Come the first week of
June, Dan Ott would be in Michigan, in his new apartment, where most of his belongings and furniture had already been moved, working at his new job.
But on Thursday, May 25, 2006, the Buckeye State was still his home. The 31-year-old and his girlfriend Maryann Ricker were enjoying one of the last nights together in Burton Township in Geauga County. They slept on an air mattress in the living room. Their bulldog, named Mulligan, moped around the mostly empty house scattered with a few boxes.
Ott had spent the past six years becoming something of a rising star in the greenhouse cultivation world. He may have looked like an auto mechanic, but he had a natural ability to coax strong and beautiful plants from the soil. He was a grower, as much a professional title as a magical ability befuddling to anyone who struggles to keep a houseplant alive. Which is how he ended up at Urban Growers in Burton with a working arrangement that allowed him to live rent-free in a small house next door.
It'd served him and Ricker well for three years, but a greenhouse in Michigan had offered him more money to bring his green thumb up north. Ott wanted to run his own operation one day, and this was the logical next step.
Mulligan woke them up earlier than usual the next morning. It was 6:30 a.m. They ignored the pup's pleas and tried to fall back asleep, but were soon startled fully awake by a terrifying image: a masked man in camouflage with a shotgun standing in their house.
In what was a curious moment both then and in retrospect, the assailant asked Ott's name before instructing the couple to lie on their stomachs. He then duct-taped Ott's hands behind his back. When he moved on to Ricker, Ott freed himself from the tape and attacked the intruder, trying to protect the woman he loved. The masked man shot Ott once in the chest and fled.
Ricker called 911 at 6:35 a.m. She talked to Ott while they waited for the ambulance. He responded at first. Then he didn't. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
The murder went unsolved for close to a decade, though it was never a cold case, Geauga County Sheriff Daniel McLelland says. Detectives had leads and rarely did a week go by when they weren't tracking them down. Though no specific details seeped into news reports, the working theory they were chasing was that it had been a murder-for-hire gone wrong.
The gunman had been looking for a man named Dan Ott in Northeast Ohio.
He was just off by some 50 miles and 40 years.
Jason DeLillo didn't think much of the old man who asked about a 2003 Corvette at the Car Connection Superstore in New Castle, Pennsylvania, in 2009. The "older gentleman" was wearing overalls and a surgical mask, the car salesman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a year later. It was the summer of H1N1, swine flu was dotting headlines, so the mask didn't strike him as particularly odd.
The old man sat in the car for 10 minutes or so, declined an offer to test drive the car, and left.
The Corvette was gone the next day.
"It's the oddest person you would think would steal a car," DeLillo told the paper.
David Hufstetler, the owner of Hufstetler Auto Sales in North Canton, Ohio, had the same reaction when a Corvette disappeared from his parking lot the same year and authorities came around asking about an old man.
"He's the nicest guy you'd ever want to talk to," Hufstetler told the Akron-Beacon Journal. "It was like dealing with grandpa. Then you find out grandpa is a thief. You think, 'Oh, man, really? That old man?'"
The old man was named Dan Ott.
He'd relied on that disarming appearance — his victims feeling unthreatened, if they noticed him and felt anything at all — to do what he did so well. Which was to steal cars. A lot of them. Even into his 70s. Ott was one of the most notorious car thiefs in Northeast Ohio history, but you wouldn't know by looking at him. The old man's looks belied a resume of 1,000 stolen cars, by his estimates. Two stints in federal prison (1998, 2004), four in state (1983, 1987, 1993, and 1995), and untold more in local jails across five decades hadn't convinced him to stop either. A geriatric Gone in 60 Seconds come to life in the guise of an unassuming grandpa.
He kept going at an age when anyone else would be enjoying retirement and senior citizen discounts at the local buffet. The Golden Years for Ott meant hop-scotching across at least a dozen states, fulfilling orders for high-end cars in an auto theft and chop shop ring for $1,200 a pop.
It was just another chapter in a fascinating and complicated life where everything could be stolen and sold, and where all the damage was left in the rearview mirror.
Daniel C. Ott Sr. stole his first car at the age of 13.
He was a paperboy for the Plain Dealer, and when he spotted the 1937 Plymouth coupe with the keys still in it, the decision didn't take long.
"I drove it on my route for two weeks," he says on a brisk afternoon this past February at a downtown Cleveland coffee shop. "I'd park it in a field, but eventually they found it."
