Feds find Shaq-tastic Ferrari during drug probe

Robert Snell
The Detroit News

Detroit — Federal drug agents seized a museum’s worth of luxury vehicles during a 2011 raid targeting former Packard Motor Car Co. plant owner Romel Casab, including a Studebaker, a Bentley and a 1988 Ferrari, but one exotic car escaped scrutiny until now.

During the raid, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents also seized a customized, silver 1999 Ferrari F355 Spider with the vanity plate “Shaq F1” that once belonged to NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, The Detroit News has learned.

During the raid, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents also seized a customized, silver 1999 Ferrari F355 Spider with the vanity plate “Shaq F1” that once belonged to NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, The Detroit News has learned.

The seizure was disclosed in mid-December after Casab pleaded guilty to a crime in federal court. Subsequent interviews reveal the colorful backstory of a high-profile drug and money-laundering investigation.

The Ferrari’s seizure spawned a lengthy tug-of-war over an exotic car designed for someone the size of a racehorse jockey, customized for a 7-footer and possessed by Casab, a short, stout businessman perpetually hooked to a breathing machine.

The tug-of-war emerged last month amid questions about the car’s provenance and ties to O’Neal, questions that ultimately led to a car museum in Dayton, Ohio.

“Do you know how tough it is to get something back from the feds?” said Robert Signom, founder and curator of America’s Packard Museum in Dayton, Ohio. “But it’s better than not getting it back.”

The legal odyssey dates to April 12, 2011. That’s when DEA agents fanned out across Wayne and Oakland counties as part of a broad probe into drug trafficking and money-laundering conspiracies.

The target was Casab, 55, a Commerce Township businessman who owned a stake in the Packard Plant, an industrial relic and symbol of Detroit’s decline.

Agents raided homes, two medical-marijuana facilities, a sports bar and strip club in Detroit, a Walled Lake restaurant and locations in Novi and Commerce Township.

Agents found and seized riches at almost every stop.

They seized a red 1988 Ferrari, a 2007 Bentley, three Harley-Davidson motorcycles, a 1928 Studebaker and $48,392 in cash.

At a Huntington Bank branch in Walled Lake, agents cracked open safety deposit box No. 1756. Inside, investigators found a veritable jewelry store: 12 rings, seven gold and silver bracelets, necklaces, watches, silver bars and coins.

Investigators also searched Casab’s home. In the garage, agents found the silver Ferrari with a California license plate reading “Shaq F1.”

The Ferrari was built in 1999, an elegant two-seater with a V8 engine.

Shaquille O’Neal appears to have owned the car while playing for the Los Angeles Lakers from 1996-2004. The NBA center and the Ferrari were featured in a 2003 episode of MTV “Cribs.”

“This is my exotic garage,” O’Neal said, touring the indoor space. “Most 7-footers can’t fit into sports cars. But I can. Over here you have the 355 convertible Spider. It’s a forever convertible because for me to fit, I had to cut the top off forever.”

The sports car underwent other modifications to fit the 7-foot-1-inch basketball star.

The gas tank was relocated from behind the seats to under the hood, which gave O’Neal an extra foot of space to extend his legs and size 23 shoes.

“Ferraris are basically built, like other exotic sports cars, for a skinny Italian about the size of a racehorse jockey,” Signom said.

Also, O’Neal had Superman emblems embroidered in the leather headrests.

During the raid, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents also seized a customized, silver 1999 Ferrari F355 Spider with the vanity plate “Shaq F1” that once belonged to NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, The Detroit News has learned.

How they met

The exact chain of ownership is unclear, but at some point Indiana auctioneer Dean Kruse and a partner bought the Ferrari as an investment.

The Ferrari came with the original title featuring O’Neal’s name.

Kruse could not recall specific details about how he acquired the Ferrari. He might have bought the Ferrari from a sports agent, he said.

Around 2007, Kruse donated the Ferrari to Signom’s museum.

“We were making a lot of money back then but Bob Sigmon is a kind of wheeler-dealer guy and he told us to donate it and we would get a pretty good tax write-off,” Kruse said Wednesday. “I wish I’d kept it.”

