NORTH SALT LAKE — Nearly 2,000 bidders signed up Thursday for the chance to find their dream car in a fleet of vehicles amassed by a Lindon man accused of carrying out a multimillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.
After two previously aborted attempts, federal authorities finally auctioned off 186 of the 210 cars, motorcycles and boats seized from Jeffrey Lane Mowen. The bidding was fast and furious inside the North Salt Lake warehouse where deputy U.S. marshals worked to keep people from wandering among the vehicles offered for sale in an effort to prevent vandalism.
"How many of you have one of these?" asked Rob Olson, president of Erkelens & Olson Auctioneers as he worked to sell a Dodge Charger with the "General Lee" paint scheme made famous by the 1980s TV series "The Dukes of Hazzard."
The rhetorical question brought chuckles. The Charger brought more than $15,000.
A short time later a Geo Tracker went for $5,000. Then a Mercedes-Benz sedan with bulletproof glass sold for $11,500, a De Tomaso Pantera sold for $32,000 and a Shelby Cobra sold for $67,000.
John Graham traveled to Utah from New Zealand in hopes of buying a 1966 Ford Mustang GT-H that was listed on the auction company's Web site. The car, however, was pulled from the auction due to a dispute over its title.
"I wouldn't call it a collection," Graham said, surveying the hodgepodge of vehicles lined up inside the warehouse.
"I don't know what you'd call it ... maybe an obsession," he said. "I think someone saw (Mowen) coming. He obviously had more brains than money, which is probably why he's in prison."
Vernal Mayor Gary Showalter, who owns Showalter Motor Co. and is auctioning off 53 cars from his own private collection on Friday, agreed with Graham.
"It's just a bizarre collection. There's a lot of junk in there," said Showalter, a car collector for 45 years who was the winning bidder on Mowen's 1956 Ford Thunderbird.
Mowen's collection, which included everything from kit cars to custom motorcycles with outlandish paint jobs, was seized in January by the FBI. Prosecutors alleged Mowen put together the menagerie with money from a bogus investment scheme and then used the vehicles as displays of his success for prospective investors.
Mowen, 47, faces charges of wire fraud and other counts. Authorities say he represented himself as a trader in foreign currency, swindled investors out of about $18 million and then tried to persuade a jail inmate to kill four investors to prevent them from testifying.
Although Mowen has not been convicted of a crime, federal prosecutors convinced U.S. District Judge Dee Benson that the high cost of storing the vehicles — an estimated $21,000 a month — and the "voluminous" evidence they said they have against Mowen warranted selling off the collection before the case was adjudicated.
Mowen, whose trial is set for August, tried on two occasions to halt the auction, which was postponed, but Benson rejected both attempts.
Should Mowen be acquitted, he can seek reimbursement from the government for the property that was sold Thursday. If convicted, he faces a maximum of more than 90 years in prison and fines of more than $1 million.
e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org TWITTER: GeoffLiesik