It's been 65 years since Ott first got behind the wheel of a car that didn't belong to him. He's 78 now and gets around more than pretty well for a man his age. He shuffles quickly when he walks, like he's performing a reverse moonwalk. Besides some surgery for an aortic aneurysm this spring, he's in fine health.
He's got a dry sense of humor — he wore a Corvette hat and jacket during one interview; he has one that he legally owns too, a red 2002 model. "It's been checked so many times the numbers have worn off," he says — and a damn near encyclopedic recall of his rap sheet, both public and private. He dots conversations with makes and models, each memory tethered to a car, like a kid talking about his favorite baseball cards.
The 1937 Plymouth coupe was first; next was a 1969 Corvette.
Friends, enemies and cops still call him "Red" to this day, a nickname born of once strikingly ginger locks that have long since sprouted white. Five decades ago, in the late '60s and early '70s, he used it for the name of his bar, Red's Tavern (also called Red's Place), on the corner of East 110th and Union Avenue. Ott was slinging drinks at a time and place when Cleveland's criminal underbelly was drinking on the east side, and these were Ott's people.
He'd caught an armed robbery charge by the time he was 22 for robbing $60 from a guy heading to a card game and was introduced into notorious Cleveland mobster Shondor Birn's circle. Ott was a regular on Murray Hill, helping to run counterfeit operations out of the theater. Danny Greene gave him a no-show dock job.
Joining the east-side criminal melting pot were the bikers, who'd set up shop in full force, especially with the arrival of the Hells Angels Cleveland chapter in 1967. They tormented the city with bombings and fights thereafter during some of the bloodiest chapters of the city's history. Bikers found a home at Red's, which didn't go unnoticed. The Ohio Liquor Department recommended his permits be pulled in 1967. Cleveland Councilman Leonard Dacek and others said the bar, "a hangout for motorcyclists and hippies," had adversely affected the "maintenance of public decency, sobriety and good order."
They weren't wrong.
"In 1972 or maybe 1973," says Ott, "there was a guy in the bar in a California Hells Angels vest. He was with a girl. Couple of guys start talking to him, quickly figure out he's not really a Hells Angel. I got a call at the bar from the [Hells Angel] clubhouse asking if I'd call them if he ever came back. He did one Saturday. I called them up. They came down. Beat the guy to death. Made a mess of everything. Broke some tables. She went running down the street. They tried to leave without the body. I told them they had to take care of it."
Legendary Hells Angel Sonny Barger himself came to the bar a few weeks later while he was in town from California, he says. Plunked down $300 on the bar. Thanked Ott for everything he did.
Which is all by way of saying that it's not entirely surprising what happened next, when the 1969 Corvette entered Ott's life.
He bought it from a trio of guys for $2,800, but he and his first wife were driving out to the West Coast soon so he traded in the Corvette for a Cadillac. Ott headed to California on 10-day tags, back when they gave you 10-day tags instead of 30. The dealership was supposed to mail a license plate, but they never did. They sent another 10-day tag instead. They needed the car back. There was a problem.
"The Corvette was stolen. There was a Highway Patrolman at the dealership when I got back and he ran it down for me. I had to give the Cadillac back too," says Ott, who says he didn't know that when he bought it. He'd been involved in other stuff before this — stolen cars, an arrest for receiving stolen property in 1970 — but this, according to Ott, was an entry into something bigger. "I was out the money so I went looking for these guys. I found them at a chop shop at East 71st and Harvard. I went in, saw the garage, saw their operation and what they were doing. I thought from there I could modernize their situation a little better."
He already had connections in the Mansfield area.
"So we rented U-Haul trucks and we started taking their parts and selling them down in Crestline," he says. "I built relationships down there. And then I met some people from Oklahoma. And I met some people from Missouri."
Ott likes to say his business is just like any other business — it's all about word of mouth.
"I bought a house in Columbus since we were spending so much time down there," he says. "We'd go there and do our dastardly deeds in Kentucky, Florida, North Carolina, Alabama, Indiana, Oklahoma, any place really. Word travels. I told one coal miner in Pennsylvania I'd deliver him four Ford F250s at least four times a year. He told a guy in southern Pennsylvania and that guy wanted in too. It's amazing it takes off the way it does."
Within a few years, word of mouth was making Ott $30,000 to $40,000 a month.
Swap out trains for cranes in John Hughes' 1987 film and you'd have the title for a movie about Ott's life.
He didn't just steal cars; he stole just about anything. It didn't matter how unwieldy or impossible. If someone wanted it, he could get it.
