No jail time for car sale scammerMuhannad Tahtamouni, former owner of Moe’s Motors in Grand Forks, bilked his victims in the immigrant community out of thousands of dollars. But he won’t be doing time in jail, much to the dismay of his victims, who can’t understand how the American justice system could work this way. “He has 15 charges and has stolen money and it takes 15 months, going to court every two months, and he can go free and work? Where is the justice here?” said Thamir Kadhim, an Iraqi immigrant who said Tahtamouni still owes him about $9,000.
By: By Chris Bieri , Forum Communications Co., The Jamestown Sun
Muhannad Tahtamouni, former owner of Moe’s Motors in Grand Forks, bilked his victims in the immigrant community out of thousands of dollars.
But he won’t be doing time in jail, much to the dismay of his victims, who can’t understand how the American justice system could work this way.
“He has 15 charges and has stolen money and it takes 15 months, going to court every two months, and he can go free and work? Where is the justice here?” said Thamir Kadhim, an Iraqi immigrant who said Tahtamouni still owes him about $9,000.
Tahtamouni, 45, agreed to a plea deal in January, in which prosecutors recommended 180 days in jail, but Grand Forks District Judge Karen Braaten allowed him to leave the courthouse Wednesday a free man.
Prosecutors said Tahtamouni, a Palestinian immigrant from Jordan, sold cars to fellow immigrants without transferring the titles to the owners in 2010 and 2011. Victims said he would ask for the cars back, promising to sell them for more money, but they never got the money when the cars were sold.
Assistant State’s Attorney David Jones, who prosecuted the case, said a pre-sentence investigation showed Tahtamouni didn’t have a prior criminal record and was not seen as a likely repeat offender and the judge must’ve used that as a basis for sentencing rather than the plea deal prosecutors struck.
Tahtamouni has two years of supervised probation.
‘A bad situation’
In 2009, Kadhim paid Moe’s Motor $9,000 for 2001 Ford F150, but never got title. Instead, he said, Tahtamouni promised to resell the truck for more money and give it to him.
Kadhim, who owns the Babylon restaurant downtown, would never get that money.
In 2010, Lebanese immigrant Rabih Ali Abdulhak bought a Ford Ranger from Tahtamouni for $5,130, but never received the title. Tahtamouni took back the vehicle with a promise to pay Abdulhak back, but instead sold the vehicle to another man without paying Abdulhak.
Abdulhak said the swindle was a big blow financially.
“I don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “America is expensive right now. You have to work hard to save money. I make $12 an hour. I work one year to save $5,000 or $6,000. I don’t have the credit because I’m a new American. It’s a bad situation. He should go to jail. He did the crime.”
Both he and Kadhim are confused how Tahtamouni could receive what they view as a weak sentence by the American justice system, which they say has been heralded as the best in the world.
“And they speak all of the time about the justice here,” Kadhim said.
Jones understands the reaction, but said there is more than just prosecutors’ recommendation that goes into the sentence.
“The court has the job of balancing all of that and doing what it thinks is best,” he said. “I know there was some disappointment. The victims felt there should be a period of incarceration and, quite frankly, that’s what we recommended.”
Initially Tahtamouni, who opened Moe’s Motors in 2009, was charged with 15 counts of theft, five of them felonies. He could have faced upwards of 25 years in prison if sentenced to the maximum penalty under the initial charges.
The 15 counts were consolidated in January down to eight.
According to Jones, Tahtamouni paid back all the victims before appearing in court on Wednesday. A bonding company also repaid a portion of the money that Tahtamouni stole from the customers.
Tahtamouni was required to pay a total of $6,220.57 on two of the counts, which Jones said he expects will be delivered to victims in the next few weeks. Jones said his office did its best to pinpoint the correct amount of restitution based on information from the detective and bonding company, but wouldn’t rule out civil suits.
“I have no doubt at all from the standpoint of rentals and inconveniences there would be more there,” Jones said. “I won’t be at all surprised that there will be civil action in regard to all that.”
Jones said Tahtamouni told the court he is living in Aberdeen, S.D. Attempts to reach Tahtamouni through his lawyer were unsuccessful.
Kadhim and Abdulhak said Tahtamouni preyed on their cultural similarities, especially the use of Arabic language, which all three have in common. As immigrants who arrived in the last four years, Kadhim and Abdulhak didn’t have a great grasp of English after immediately arriving in the U.S.
“When I first met him, I didn’t speak English good and he said ‘I can help you guys,’” Abdulhak said.
It was Tahtamouni’s wife Carrie, a staff member at a refugee aid agency in Grand Forks, who recommended her husband to Kadhim and Abdulhak.
Kadhim said the money he is owed by Tahtamouni could be well-spent on his growing children.
“I have family and five kids,” he said. “I want to spend my money on them.”
Chris Bieri is a reporter
at the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.