Join us and our sister site, The Drive, for Cars & Crime Week. In it, we’re exploring the fast and the nefarious of the auto world. We’ve got plenty of dangerous roadside attractions and high-speed crime scenes in our view — so strap in for the ride.
The man who stole a 1989 Ferrari 328 GTS from an auto dealership in Summerfield, North Carolina had been there a few times before. His name was Tom Baker, and he had spent time charming the dealership’s owner, Steve Barney, with the two men becoming somewhat chummy. Barney was battling cancer at the time, and Baker, pretending to be a radiologist, even offered to give his medical advice on Barney’s X-rays. It wasn’t long before Baker fully won over the car dealer’s trust. “If my 16-year-old daughter needed a ride, I would have put her in the car with him,” Barney later told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
On April 26, 2003, Baker asked if he could take the Ferrari 328 GTS, worth roughly $55,000, for a test drive. He just wanted to take it for a spin down to the gas station, drive around the block and back to the dealership. Barney, in turn, handed over the keys. Baker slipped behind the wheel, got comfortable and drove off — never to be seen by Barney again.
When I ask Barney about that day, he pauses. “I really don’t want to go through this memory again, if you don’t mind,” he responds. “I put that behind me.” Then he hung up.
It’s understandable why Barney wouldn’t want to talk about this particular moment anymore. But at the very least, he can rest assured knowing he wasn’t the only one conned by Baker that year — he was just the first. In fact, just two and half months after Barney handed over the keys to the Ferrari 328 GTS, Baker strolled into a high-end car dealership in Long Island City, New York, and showed some interest in a 1985 Ferrari Testarossa. Somehow, when the salesman was momentarily distracted, Baker slid in behind the wheel and casually drove off in the bright red Italian sports car and never returned.
Then, on September 16th, Baker arrived at Algar Ferrari/Maserati in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, a well-to-do suburb of Philadelphia. He was only too happy to report to the salespeople that he’d just left his limousine parked at a nearby supermarket. Witnesses described Baker to be of medium build and clean-shaven with reddish-brown hair. He also wore a Rolex and claimed to be the CEO of a California tech company, and that he’d just flown in from Atlanta to test drive the Ferrari F50 the dealership had for sale. Baker told the sales team that he’d left his wallet with his secretary at the airport, but that he’d already phoned ahead to make an appointment for a test drive.
The 1996 Ferrari F50 was just one of 349 of that edition produced by the Italian carmaker. Valued at $729,000, the vehicle was created to mark Ferrari’s 50th anniversary. To qualify to test drive such a rare and expensive car, Baker called his “secretary” and asked them to fax over his license and credit card. He otherwise said he was prepared to wire a down payment on the car, so long as he could give it a try first.
The staff, once again, handed over the keys to Baker, but this time a salesman decided to accompany him on the ride. After 20 minutes into the drive, Baker pulled off to the side of the road. He turned to the salesman and told him he was satisfied and ready to buy the car. He asked the salesman to drive it back to the dealership, so the salesman opened the door and got out. But Baker did not. Instead, he floored it.
The Ferrari F50 –– which can reach a 100 miles-per-hour in four seconds — raced off into the distance. The salesman stood by the side of the road, watching as the $729,000 sports car crested a hill and disappeared from view.
Michael Sheehan of Ferraris Online is a luxury sports car broker in Orange County, California, and has been selling Ferraris since the 1970s. According to him, it’s pretty unlikely that any person off the street could just pop into a Ferrari dealership and take one out for a test drive. “We’re very cautious about who gets test drives. The answer is: almost nobody,” Sheehan explains. “You basically have to have made an offer that’s acceptable, and we need to know who you are, what’s your name, what’s your phone number, what’s your email. And the real expensive stuff never gets test-driven.”
He does say, though, “Pre-internet, pre-computer, [selling a stolen Ferrari] was really big in the 1960s and 1970s. If you stole a Ferrari in, say, 1971, and stole it in Italy and sold it in Belgium, it would never show up as stolen. But today, thanks to the internet, thanks to computers, thanks to massive governmental databases, you can check to see if a car is stolen and do it pretty damn quickly.”
And yet, while rare, Ferraris are still stolen today. Sheehan can attest to that personally — he had a Daytona Spider stolen out of his showroom in the 1980s. Two armed, masked men in motorcycle helmets came in early one morning, duct-taped a cleaning guy and drove the car out the side door. “But because they were in a hurry, they scraped the whole side of the Daytona getting it out,” Sheehan tells me.
He laughs now at the memory, and recalls how another dealership in San Diego also had a car stolen off their floor. He and the other Ferrari dealers in the area began to communicate about the suspected car thief ring, and it didn’t take long before the thieves were busted.
It took a lot longer for police to bust Baker.