He had his pilot's license. Got it after taking classes at Cuyahoga Community College and joining a club at Hopkin's airport. They had three planes: a little Cessna 120, a 150 and 172. Ott learned in the 120, took his pilot's exam in the 150. Bought a mid-'60s Cessna 182G, flew it all over the country, Florida, California. So when the chance came to nab some wings …
"I only stole four planes," says Ott. "I'd fly wherever the person was selling it, meet them. If you look at the locks on the door, there's a number there. You call the manufacturer and you tell them you need a key, give them some kind of story. They mail it to you. So then I would call the fella and kind of feel him out for when he's not going to be at the airport. I'd fly in, park my plane, jump in his, and leave."
His buyers, he says, usually wanted them to fly to South America for drugs, so if they lost a plane, they lost it. They didn't much care where it came from to begin with.
Heavy construction equipment was a much more regular part of his business, then and more recently. He's taken trailers filled with merchandise and cash from the parking lot of a Columbus horse race, a tow truck from its rotating display platform at a dealership in Central Ohio, camper vans, backhoes, bulldozers … . At various times, he could have equipped an entire construction business.
"We were taking all kinds of orders for heavy equipment," says Ott. "Caterpillars, backhoes, whatever.
"We had a scam going," he says. "A guy had burglarized a motor home manufacturer in Indiana. He brought back a whole box of certificates of origin. When you manufacture a car or a motor home trailer, they don't give you a title, they give you a certificate of origin. And we had a whole box of them."
Ott got hooked up with a guy in Cumberland, Maryland, who had a car lot. He wasn't doing very good business. Ott had met him through a friend of a friend, he says, in Kentucky. Word of mouth.
"We'd go out and steal new cars in Columbus but we wouldn't have to change the numbers or anything," Ott says. "We put the wheels up on jacks and run some mileage on it. Then take the certificate of origin and make it out for that. We had a girl who'd take the certificate and get a title in a company name. Then we'd take the cars to Maryland and that guy would take them to Butler, Pennsylvania, and sell them at auction."
Like most of his rackets, it worked long enough to make plenty of cash, and by the time anyone was the wiser — the Maryland cars were eventually connected to the Columbus thefts — he'd moved on to another gimmick.
"I've been stopped in stolen cars many times. I used dealer plates though," he says. "I'm not going to say they never reported dealer plates stolen, but they're usually reported lost or misplaced. The plates all have the same number to start and then five or six numbers or letters behind it. When the service department opened, I'd go in the showroom and grab a dealer plate. They have customers out there driving with those plates, so they'd report it misplaced or lost."
In the early days, the physical action of getting into and starting the car was pretty simple: Ott used a tool usually used to pull horseshoes from a pony's feet to grab the passenger side lock from its socket. A Curtis key cutter, the same device your friendly local locksmith uses, was his best friend.
But that only worked for so long. Ott was almost exclusively taking orders for Corvettes in his twilight. The sports car, with its hot rod allure and price tag, was among the most coveted on the road, by fans and thieves alike. While Corvettes have never topped the rankings of most-stolen vehicles in any given year by sheer volume, the ratio of Corvettes manufactured in any given year to the percent of those that are then stolen tells a scary story. In 1984, for instance, Chevy made 51,547 Corvettes. Data from the National Insurance Crime Bureau in the 20 years after shows 8,554 of them have been reported stolen. One in every six.
In 1986, GM introduced VATS (Vehicle Anti Theft System) into the Corvette to stem the tide. The extra layer of security worked so beautifully GM soon installed it in Camaros, Cadillacs and Buicks too.
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It works like this: In addition to the 10-cut key itself (introduced later, in 1995), VATS is an electrical resistor device plopped in the middle of the key. When the key is turned, a computer detects how much of the current dropped through the resistor. If it matches up, the car starts, If it doesn't, there's a three-minute or so delay until you can try again. (The delay was part of the design; GM figured thieves were in a hurry and wouldn't wait around as their chances of being caught went up.) There were 15 codes, though GM discontinued the lowest resistance in 1989 because of technical issues.
The fact that VATS worked at first wasn't surprising, but neither was the eventual discovery of ways to beat the system. Like most security measures, give criminals enough time and they'll figure out a way to hack their way around the roadblocks.
"I had to go to the dealership, I had to see the car, and I had to have the key in my hand," says Ott. "I had this thing the size of a cigarette pack. I can make any key, you know. The hard part is figuring out what key to make. I had a decoder [called an interrogator]. So while the salesman was doing whatever, I'd put it in there and see what VATS code it came back with. Sevens and nines are the most popular ones. You have to buy different key blanks, a bunch of them. You call up the supplier and you say send me 10 No. 2s, 10 No. 4s, etc. So I had all these key blanks.
