By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Cleffi, she says, called her at one point to say, "Why the hell are you having everyone call me? I don't need this!" She then got a paralegal friend to have a lawyer write a letter on their behalf, threatening to sue. She even tried to broker an agreement between A Blue Knight and Ajaco, trying to arrange for Sclafani to pay Cleffi the money he owed him. But nothing worked.
By the end of April, after six weeks of this hassle, Marie and her husband, John, made a decision: They were going to drive to East Hanover, call 9-1-1, and report the car stolen. They were about to leave on that trip, just the two of them, she says, when her husband stopped her and asked, "But who's going to drive Florence's car?" The Bilellos had adopted Katz's problem along the way and decided they couldn't try to retrieve their car in good conscience without rescuing hers, too.
Marie says John was hesitant to take his own mother, or Katz, along for the ride, afraid that things could get ugly. But when they called Katz about it, she immediately asked, "Can I come along?" They arranged to pick her up the next day in Queens for the trip to Jersey.
The confrontation came sooner than anyone predicted, but the trip they imagined didn't happen. When Cleffi got word that his insurer had been contacted by a lawyer, he called up Marie. She says he started screaming at her. As she recalls it: "He told me, 'Now I'm going to send both cars back to Florida. I'll slap a lien on them down there for nonpayment, and you'll never see them again!'" The phone call ended, she says, with her husband getting on the line and the two men screaming at each other until Cleffi hung up.
The Bilellos and Katz cooled it, and the next day, they called the New Jersey Attorney General's Office of Consumer Affairs, which called Ajaco. Cleffi never responded to repeated inquiries from the Voice, and the Jersey AG's office will not say what exactly was discussed on the phone. But that same day, Cleffi called up Marie Bilello and said, "The two cars will be by the side of the road, with the keys in the visors."
Fearful of the cars being stolen or of Cleffi changing his mind, Marie and John scooped up Marilyn and set out immediately. They called Katz and told her they didn't have time to come to Queens first, but they'd retrieve her car and drive it to her.
When they arrived in East Hanover, they stopped at the police department and asked for an escort. The cops, located just a few blocks from Ajaco's yard, admitted they knew Cleffi and declined to escort them, but said they'd "observe" from the end of the block, in case anything got out of hand.
When the Bilellos arrived at Ajaco, the two Hondas were there outside—along with "seven huge men who looked like the cast of The Sopranos," says Marie, adding, "My husband is a pretty big guy, so I wasn't scared. But it was weird, how they were staring us down the whole time, in silence." (Is there a mob angle here? The AG's Office says it doesn't know of one.)
Inside each car was a photocopy of a $1,400 check Ajaco had received from A Blue Knight that had bounced. Cleffi or someone else at Ajaco took a last shot at the old ladies, scrawling on the copies: "THANK YOU FOR LETTING ME NOT GET PAID!"
Marilyn drove straight home to Long Island, while Marie followed her husband as he drove the other car to Flushing, where they reunited a beaming Florence with her Honda and everything in it. Nothing had been stolen. "What wonderful people!" says Katz. Marie called to follow up with Sclafani about the extra money owed to her mother-in-law. He sent a money order and said the overcharge was "just a computer mistake." Marie recalls saying to him: "Funny, the exact same mistake happened to Florence Katz! What a coincidence, huh?"
According to a spokesman, the New York AG's Office can't just peremptorily shut down a business—it first has to go to court to sue for restitution. Now, however, the AG is suing Sclafani for contempt of the court order. It turns out that Cuomo also got stiffed: The AG's Office is claiming in court documents that Sclafani still owes $135,000 to the state.
Should Sclafani and his wife not voluntarily get out of the "auto transport business," Cuomo says, they should be jailed until they do so. Given how they've responded to court orders so far, the Attorney General's Office says in its paperwork that it wants to "permanently enjoin [them] from engaging in any retail or wholesale business in the State of New York."
Inspired by Florence Katz and the Bilellos, I was ready to do my own jousting with A Blue Knight. So I went to Long Island to get Greg Sclafani's side of the story. There were two addresses listed in business and court records. The first was in Syosset, a sleepy suburb on the LIRR. But on Ira Road, where A Blue Knight was supposed to be, there was only a tawdry strip mall. Flagging down a U.S. Postal Service mailman, I asked if he'd heard of a company called A Blue Knight, which was supposed to be located at No. 57.