ANDREWS — Along a rural highway named after America’s first African-American Supreme Court justice, inside a former grocery store on property guarded by a pair of donkeys and a horse named Thunder sits Bobby Ward’s classic 1939 Ford pickup truck – rusting and in dozens of pieces.
It wasn’t always that way.
Ward once had high hopes for the truck he “bought off a boy out of Goose Creek.” The truck had potential as a show vehicle, it just needed a little work.
Which is how Ward met Kenny Key, owner of Kenny’s Kustoms vehicle restoration business at 1985 S.C. 9 West in Longs.
“His business was listed on the Internet,” said Ward, a Georgetown Steel employee for 35 years now spending his retirement – along with wife, Jamie – in a home that overlooks the Black River. “I went over to his shop and he had about 20 cars that he was working on at the time. I couldn’t find anything negative about him.”
Now, nearly six years later, Ward is among dozens of creditors – many of them classic car enthusiasts – who soon could lose any hope of recovering about $600,000 in payments made to Key for restoration work that wasn’t performed.
Key has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation, which – if successful – would wipe out all of the judgments filed against him by Ward and others who say in court documents that they’ve been cheated out of their savings and had car parts stolen from them. A meeting of Key’s creditors is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 6 in Charleston and creditors have until March 7 to file objections to Key’s bankruptcy.
Key did not return a telephone message from The Sun News and numerous calls to his shop went unanswered. There is no other telephone listing for Key or his wife. Key’s lawyer, Jackson Turner-Vaught, declined to discuss the case.
Michelle Vieira, the trustee in Key’s bankruptcy, said it is her policy “not to discuss pending cases.”
Key, in an undated letter sent to the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs, blamed his troubles on the economy.
“I had explained to all my [vehicle] owners once the economy came back I would be starting back to work on all their vehicles,” Key said in the letter, which was a response to a 2009 complaint Ward filed against him. “This is not just a job for me, it is a real passion I have.”
Ward, however, said the economy had nothing to do with Key’s failure to fix his truck. That’s because Ward paid $16,000 to Key up front and also gave him $10,000 worth of truck parts before any work was scheduled to begin.
Ward last year obtained a judgment against Key for $7,513.77 – the maximum amount he could receive in magistrate’s court.
“He tells customers that he has to have the money up front, then he has one excuse after another as to why the work has not been done,” Ward said.
Key’s bankruptcy filing shows Kenny’s Kustoms took in $165,555 in 2011 and $103,029 last year. Key reported that he pays himself a $1,000 monthly salary. It’s not clear where the rest of the money from Kenny’s Kustoms has gone. On bankruptcy documents, Key and his wife say they own no real property and their vehicles – a 2003 Chevy Silverado and a 2004 Chevy Suburban – are worth less than $10,000 combined. Their other assets total about $4,000 – mostly clothing and household items and all of it exempt from seizure to pay creditors.
Key said in his bankruptcy filing that he plans to shut down Kenny’s Kustoms in February and retire. He said he plans to live off his Social Security income.
Ruined cars, ruined dreams
The bankruptcy documents also show Key still has at least 20 vehicles belonging to other people – classics like a 1969 Camaro, a 1964 Corvette and a 1949 Mercury convertible – all in various stages of disrepair.
One of those vehicles – a 1953 Chevrolet panel truck, identified as a 1950 model in the bankruptcy filing – belongs to Donald Savage, who owns a cabinet-making business in Greenville. Savage, who also owns a home in North Myrtle Beach, took his truck to Key five years ago for restoration work and to have his company logo put on the side. Savage said he paid $19,000 up front to Key but now doubts he’ll ever get his truck, or his money, back.
“I don’t know if it’s worth getting the truck back, it’s in such pitiful shape,” Savage said.
The truck Savage hoped to use to advertise his business has “rusted out” in the five years since he took it to Key’s shop, he said.
“Up until a year ago, he would still return my calls,” Savage said. “He gave me a story about the Internal Revenue Service, then it was the economy, he said his help was stealing from him, that he had lost his house and was moving in with his daughter . . . but he always assured me he would do my truck. There’s no use in pushing it now. I don’t see any hope of getting anything.”
William Grothe Jr. of Calabash decided he would push the issue when Key failed to build and refurbish a 1956 Buick two-door sedan and install a 454-horsepower engine in the vehicle, according to court records. Grothe paid $37,300 to Key in 2007 and the work was supposed to be finished a year later. When that deadline passed and Grothe complained about the lack of progress, court records show Key demanded another $2,000 per day to work on the vehicle.
Key refused to give the vehicle back to Grothe, wouldn’t give Grothe the car parts he had paid for and replaced parts on Grothe’s vehicle with inferior or improper parts, according to a lawsuit Grothe filed against Key.
