Couch Patrol

Rent-a-Center sics the cops on its customers.

The Salton Sea
The Tankers, after being cleared of keeping their - furniture too long. - Thom  Sheridan
The Tankers, after being cleared of keeping their furniture too long.
Ricardo Tanker might seem a little slow at first, because his speech is slurred and he mixes up words. Out of work at the moment, he lives in a tiny house with tacked-up bedsheets for curtains. Sometimes, he and his wife, Pamela, will yell too loudly at each other, and neighbors will complain. But he's no criminal, and he's no dummy.

Last summer, Ricardo rented a living room set from the Rent-a-Center at Southgate. When he got a couple of weeks behind on the payments, the store tried to tack on hundreds of dollars in late fees, he says. He wouldn't cough up the extra cash, claiming Rent-a-Center owed him money for damage done to his house during delivery.

In response, the store sent over Mark Gurko, a young guy with a van, to collect the furniture. He arrived at the Tankers' Maple Heights bungalow around 9:30 one morning and rapped on the door. Ricardo's car was in the driveway, but no one answered. Gurko rapped again. Then he dialed 911 on his cell phone and made up a story: Ricardo Tanker had threatened to shoot him if he didn't get off his property.

The Maple Heights Police rushed over. "The calls we get from rental places are usually a disturbance we don't get involved in," says Chief Richard Maracz. "But they decided to make sure nothing was wrong."

Warrantless, the officers burst through the Tankers' back door, their guns unholstered. They found the family upstairs, looking suspiciously like they had just been roused from a deep sleep. Ricardo, who was wearing nothing but boxer shorts, jumped up in a panic, his arms raised in surrender.

"Oh no, oh no, don't shoot me, please don't shoot me, I don't have a gun," he yelled, according to the police report. And guess what -- he didn't have a gun, but the patrolmen marched him outside anyway, slammed him flat on his back in the driveway in front of his eight-year-old son and the neighbors, and called the K-9 unit for backup.

Gurko said he wouldn't press charges if Ricardo would give the furniture back. Ricardo, fearing arrest, agreed. "I'm not a fighter," he says from his now-bare front room. "I'm not gonna argue with nobody. I give a person anything I got if I have it."

After he'd loaded up the furniture as police stood by, Gurko drove away, probably thinking he had seen the last of Ricardo groveling there on the pavement. Ricardo, however, had other plans: He had to restore his good name.

On a subsequent Saturday, Ricardo went back to the Southgate store, thinking he might run into Gurko. Armed with only a tape recorder and moral conviction, Ricardo was brimming with well-thought-out questions.

"Hey, what's up there, Mark, how you doing?" Ricardo said, taking out the recorder and holding it in plain sight.

"Pretty good," answered a flabbergasted Gurko. "How about yourself?"

"OK, my man. Look here, I need to ask you a question. Now you know for a fact that all this stuff is behind us. You know for a fact, I never threatened you. Am I right or wrong?"


"You know I never threatened you a day in my life . . . I did not threaten you, am I right or wrong?"

"I gotta admit it. You didn't do that."

Without police backup or fanciful stories, Ricardo had nailed down a confession. He made several calls, sought the advice of friends, and finally found a former ACLU attorney named William Saks to represent him. Together, they decided about $30,000 in damages would cover the hurt and humiliation the Tanker family suffered at the hands of big lugs. They sent Rent-a-Center a certified letter explaining their complaint and demanding a response by May 6, but didn't hear back, so they plan to sue.

Besides being embarrassed in his underwear, Ricardo felt a more physical pain: He threw out his back when he was shoved to the concrete, according to Cleveland Clinic emergency room records. His son, Cochino, who is mentally disabled, saw the whole thing happen.

"He was shimmering," Ricardo says of his son, actually meaning shivering. "He was really feared." Cochino's so scared of cops now, he refused to go shopping for Christmas presents with them last year as part of the Cops for Kids program.

This is Saks's second case involving a rent-to-own company falsely accusing a customer of a felony. By law, police aren't allowed to get involved in private repossessions. If a company can't peaceably pick up its property, it has to let a judge sort things out.

"Basically, what you have here is a form of loan-sharking," says Saks. "A loan shark doesn't worry about legal process -- he just uses physical power. Here, the physical power comes from the police."

Rent-a-Center officials, reached at their regional and national offices, didn't respond to repeated requests for interviews. Gurko has an unlisted phone number and no longer works for the company, according to Southgate store manager Davette Byers, who declined further comment.

Last year, Rent-a-Center was named one of Fortune's fastest-growing U.S. companies. What's spreading even faster than its stores, however, is its sleazy reputation. Buy a TV on its rent-to-own plan, and you often end up paying about triple the department store prices, a study by the New York state Department of Consumer Affairs found. Rent-a-Center recently paid a $16 million settlement to 20,000 Wisconsin customers for hiding its interest rates.

The company also recently settled a lawsuit for giving job applicants a true-or-false "personality test" with questions that included "I believe there is a God" and "I am strongly attracted to members of my own sex."

Women who managed to get hired made up only two percent of the company's workforce. Their boss, now-retired CEO Ernest Talley, was fond of saying "A woman's place is in the home -- chained to a stove" and "Get rid of women any way you can." That kind of behavior cost the company a $47 million settlement in a sex-discrimination case last month.

The cops aren't named in the Tankers' lawsuit, but that doesn't mean the family feels its local law enforcement acted nobly. The Tankers bought their house in Maple Heights for better schools, but now they're soured on the city and plan to move.

Actually, they may have to move. They're way behind on their house payments. They may not be saints with trust funds, but they're still citizens who deserve better.

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