The man who stole David Markle’s prized 1988 Isuzu Trooper four years ago and sold it for scrap was convicted of his crimes, but the St. Paul recycling yard that paid for it and several dozen other cars stolen in 2011 never was prosecuted.

That didn’t sit right with Markle, a 75-year-old Minneapolis resident who spent years customizing the car so it could carry him across boulder-strewn roads in the Bighorn Mountains and other parts out West where he vacationed annually.

So two years ago, Markle embarked on a campaign to find other car theft victims and sue Metro Metals Corp. for allegedly buying cars that the company knew had been stolen. On Wednesday, he and six other plaintiffs finally got their day in Ramsey County District Court when testimony began in a civil trial involving the Metro Metals Corp.

Markle said his motives are simple: “It’s really twofold. One is to get compensated for the loss, and the other one — it’s big — is punishment for Metro Metals. …”

The plaintiffs are suing Metro Metals for a total of $143,208 in damages and legal fees. Each is suing for three times the value of their stolen vehicle.

In August 2011, St. Paul police and the Ramsey County attorney’s office announced charges against 10 people who stole cars from city streets, private lots and driveways in order to sell them for scrap. Many of the cars were taken to Metro Metals and sold for $300 to $350 apiece and promptly crushed.

Authorities said at the time that although more than 50 cars had been stolen in St. Paul and sold for scrap, Metro Metals was not being investigated for criminal activity.

In his opening statements Wednesday, Michael Cain, who is representing the victims, told jurors that in each case, Metro Metals failed to take basic voluntary steps to verify a car’s history and ownership by checking vehicle information available in a state database.

When victims called the scrap yard looking for their vehicles, Metro Metals was “evasive,” he said.

“Metro Metals has a system in place where they systematically turn a blind eye,” Cain said.

Cain also said that after Metro Metals learned that some of its scrap cars were stolen, the company chose not to report them.

Metro Metals attorney James Smith told jurors in his opening statements that Cain’s arguments were full of “factual distortion” and “falsehoods.”

Smith said that the high price of scrap metal in 2011 prompted a large number of car sales. Once Metro Metals realized what was happening, he said, it reacted by hiring off-duty police officers to help inspect cars for signs they were stolen.

“Metro Metals responded responsibly to the rash of stolen vehicles,” Smith said.

The recycling yard was not required by law in 2011 — but are now, with some exceptions  — to obtain a car title before accepting a vehicle for scrap. The 2011 cases, however, did lead to changes in the law to help combat such crimes.

Markle and other victims, including Kathleen Raine and Nathan Lemmer, said they don’t believe Metro Metals has cleaned up its act. They said that’s one reason they banded together to bring a suit against the company, alleging that it knew or should have known that it was buying stolen cars. (Cain said in his opening statements that one car thief sold 82 cars to Metro Metals in a 12-month period.)

It was Markle, armed with addresses and victims’ initials listed in the criminal complaints, who hunted down his fellow plaintiffs. He knocked on doors, asked for people by their initials and, over a cup of coffee, made a case for the lawsuit.

“I was very angry, but I thought, ‘Who am I to fight Metro Metals?’ ” Lemmer said of his attitude before Markle showed up on his doorstep.

Testimony resumes Thursday.

 

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