Officials with Merced’s Courtesy Automotive Center said Thursday they did nothing wrong when they sold a $30,000 Cadillac to a mentally ill South Merced man last month, but they’re willing to work with the man to undo the damage he says the transaction caused.
On Wednesday, the Sun-Star published a story about 61-year-old Bill Butler, who suffers from both manic depression and paranoid schizophrenia. Butler bought a 2007 Cadillac CTS from Courtesy last month.
Butler’s wife Linda says the couple survives on $1,600 per month in government assistance, and there’s no way she and her husband can afford the car’s $500 monthly payments. “Bill gets excited and he makes bad decisions sometimes,” said Linda, 60. “He knows now it was a mistake, but he didn’t know then.”
Linda argues that because her husband is mentally ill, the transaction, which included their old car on trade-in, should be reversed. The dealership told her it wouldn’t rescind the deal.
Courtesy officials initially declined to discuss the sale with the Sun-Star, after several telephone requests or when a reporter visited the dealership.
But in an interview Thursday, the dealership’s general manager, Brian Wells, and its sales manager, James Cagle, offered their side of the story — and said they’re now willing to work with the Butlers to remedy the situation.
Wells and Cagle say the dealership did nothing wrong in selling Butler the Cadillac. They say Butler didn’t seem mentally ill, that no one pressured him into buying a car, that he’d been in countless times to look at the Cadillac before he finally bought it and that he was automatically approved for the $36,000 interest-free loan the dealership gave him — though they say Butler told Courtesy he and his wife make more than $1,600 a month.
“At the end of the day, we’re not psychiatrists and he seemed capable,” Wells, who has never met Butler, said. “To us, it really looked like a typical transaction. He had a driver’s license, he had insurance and he had a credit history that showed his ability to make payments. ... If he was approved and we refused to sell him the car, we could be accused of discrimination.”
Linda argues that Butler’s disability is apparent. “Anyone can tell he’s not all there,” she said.
Wells and Cagle dispute some of the Butlers’ claims.
Butler says the entire transaction took less than an hour. Wells offered documents showing it took more than two. And they say Butler had been making visits to the dealership for months before he bought the car, even bringing Linda with him on one occasion a few days before he drove the Cadillac home. “I think this shows a track record that no one was pressuring Mr. Butler,” Wells said.
Butler admits he goes to the dealership often. “I like to look at the Cadillacs and especially the Corvettes,” he said. “And I like to go to the auto repair shop, too, where the blueberry biscuits are.” Linda says she went to the dealership with Bill because “he’d been begging me to go look at the cars, but it was just for fun. ... Bill likes to dream.”
A customer history report provided by Courtesy, which logs the dealership’s contact with individual customers, shows Butler went to the dealership in March of last year and expressed interest in a 2007 Corvette. The report labels Butler as an “unrealistic buyer.” It says, “Customer makes only (amount redacted by dealership) per month but this is his dream car.”
Courtesy officials say Butler told them he and Linda make more than $1,600 a month, though they wouldn’t say what figure Butler gave. Butler insists he told Courtesy the truth. Wells said Courtesy doesn’t verify a customer’s income unless the lending bank requests it. In this case, the lender, GMAC finance, accepted the loan without income verification.
Cagle said it’s unreasonable to expect a dealership to accept returns on new cars, even when a customer returns claiming they weren’t fit to make the purchase because of mental illness.
“The minute that car drives off the lot, we have to sell it as a used car and it loses a lot of value,” Wells said. “Returning a car isn’t like returning a pair of jeans.”
Cagle also says the Butlers waited far longer than a few days to try to return the car, and that when they finally did, Linda didn’t make it clear that Butler is mentally ill. “That wasn’t how the conversation went,” Cagle said. “She was just yelling, demanding her old car back.”
Linda insists she tried three times to return the car in the first three days after Butler brought it home, and that she explained Bill’s conditions.
The story prompted anger and disgust among some Sun-Star readers. In phone calls, e-mails, letters and online comments, dozens of people expressed sympathy for the Butlers. Some threatened to boycott Courtesy. A student club at Buhach Colony High School in Atwater announced it will accept donations on the couple’s behalf.
Wells says he regrets any heartache the Cadillac has caused the Butlers, and that he’s stunned by the outpouring of anger from the public.
“We honestly didn’t think we were doing anything wrong,” Wells said. “We work hard to be good members of this community. ... I’d be more than happy to work with (the Butlers) to find a way to mitigate everyone’s damages in this situation. I’m just not exactly sure what that will look like yet.”
Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at 209 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.