Tellya what we got here. We got big John Herman Kramer, big neck, big greasy hands, stepping out from under a big car up on a lift in the rear of a dark, dirty garage in, well, I'd tell you where, except John Kramer wouldn't like that much. "If you tell people where I work at, that would hurt me," he says. "And I'd have to pull up and start all over again."
Why's that, Big John?
"Cause," he says. "They done ruined me once already."
John Kramer is a plain-talking man with a country drawl, a voice like gritty puddin' and the manner of a shade-tree mechanic leaning on a pickup truck. Back in 1986, he had a thriving business. It was called Kramer's Car Care, in Dobbin Center, Columbia. There are thousands of people who well remember Kramer's business -- some not very fondly -- because they had their cars towed to it. Kramer had a contract with Automobile Club of Maryland (Triple A) to handle emergency road service calls for a good chunk of Howard County. In 1986 alone, Kramer's tow trucks responded to more than 10,000 calls.
Sounds like John Kramer had a nice thing going.
"Sure," says Stephen D. Hannan, of the Howard County Office of Consumer Affairs. "If you were replacing batteries, alternators and regulators each time you towed [a car] in, I guess it would be lucrative."
Hold on a minute. That's not exactly what the record shows.
While a lot of people complained that Kramer's Car Care charged them for unnecessary repairs to their cars, and while the Office of Consumer Affairs launched an investigation and actually "stung" Kramer's shop, this husky 49-year-old career mechanic never was convicted of a crime. He never admitted a single allegation made by the Office of Consumer Affairs.
But he lost his business because of all the negative publicity that resulted.
And he can't fix cars in Howard County without first alerting the Office of Consumer Affairs. This past winter, he signed a consent order that says as much.
Kramer has two jobs now, working as a mechanic day and night in places he asked me not to identify. His reputation, he says, was tainted by what he calls "my ordeal" in Howard County, and he can't get his good name back.
spent 20-something years in Howard County and I didn't have nobody come to me with complaints," Kramer says. "If they did, I satisfied them. Happy customers bring new customers. . . . But the way they publicitied [sic] me, you're gonna have people come out of the woods to get their money back. They destroyed me. . . . I'm tryin' to get the point across that I'm tryin' to clear my name. I'm tryin' to get my life back. I'm tired of scrapin' the bottom to get ahead again. Someone out there in Columbia owes me somethin'. I worked 15-, 16-hour days, six days a week, sometimes on Sundays makin' road calls, and they came in and took it away from me."
The "sting" at Kramer's Car Care occurred in the fall of 1986.
Hannan, then chief investigator, says the Office of Consumer Affairs received "a bunch" of complaints about the shop. James Jones, then director of the office, told The Sun at the time that the office had received 23 complaints, "the highest number we've ever had against that type of business."
Hannan recalls the complaints indicated a pattern of deceptive activity at Kramer's, which prompted the Office of Consumer Affairs to send three "sting" cars to the garage for repairs.
However, press reports at the time referred only to one car being used in the investigation.
zTC In that case, an investigator drove a State Police-supplied 1983 Dodge Aries to Snowden River Parkway and pulled the car to the side of the road. Then, the car's alternator belt was cut. Once the car was in Kramer's shop, the undercover investigator allegedly was told that her car needed a new alternator and regulator, in addition to a new alternator belt. The charge: $221.96.
"That's a lot of hocus-pocus," John Kramer says today. "I knew that belt had been intentionally cut when the car came in. I thought Triple A was checkin' me out. She [the investigator] asked me for a price on an alternator and a regulator. She insisted they both be replaced."
A charge of theft by deception was filed against Kramer in the spring of 1987. The case was reported in the Baltimore and Howard County press.
"On TV, radio and in the newspapers," Kramer says. "One of them even reported that there was a warrant out for my arrest."
Immediately, Kramer says, his life changed dramatically. His wife was afraid to venture out of their home. His business dropped off. Former customers showed up at the Office of Consumer Affairs to complain about old bills.
Triple A suspended its ties with him because, an agency spokesman said, by the time charges were filed against Kramer, he had closed his Dobbin Center shop and moved to a new location without getting proper insurance.