FARMINGTON, N.M. (KRQE) – There’s a two-mile stretch along Main Street here that is home to exactly 11 title loan stores.
“No credit check required!” and “Cash now!” scream the orange and yellow signs – interspersed among the diners, laundromats and thrift shops – in this oil-and-gas-reliant western New Mexico town.
On a brisk March day in 2010, U.S. Army veteran Chris Clay says he chose the wrong one.
“These title loan places are like 7-Elevens when it comes to money,” Clay said in an interview with KRQE News 13 earlier this month. “You jut walk in — no credentials, no questions asked — and you walk out with money.”
The loan almost cost him his life.
Clay, now 38, didn’t have the cash to pay New Mexico Titles Loans, Inc., back in time for the money he borrowed — at an annual percentage rate of 360 percent — with his truck as collateral. So instead, he paid it back with a half-dozen bullet holes through his back and stomach.
According to a lawsuit Clay filed in state District Court, he was shot by an unlicensed repo man who brought along a convicted felon on May 21, 2010, to haul Clay’s 1999 Dodge pickup away from his remote property off U.S. 64 on the outskirts of town for New Mexico Title Loans.
The parent company of New Mexico Title Loans is Atlanta, Ga.-based Community Loans of America, Inc., one of the largest of its kind in the country. The sole beneficiary of the two trusts that own Community Loans of America is attorney Alvin Malnick, according to published reports and documents filed in the lawsuit.
Malnick has been connected to one of one of the most successful and notorious mobsters in American history, Meyer Lansky, according to published reports and Malnick’s own website.
Among Lansky’s specialties was loan-sharking — a practice one official with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office said isn’t far off from the way title loan companies, which are wholly unregulated in New Mexico, work.
“This is just another form of loan-sharking,” said Assistant Attorney General Karen Meyers, who serves as director of the AG’s Consumer Protection Division.
Meyers said Clay’s case was an extreme example of a common phenomenon in New Mexico.
“We are seen as a very lucrative place for these companies,” she said, “because we have no usury cap (on interest rates) and no effective regulation … That creates the opportunity for businesses like this to take advantage of people.”
Clay, a one-time high school football player and devout San Francisco 49ers fan, hasn’t walked since the shooting. Now, he coaches his son’s football team from a wheelchair.
The shooter, now-29-year-old Ryan Browning, was not arrested. Neither was his fellow repo man, Travis Rodgers, who also is now 29.
That’s because the Bloomfield police officers and San Juan County sheriff’s deputies who investigated the shooting heard two distinctly different versions of what happened shortly after midnight in the driveway of Clay’s home.
“I told them to get off my property,” Clay said, “they just wasn’t leaving.” He said he walked back to the truck to get some paperwork and, about the time he was opening the door, Browning reached into the back waistband of his pants, pulled out a .45-caliber handgun and opened fire.
Browning could not be reached for comment. But KRQE News 13 obtained a copy of his police interrogation video. He told officers Clay was going for a gun of his own. He said he shot Clay in self defense.
Investigators found an air-soft pellet gun behind Clay’s home during a subsequent search of the property, but no firearms, according to police reports.
In the end, authorities believed they had enough to charge Browning with a felony count of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and a misdemeanor count of unlawful carrying of a firearm, said San Juan County Sheriff’s Capt. Brice Current. So they forwarded the case to the Eleventh Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
One of the prosecutors who screened the case was Assistant District Attorney Dustin O’Brien, whose live-in girlfriend is — and was at the time of the shooting — Four Corners-area defense attorney Kristin Harrington. In the aftermath of the shooting, Browning consulted Harrington, who has a child with O’Brien, about the case.
Chief Deputy DA Brent Capshaw told News 13 several attorneys worked on the case and decided not to prosecute Browning. Capshaw said O’Brien and Harrington may have discussed the case, but their relationship had nothing to do with the decision to close it with no charges filed.
“We determined we couldn’t get beyond probable cause,” Capshaw said. “They didn’t think they could convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that someone is guilty … We can go forward in good faith if we’ve got probable cause, but in most cases we want to have a little more than that. We want to believe there’s some chance we can convict this person at trial.”
Clay, who served in the Army in Iraq and Kuwait, said that’s not good enough for him.