Joe Hess, a detective in the auto theft unit of the Lexington Metro Police Department in Kentucky, was tasked with finding this mysterious car thief operating on the East Coast. The problem was, Hess didn’t get the call to investigate the case until 2007 — a full four years after Baker’s first robbery. A supervising special agent from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) phoned Hess after Ferrari had contacted them about a possibly stolen 1985 Testarossa. The owner of the car, a man named Tom Baker, had reached out to Ferrari and requested identification stickers for his car. But his vehicle’s VIN didn’t match any serial number for a car Ferrari had built. So the Italian carmaker asked NICB to investigate, and the NICB asked Hess to do the same.
Hess, along with FBI agents and officers from Kentucky State Police, took a trip to meet Baker in Nicholasville, a suburb of Lexington. Baker’s home was described by a NICB agent as “not being too extravagant” — a rather standard brick home with a detached garage. The investigators knocked on the front door. When they got no answer, they left their business cards. Baker, of course, never called them. Instead, he disappeared again.
But in 2008, Hess got a call from the FBI, who were investigating the sale of a suspicious Ferrari Testarossa, sold by a woman in Lexington. The car was listed on eBay for $46,000, and the person who’d purchased it later learned that the VIN didn’t match Ferrari’s records. It was, though, just one digit off from the VIN of the Ferrari that had been stolen from the Long Island City dealership. Hess and the FBI confronted the woman who had sold the Testarossa. She told them that she’d sold the sports car for someone she knew — Tom Baker.
With that familiar name in hand, Hess contacted the NYPD and asked them to take a photo lineup out to the dealership to see if the salesman, Faisal Sajjad, recognized anyone from it. He cited the photo of Baker immediately. To confirm the positive ID, Hess called Sajjad. “I said, ‘You’re positive this is the guy? It’s been a few years,’” Hess later recalled. “The witness said, ‘Detective, you never forget the man who stole a Ferrari from you.’”
When Hess ran record requests through various databases, a curious result popped out: An ER doctor in the Lexington area, Jasbir Dhillon, had bought a Ferrari F50 for $375,000. Dhillon had also contacted Ferrari about the VIN number. That’s when he was told it had been stolen from Algar Ferrari/Maserati in Pennsylvania. He contacted the seller, none other than Tom Baker, who promised to return Dhillon’s money to him. In the meantime, Hess and the FBI agents arrived and impounded the Ferrari. The insurance company for Algar Ferrari/Maserati was now the proud owner of the stolen $729,000 Italian sports car.
Before an arrest warrant could be served, Baker turned himself in to the Lexington PD. With the F50 already seized, Baker arranged for a return of the Ferrari 328 GTS he’d also stolen. In October 2008, Hess met Baker at the storage facility where he’d hidden the stolen Ferrari. When he arrived, Hess saw Baker for the first time: a middle-aged, white, divorced father of two. He was also dressed as a pilot. Apparently, stealing Ferraris was just a side gig to his real occupation — flying planes for JetBlue.
But that wasn’t the end of the story for Baker’s stolen Ferrari. On May 27, 2009, a special agent for the FBI and assistant attorney for the Department of Justice were supposed to transfer the stolen Ferrari F50 from one holding place to another. Instead, they took the impounded sports car out for a joyride and ended up crashing into a tree, totalling the car. (Its whereabouts today are unknown.)
As for Baker, the pilot-turned-car-thief was sentenced to just eight months in prison. And he only had to show up to prison two days a week so that he could “make his scheduled flight from Lexington, Kentucky, to Orlando, Florida, for purposes of his employment.”
Baker’s story wasn’t quite over yet either, though. At 2:15 a.m., on September 7, 2016, he crashed his 72-foot yacht onto the shores of Palm Beach, Florida. Baker had been drinking at the time, hammered on Long Island Iced Teas. He abandoned the crashed yacht, leaving it leaning on its side and leaking oil and hundreds of gallons of diesel fuel into the Atlantic Ocean. It was his second BUI offense in a month’s time.
He blamed the yacht’s GPS for the accident, and went so far as to sue the town of Palm Beach and its police department for $450,000, claiming they “had a legal obligation to secure and tow his property when he was arrested,” which Baker claims they didn’t do. Amazingly, both his yacht crash and BUI offense were dismissed as part of a plea deal. Baker, who was now 63, instead pleaded guilty to reckless operation of a vehicle, and agreed to attend a DUI class.
That said, as far as the Ferrari heists were concerned, Hess didn’t believe there was any kind of magic to Baker’s method — he was merely a ballsy con artist with a knack for getting people to assume he was super rich. “He looked the part. He knew the right words. He knew the right questions to ask,” Hess told the media after Baker’s arrest. For his part, Baker’s lawyer put it slightly differently, “I don’t know what drove this man to do this. It was out-of-character,” before adding in a considerable understatement, “It was a weird case.”