In the rolling hills of Dauphin County, high rollers bid on rare, forfeited rides

People gathered near a Ferrari auctioned for sale at the Manheim Auction in Grantville, Pa. The luxury cars were seized in a drug case.

A dealer from Miami in designer sneakers bit his lip and made the high bid on a cherry Ferrari.

The chain smoker with the phone glued to his face grabbed an older model for $115,000, showing as much enthusiasm as if he’d gotten a good deal on a four-slice toaster.

But no bidder at this auto auction in rural Dauphin County on Tuesday morning exemplified the American dream quite like the young vaping magnate from York who kept nodding with a cocksure smile until the Rolls-Royce Wraith was his for $226,000.

“Yeah, sure, it’s intense, but I own a lot of exotics,” said Brandon Mueller, 33, founder of Ace of Vapes. “I had a number in mind. It was $230,000.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Brandon Muller (center) gets ready to bid for a Rolls-Royce.

The Manheim Keystone auction sits off a country road between fields of baby corn and a busy highway, 17 miles northeast of Harrisburg. The auction is usually home to acres of government surplus vehicles, like police cruisers or PennDot maintenance trucks, maybe a motorcycle or two, and sometimes a school bus.

Thanks to “Operation Car Wash,” a multimillion-dollar fraud investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, this particular auction Tuesday had a certain buzz, particularly when Jason Heffner, from the AG’s Office, fired up a 553-horsepower Ferrari California by the french fry truck.

Heffner’s daily ride is a Ford Focus, but he curbed any temptations.

“I’ll be driving this about 2 mph at best,” said Heffner, 45, who works in the AG’s asset forfeiture department.

The two Ferraris and the deep-black Rolls-Royce, along with a Camaro and a Mercedes, belonged to Rafael Levi, a Brooklyn man who pleaded guilty in March in connection with a fake license-plate scheme that allowed customers to evade traffic tickets, tolls, and other fees.

“Man, one minute you have it all and next thing you know, you wake up and you’ve lost it all,” observed Josh Padua, 21, of Harrisburg. Padua said he had come to gawk, not bid. “I’ll keep it honest with you. I ain’t up there. I ain’t got that kind of money.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
People gathered during a car auction at the Manheim Auction in Grantville, Pa., on June 12.

The men “up there” examined potential acquisitions closely, looking for any clues and concerns before the auction began. The 2007 Ferrari 430 had just 9,800 miles, but a careless owner could have done a lot of damage in 11 years.

“Yes. Windshield with Daytona seats. No, yellow,” the cigarette-smoking man said into his phone while circling the car. “The California is not Daytona seats.”

The man, a dealer from outside Philadelphia who declined to give his name, said he was talking to the guy who would “cut the check.” He said he travels anywhere in the country for the right car.

Most people who come to Manheim’s massive auctions in Pennsylvania aren’t looking for luxury. Some were filling up inventory for used-car lots, others just looking for work rides. Government-owned vehicles, even with hundreds of thousands of miles on the odometer, are usually well-maintained, they said.

Still, one can dream, and snap photographs of the Rolls and Italian beauties.

“I’m here for a truck,” said Benito Vidro of Lancaster. “I can hardly afford my wife.”

Levi’s toys also included three small but popular Honda Grom motorcycles, which each sold for about $3,000. People wanted to rub them.

“Hey, yo, don’t touch it,” a security guard bellowed at a man who grabbed one of the bike’s throttles. “It’s running. Don’t touch it.”

Joe Grace, a spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office, said Levi’s vehicles were forfeited, not seized by the government, as part of a plea agreement.

“In this case, with these cars,” Grace said, “the money is going toward restitution.”

The exotic-car auction was packed and loud. Twenty yards away, men in camouflage hats and overalls bid casually on pickups and maintenance vehicles, some a little dinged up and rusty.

One blue Thunderbird stalled a few times before making it into the garage.

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
People gathered near a Ferrari auctioned for sale at the Manheim Auction in Grantville, Pa. The luxury cars were seized during a drug case.

When the Ferrari 430 came up, the smoking man, now on the phone for over an hour, paid $115,000 for the car he’d been eyeballing so hard outside.

Bids came in live and online, jumping tens of thousands of dollars a second, and Sal Gioino, of Miami, would simply nod his head at the auctioneer, arms crossed, while scanning to see if anyone else would nod.

Gioino’s last gesture won the Ferrari California for $167,000. The car had just 893 miles. He was happy, for the most part.

“I wanted that Rolls,” Gioino said.

Gioino said the California would be driven back to Miami on a flatbed and could be sold to a buyer anywhere in the United States.

The Rolls-Royce, and all 12 of its cylinders, would be going just 40 miles south to York, where Mueller, the vape-shop owner, said he would add it to his growing stable of luxury cars.

“Well, I’ll probably keep it for a little bit at least,” Mueller said while waiting in line to pay for the Rolls. “I’ll probably get rid of it in three or four months.”

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
People gathered near a Ferrari California at the Manheim Auction in Grantville, Pa. The car sold for $167,000.