"They're getting smarter with their keys, putting them in a lock box, so if there's a missing key, they search everywhere high and low for that key," he says. "But that's the big dealerships, not the mom-and-pop shops.
As fobs were introduced, allowing remote unlocking, Ott and others predictably adapted.
"I still had to go to the dealership and clone the fobs," he says. "You have the original one and you have a blank one and you put them together so they mate. The beautiful part was the dealership was always looking for skid marks, like the car was dragged off by a tow truck or something. They had no concept of how cars were being taken."
When it came to evading other security measures, Ott took advantage of your friendly auto mechanic's desire to offer help to the 9-to-5 crowd before they have to be at work.
"A lot of them have gates. You have to wait until 7 a.m. That's when the service department opens, before everyone else gets there," he says. "The service guy opens the door and I'd be the next thing out of there."
Had things gone differently, Ott might have used that intricate knowledge to help dealerships instead of ripping them off.
When he was in federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky, in the early '80s — "If you were going to do time anywhere, you'd want it to be there," he says of the accommodations — he met a guy who'd been sent away for embezzling millions of dollars. They shared stories. He was a smart kid.
"He said, 'What you oughta do is write GM and see if they're interested in hiring you to beef up security.' So he wrote me a letter and I sent it out to GM and Chrysler and Ford," Ott says. "GM sent me a letter back saying to get in touch when I got out, so I did. I went up to Detroit, got cleared by my asshole parole officer to go with a travel permit, showed him the letter. I talked to this guy and he asked how long it would take for me to steal a Chevy or a Cadillac. I told him I took them off lots, that was my forte. He says that's exactly what he's talking about. How do we beef it up?"
So Ott was dispatched to a dealership about a mile down the road. He returned with a car not long after.
"They called the dealership and told them they had the car or whatever, and they offered me $45,000 a year to travel around the country educating dealerships on security," he says. "I came back home and, like three weeks later, I got another letter from GM saying they couldn't use me at this time. I guess the FBI told them whatever information I got I would use against GM."
In a bit of self reflection that's hard to believe some 30-odd years later, Ott says, "It was a good opportunity for me to get a job. My whole life might have been changed."
Spend any time with Dan Ott, you hear stories. In his 60 years committing crimes across most of the United States, he's stockpiled more than a few, all of which are hard to believe on one level or another.
"He's lived quite the life," says Paul Mancino, a lawyer who has represented Ott a couple times. Carolyn Kucharski, a federal public defender who represented Ott in his last case, echoed the sentiment.
The stories come pouring out of Ott, sometimes without prompts or segues. They're related in matter-of-fact language, absent emotion or inflection, like a high-schooler relaying to his dad what happened at school that day. What they lack in performance value they more than make up for in drama. They are tall tales, possibly and probably true, most unverifiable. They are part of what makes Dan Ott endearing. As one police officer who's investigated Ott over the years told me, "It was too bad he was a criminal. He would have been a neat guy to have a beer with and talk to."
Ott says at one point he was running heavy construction equipment to a law enforcement official in Sarasota Springs, Florida. He doesn't mention him by name but says the FBI was keenly interested in the officer's off-the-clock habits for reasons like this:
"The guy wanted this painting stolen out of Lucille Ball's house on Bird Key," Ott says. "He says, 'You'll have 20 minutes after the alarm goes off. The call will come and you'll have 20 minutes before anyone goes down. I want that painting.'"
So, Ott says, he and a friend broke in. The painting, incidentally, was of some water and waves, not anything he personally liked, but they took it and some other stuff — "a bunch of nothing, really," says Ott.
There's no record that the I Love Lucy star ever lived in Sarasota, though it's long been rumored. A Sarasota Herald-Tribune gossip columnist first mentioned the idea on Sept. 6, 1971, and the gossip spread over the years from there, to the point that real estate agents have touted the celebrity's name in connection with the address — 22 Seagull Lane — ever since. It's just not true, however. Sarasota Magazine called it the "oldest, most disproven rumor in Sarasota" in a 2012 piece on the property.
Which, of course, doesn't make Ott's story false. The official who dispatched Ott to pilfer the painting could have believed Ball really lived there, after all. A similar streak of unverifiable veracity runs through Ott's other yarns, spun from highways east to west.
"We got Elizabeth Taylor's car," he says. "Stole her car. Her dog was in there, a little tiny dog. I gave the dog to my cousin. We didn't know whose it was at first, but her stuff was in the glovebox. It was a long time ago, late '70s or early '80s. It was in the Sands parking lot." (Without a specific date, the Las Vegas police department said it could neither determine the veracity of the claim nor conduct a search for a possible police report.)