When that lawsuit reached circuit court in 2010, Judge Edward Cottingham ruled that Key had violated the state’s Unfair Trade Practices Act and awarded Grothe a judgment totaling $300,391 for actual and punitive damages. Court records show Key never paid the money.
No one willing to help
William Elliott saw Kenny’s Kustoms on the side of S.C. 9 during an annual golf trip with his buddies from Prince George, Va.
“I stopped in and talked to him [Key] and saw some of the work he’d done,” Elliott said. “I thought he did a good job and asked him if he could do my cars.”
Key traveled to Elliott’s home on Nov. 12, 2003, to pick up a pair of classic cars – a 1955 Ford Thunderbird and a 1966 Ford Mustang convertible – and a $25,000 down payment from Elliott for the restoration work. A decade and another $26,600 later, both cars have been destroyed and Elliott’s money is gone.
“He cut sections out of the Thunderbird’s body where there was some rust and he cut out the floorboards . . . there’s not enough left to put it back together,” Elliott said.
The Mustang was left outside and exposed to the elements, Elliott said. The car’s hood had been removed and rain made its way into the carburetor and then into the engine cylinders.
“One cylinder was filled with water and another was rusted out when I picked it up,” Elliott said.
Elliott filed a lawsuit against Key in 2007 and won a $275,950 judgment against the car restorer two years later. He’s been trying to collect on the judgment ever since.
“He claims he has no assets,” Elliott said. “He’s just thumbed his nose at the system.”
The system has provided little help to Ward, who has sought assistance from more than two dozen agencies and political leaders – from the Better Business Bureau and the state’s Department of Consumer Affairs to former S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford and former state Attorney General Henry McMaster. The responses, while polite, offered no assistance.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham’s response was typical: “Because your concern is legal in nature, it is outside of my official jurisdiction. It is an honor for me to represent you in the U.S. Senate.”
Valerie Rankin, a complaint analyst for the consumer affairs office, declined to help because Ward had filed a civil lawsuit.
“We cannot interfere or intercede in a complaint once legal action has been initiated by either party,” Rankin stated in a letter to Ward.
An investigator with the State Law Enforcement Division told Ward his “concerns are contractual in nature and should be addressed in civil court,” adding that “based on the information you provided, SLED declines to open an investigation.”
“No one wanted to get involved,” Ward said. “They all said it’s not their job.”
‘Well, at least he was convicted’
Ward ultimately decided to take matters into his own hands. He filed a police report against Key on June 5, 2009, accusing the car restorer of fraud. An investigation followed, leading to Key’s arrest on March 26, 2010, when he was charged with breach of trust with fraudulent intent. Key was released the next day from J. Reuben Long Detention Center on his own recognizance, according to jail records.
Key pleaded guilty when the matter went to court the following December, and Judge Steven John ordered him to pay a $400 fine.
“I sat there and cried and the judge saw me crying and he said, ‘Well, at least he was convicted’,” Jamie Ward said.
Bobby Ward eventually retrieved what was left of his truck and hauled it to his storage building along Thurgood Marshall Highway in Andrews. The truck that once showed such promise was now a rusting piece of junk. Its chassis had been cut and then welded back together in a way that made it unsafe to ever drive again, Ward said. Rust had been painted over and parts of the truck had not been painted at all. A window had been broken out. Parts that Ward had bought and installed before taking the truck to Key were missing.
“The door with the broken window, as well as other parts, I found scattered all over the ground [at Key’s shop], in and around other vehicles, in a storage trailer and in the building,” Ward said.
Boxes of parts Key gave back to Ward – purportedly the $10,000 worth of parts Ward had bought for Key to install – “were, in fact, used,” Ward said. “He threw used and broken parts in several cardboard boxes.”
Ward attempted to trace some of the parts Key had given him through shipping labels that had been left on some of the boxes. Emails from the vendors where the parts were supposed to have come from show the parts either were for different vehicles, were the wrong type or had not come from the vendors at all.
Ward continued to document his findings and appeal to authorities for help, until last month when he received a notice of Key’s bankruptcy filing.
“I adamantly oppose Key being allowed to declare bankruptcy in order to abscond judgments/civil suits which have accumulated against him,” Ward wrote in a letter that is included in Key’s bankruptcy file. “Why should he be allowed to clear his name, his wife’s name and his business name? He tricked innocent victims into trusting him and then stole their hard-earned money.”
Key, in his letter to the S.C. Department of Consumer Affairs, said he has done nothing wrong.
“We have not tried to deceive anyone and feel we have been straight up with each customer,” Key wrote.
Ward said he is trying to contact other creditors and Key’s customers to object to the bankruptcy. Ward, who is disabled, doubts he’ll be able to make it to the hearing, but he hopes others will join him in voicing their concerns.
“Maybe if we can get a box of letters it will help,” he said.
Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.