MADISON, Wis. -- An attempt to recover a rare car that thieves smuggled from Milwaukee to Europe more than a decade ago can continue, the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
According to court documents and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newspaper reports, millionaire Roy Leiske's 1938 Talbot Lago, a rare French sports car, was stolen from the Milwaukee factory where he had been restoring it in March 2001.
The vehicle was one of only about 16 of its kind produced. Justice Brian Hagedorn, writing for the majority in the ruling, said the car “is considered by some one of the most beautiful and innovative cars in the world."
Leiske died in 2005 and bequeathed the car to his cousin, Richard Mueller, who in turn sold a percentage of ownership to Joseph Ford III, a classic car seller from Florida. Together they tried to find the car without success.
In 2015, an Illinois dental company founder Rick Workman purchased the car from Christopher Gardner, an American living in Switzerland. The asking price? $7.6 million, with $6.8 million going directly to Gardner.
Gardner shipped the car from Switzerland to Chicago. Workman's holding company — TL90108 LLC, named for the car's serial number — tried to register it in Illinois, triggering a hit on a stolen vehicle report.
A federal grand jury in Milwaukee indicted Gardner this past May on four counts of wire fraud and one count of transporting a stolen car in foreign commerce. According to the indictment, Gardner stole the Talbot Lago from the Milwaukee factory, stored it until mid-2005 and forged documents showing he was the legal owner. He shipped the car to Switzerland in 2006 and restored it in France before selling it to Workman, falsely representing to Workman that he was the legal owner.
Workman's attorney, Larry Heftman, said Workman bought the car in good faith and paid a fair price.
Mueller and Ford demanded TL90108 return the car to them and sued the company in 2017 when the company refused to hand it over.
Then-Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Rebecca Dallet, now a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, dismissed the case, finding a six-year statute of limitations on such action expired in 2007 and the clock didn't restart when the company acquired the car.
A state appeals court reversed Dallet. The company subsequently asked the state Supreme Court to reinstate her ruling.
The court upheld the appellate ruling, finding unanimously that Mueller and Ford aren't time-barred from trying to recover the car because the clock started when TL90108 acquired it in 2015. Therefore their lawsuit was filed within the six-year window, the court found.
Dallet didn't participate in the ruling.
Mueller's attorney, Matthew Fisher, said the court got the ruling 100% correct. Ford, who is representing himself, said he was pleased with the decision.
Heftman said Workman disagrees with the ruling but declined further comment, saying the lawsuit is still pending.
Online court records didn't list an attorney for Gardner.
Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1