The Ferrari was an odd fit for a Packard museum dedicated to an auto company that produced its last vehicle in 1958.

Packard memorabilia, however, is a perfect fit.

In 2008, Signom said he learned that Casab was selling the Packard Plant’s 1907 limestone entryway at auction at the Meadow Brook Concours d’Elegance.

“This is the very entrance through which entered all the historical figures of the Packard Motor Car Company, along with many of the firm’s fabled clientele,” the auction’s advertisement read. “Its classic design and relatively compact size make it suitable for installation as the ultimate entrance for any Packard collector’s garage.”

Signom got a patron to pay $161,000 for the limestone entryway, which was disassembled and relocated to the Packard museum in Ohio.

“That’s how I met Romel,” Signom said.

The patron, who until now was never publicly revealed, was John O’Quinn, a Texas lawyer who won a $17.3 billion settlement against Big Tobacco.

“His fee for being lead counsel in the case was $25 million a quarter for 10 years — a $1 billion legal fee,” Signom said.

O’Quinn, a car buff whose collection topped 1,200 automobiles, died in a 2009 car crash.

Signom kept in touch with Casab following the Packard entrance auction.

In early 2011, Casab learned about the “Shaq F1” Ferrari.

“He said “I just want to drive it for a bit and make sure if I’m going to buy this car, that I’m going to feel comfortable buying it,’” Signom recalls.

“I said ‘take it for a month and drive it,’ ” Signom added.

Casab paid a $15,000 deposit and got the Ferrari.

“We’d done enough business together that I wasn’t worried about him running off with the car,” Signom said.

“Then, the feds came in,” Signom said, “and executed all these damn warrants.”

The Ferrari was seized in a raid targeting former Packard Motor Car Co. plant owner Romel Casab in 2011.

‘The ultimate injustice’

Within days, DEA agents launched the raid in April 2011 and seized the Ferrari from Casab’s garage.

According to a search warrant obtained by The News, investigators were hunting for cash, jewelry, fine art and other valuable items that might have been purchased with drug proceeds.

The seizure launched a protracted fight.

Signom is a lawyer and estimates he spent $100,000 worth of his time fighting to reclaim the Ferrari.

“I got to be on a first-name basis with everyone in the Justice Department, who are very nice people,” he said. “I had the title and Romel was trying to help me get it back.”

Signom ultimately convinced the Justice Department that the museum was the Ferrari’s rightful owner, not Casab.

In July 2012, the museum agreed to pay a $15,000 penalty — equal to the amount of Casab’s deposit on the sports car — and reclaimed the Ferrari.

“It seemed to me to be the ultimate injustice — taking the wrong guy’s car and making him pay to get it back,” Signom said.

The Ferrari did not linger long in the museum’s collection.

The Ferrari was listed for sale in roughly summer 2013 with Significant Cars, an Indiana company that sells collectible vehicles.

The price: $129,000. The price was slashed to $95,000 — “or best offer” — and the Ferrari listed for sale on eBay, but the sports car lingered unsold for six months.

“It was a great car. I drove it around a while,” Significant Cars President Shawn Miller said. “It sounded phenomenal. There’s nothing like a Ferrari.”

Signom eventually found a buyer, though he doesn’t recall the name or sale price.

The criminal investigation against Casab lingered until December 2015. That’s when he was indicted on federal drug and firearm charges.

If convicted, Casab faced up to 40 years in prison. But in December, defense lawyer Michael Rataj reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors.

Casab agreed to plead guilty to a low-level felony and admitted he knew a tenant at his Romulus warehouse was growing marijuana but failed to alert law enforcement. In return, Casab faces 0-6 months in prison when sentenced March 17.

His lawyer declined comment about the Ferrari.

Signom, meanwhile, doesn’t miss the exotic sports car.

The seizure and legal battle tarnished the Ferrari in Signom’s mind.

“I was pretty tired of it,” said Signom, who will celebrate the museum’s 25th anniversary this spring. “We’re a Packard museum, not a Shaq museum or Ferrari museum.”

rsnell@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2486

During the raid, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents also seized a customized, silver 1999 Ferrari F355 Spider with the vanity plate “Shaq F1” that once belonged to NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal, The Detroit News has learned.