“What’s outrageous to me is these guys didn’t get a trespassing ticket,” he said. “They were on private property, posted private property, told to leave the property numerous times … I’ve been around the world and fought for this country, and I come home and get gunned down in my own driveway? And (authorities) won’t do anything about it. Nothing.”
That’s what prompted the lawsuit, he said. Named as defendants are: Browning; Certified Adjusters and its owner, Daniel Goldberg; New Mexico Title Loans; and Community Loans of America. It makes several claims — including negligence, unlicensed repossession, civil conspiracy and breach of contract — and seeks unspecified damages for Clay, his daughter, who was 14 in 2010 and witnessed the shooting, and his son, who was 10 at the time.
“I want somebody to be responsible for what these title loans do to people,” Clay said. “They hired these rogue people off the streets with no background checks, no credentials.”
Goldberg could not be reached for comment.
Neither New Mexico Title Loans nor Community Loans of America responded to several requests for comment. They did, however, send a subpoena to News 13 on Tuesday for raw video of our interview with Clay.
In the companies’ court-filed response to the lawsuit, their attorneys denied liability for Clay’s injuries, along with most of his claims.
The crux of the case lies in two of Clay’s claims: that Browning and the companies breached the peace, in violation of New Mexico law, during the attempted repossession, and that Browning didn’t have a license to conduct repossessions in the first place.
The law: “No person shall conduct within this state the business of a repossessor without having first applied for and obtained a repossessor’s license.”
The companies’ attorneys deny the claims about licensing and breaching the peace.
A search of New Mexico licensing records turned up no repossessor licenses for Browning, Rodgers or Goldberg’s Certified Adjusters.
License or none, Browning and Rodgers went to Clay’s home during the day on May 21, 2010 to repossess the truck. The saw Clay and two friends drinking in the driveway and decided to come back later.
Clay had just been released after spending 24 hours in the county jail for a fight that led to no charges.
“Nobody’s perfect,” Clay said. “I’m no angel.”
The two repo men came back to the home after midnight.
According to police reports, Clay and his two friends approached Browning and Rodgers after the two repo men pulled their tow truck up to Clay’s Dodge. Things got heated quickly.
“It happened so fast,” Clay said. “Honestly I just remember the two guys jumping out and immediately saying they were there for the truck. And I said: “You guys got this all wrong.”
He said he went to his truck to retrieve some paperwork, and that’s when he was shot.
“The first one hit me in the back, the buttock area and kind of spun me just to let the next one hit me in the stomach,” Clay said. “All I could think about was the kids so as I turned toward the house — the last couple got me in the back.”
His daughter was about 15 feet away, he said. She ran to his side.
Browning and Rodgers got in their two truck and sped away, according to police reports. Rodgers called police to report the shooting. So did one of Clay’s friends.
The repo men later agreed to extensive interviews with police.
Browning’s story about the shooting changed throughout his interview with police. At first, he said it was too dark to see what Clay was reaching for in the truck. Later, he said he was sure Clay had a gun.
“It was a gun in his right hand,” Browning told an officer, who responded: “What did it look like? Earlier you weren’t sure.”
Clay spent several months in the hospital after the shooting. In the years since, he has learned to live without the use of his legs.
“I couldn’t sit up I couldn’t do anything, I couldn’t feed myself,” he said. “I still need a lot of help but I’ve came quite a long ways … I want to go back to work. I want to provide for my kids. I don’t want handouts. I don’t want to be on Medicaid or Medicare for the rest of my life … I won’t stop until I’m back on my feet. If it takes me until I’m 80 years old, I’ll walk again.”
Clay said he wants to see some regulation of the title loan industry.
Meyers of the AG’s Office said lawmakers have tried and failed in the past to put in place protections for consumers. Bills failed at the Legislature at least twice in the latter part of the last decade that would’ve capped the amount of interest companies can charge for loans.
And there’s a proposed constitutional amendment in the Legislature now that would cap interest rates for lenders at 36 percent. It appears to be a non-starter.
“These are loans that are asset-based and are secured by the car itself,” Meyers said. “There is a failure of these lenders to make any determination of the borrower’s ability to actually repay the loan based on their financial circumstances, which means there is a lack of underwriting.
“There is what you would call a willful blindness to the borrower’s financial circumstances, and that puts the car at risk of repossession and loss, and the borrower at risk of debt trap. That’s what the car-title loan model is intended to do.”