification on Jan. 24, 2019. He also used his PayPal account for the deposit and used a Dunnellon, Fla. address.
He also took possession of the car at a Tesla Store in Tampa, Fla. on Jan. 26, 2019 after initiating a series of ACH transfers and signing a delivery declaration acknowledging possession of the car.
TD Bank declined the transfer efforts between Jan. 26 and Feb. 18, 2019 because there was only a balance of about $1,350. Because Gonzalez never got a certificate of origin, he was unable to register, get a title, or re-sell the Tesla.
Gonzalez drove the car onto a frozen section of Shelburne Bay on Feb. 24, 2019 and claimed he was going to do some night fishing. He also claimed the car began to hiss and then caught fire. Gonzalez did not have a state fishing license, but bought one a week later.
The Shelburne Volunteer Fire Department responded but the Tesla was engulfed in flames and was destroyed. Gonzalez submitted an insurance claim to Government Employees Insurance Co. (GEICO) on Feb. 24.
Based on the unusual circumstances of the damage, GEICO required Gonzalez to sit for an “Examination Under Oath” and to bring his registration and title/certificate of ownership. Gonzalez failed to show for the June 7, 2019 insurance meeting. He also failed for a second appointment on July 19, 2019.
GEICO denied the claim on Dec. 2, 2019 for failure to cooperate. Gonzalez never paid the $150,164 balance.
The fourth Tesla cost $136,710 and was reserved March 21, 2019. The 2019 Model X was ordered in the name of woman with the initials “K.C.,” the mother of his child, included her driver’s license and used an Underhill address. The $2,500 deposit was made from her Key Bank account.
Gonzalez used a non-existent account to pay the balance on March 22, 2019 and the following day he took delivery of the car at a Tesla Store in Manhasset, N.Y. along with the certificate of origin.
Gonzalez transferred ownership into his own name on April 23, 2019 by claiming he swapped an “even trade” with his girlfriend for a 2013 Kia Optima. The 2013 Kia had an estimated retail value of about $8,200 according to the National Automobile Dealers Association compared to the $136,710 purchase price of the Tesla.
The defendant put the Tesla up for sale on eBay and found a buyer for $99,400 on May 18, 2019. He took a $2,000 deposit and delivered it to a friend of the eBay buyer at the Burlington International Airport on June 15, 2019.
To complete the sale, the eBay buyer’s friend provided Gonzalez with two checks totaling about $97,400. Gonzalez subsequently deposited the checks into separate bank accounts.
The final purchase was a 2019 Tesla Model X for about $115,200 on July 20, 2019. It was ordered in the name of a former girlfriend with the initials “A.C.” and used an address in St. Albans with her driver’s license.
Gonzalez did deposit about $2,565 into a bank account for “A.C.” and he began efforts to pay the balance with a transfer, but used a non-existent account. Gonzalez subsequently collected the car at a Tesla Store in Mount Kisco, N.Y. on July 24, 2019 and he received the certificate of origin.
He submitted paperwork to the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles in an attempt to register the car in his name and falsely claimed he had purchased it from “A.C.” for $80,000 when he never paid her any money.
Tesla hired a vehicle repossession company from Jonesville to seize the unpaid for car. The company located the Tesla in a parking garage in Burlington, but when told it was being repossessed, Gonzalez fled the parking garage almost striking a member of the repossession company on Sept. 4, 2019.
The next day Gonzalez rented a storage unit at a facility in Wolcott in Lamoille County large enough to store a Tesla.
Gonzalez was arrested and jailed on Feb. 19, 2020 on the unrelated federal gun charge for making a false statement to a licensed firearms dealer while trying to buy a gun. A week later Gonzalez told “A.C.” in a recorded conversation from prison that he still had the Tesla and planned to sell it when released from prison.
He was released Jan. 8, 2021 and nine days later he sent Instagram photographs to a person in Seabrook, N.H. and promised to sell the Tesla for “cheap.” He then called AAA and said he needed a tow from Wolcott to Seabrook, N.H. and provided a full description of the Tesla.
Gonzalez met the tow driver, who put the Tesla on a flatbed and headed south. The Seabrook, N.H. Police eventually took custody of the car and Gonzalez never paid the $112,700 balance, the 20-page indictment concluded.
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