"We got Flip Wilson's car too," Ott says. "He was an entertainer. We got his Mercedes, a red Mercedes. We had a guy drive it back to Cleveland but he got busted in Indiana someplace."
For all the times Ott's name made the papers, there were plenty of other times his exploits were displayed front and center without his name.
"I stole a gold 1970 Cadillac in Berea one time," he says. "I gave it to my wife to drive. I ended up taking it back to the house a year later and put it back in the driveway. I don't know why I did that. I guess just for fun."
He says someone wrote a story about it. It could have been the Plain Dealer or the defunct Cleveland Press or the community newspaper. The same goes for the time he stole a car with a bunch of Bibles in the back. It turned out it belonged to a church group. Someone told the local paper all about it. Ott saw it and dumped the Bibles in a donation bin and called the group and told them where to find them. "'Thief with a heart,' or something like that, was the headline," he says.
And there was the cow.
Ott used to spend weekends at a campground in Northfield, Ohio, by Fell Lake Park, a long since gone family-friendly pool and summer hangout that neighbored Acadia Farms, the 900-acre estate of Cyrus Eaton, at the time one of the richest and most controversial businessmen in America. Eaton, in addition to being a lightning rod for public sentiment by openly advocating for an ease in Cold War relations with Russia, was also an avid rancher. He raised prize-winning Shorthorn cattle, the herd numbering around 300, the largest flock at the time east of the Mississippi. He counted Nikita Khrushchev as a close friend and sent the Soviet premier a prize bull in 1957. Khrushchev returned the favor by sending Eaton three white stallions in 1959.
"One morning me and my cousin were there and this cow's at the fence," says Ott. "And he looks at me and says, 'What's stopping us from stealing a cow?'"
So they stole the cow, figuring it would keep the campground grill filled for the rest of the summer. They took it to a market on East 55th Street, right up to the front door. The butcher, bewildered at the sight of a live animal, told them they had to kill it first. "I don't cut up live cows," the guy said. So they took it to a guy in Richfield who quickly noticed this wasn't your standard beef cow. "That's one strange-looking cow," he said. But the guy killed and skinned it anyway and they took it back to the butcher.
A few weeks later, the gravity of the heist became apparent.
"There was this little four-page paper for the community," he says. "And there was one page, real big, offering a $25,000 reward for the cow. It was some prize-winning cow or something and belonged to Cyrus Eaton. I asked my cousin what we should do. He said we should send him a hamburger."
It's hard not to love the stories, and Ott seems to relish the chance to brag a little, but each story has a victim, whether they're celebrities or regular Joes. One former law enforcement officer who dealt with Ott over three decades says Ott was insistent that he never physically hurt anyone. But he surrounded himself with those who did, and he hurt plenty of people himself in very real ways. That reality seems to be lost on Ott. He cares about many people — his family, his friends — though he admits he's behaved awfully toward both at times. But the part of his soul that should feel compassion for his victims was long ago siphoned off: maybe because it never really existed in the first place and was thus easily disposed of, or because to let it linger would make what he did — what he wanted to do, what he never stopped doing — impossible.
"I took a Camaro out of Brookpark Road one time, New York license plates," he says. "It turned out to be people on their honeymoon. All their clothes were in the trunk, and the box of money from the wedding. I got home and I opened all the envelopes. My wife comes over and asks what I'm doing. I say, 'What does it look like I'm doing?' I told her I found it. She said, 'Those are those people's wedding gifts. You just ruined their lives.' I told her, 'Here's all the cards. Send everyone thank-you notes if you feel that bad about it.' There was like $3,200 in the box. I feel a little bad about it. It probably put a dent in starting their life out."
Steal cars as often and as long as Ott has, and you're bound to get in trouble, no matter your talents. Combine the raw number of thefts — again, north of 1,000 — with the number of people involved in the front and back ends of the business, factor in their skills, abilities and motivation for self preservation should they get pinched, and multiply the chances by the number of jurisdictions and agencies interested in your escapade -— local police, sheriff's offices, the Ohio State Highway Patrol, various task forces, the FBI — and the odds of ending up behind bars are pretty high.
"You never really think about getting arrested," he says. "You're making so much money. There's always the chance. I'm sure I thought about it a little back then. But you think if you get arrested that you'll have a nice little nest egg."
Ott has spent a good many years of his late adult life in prison, though he hasn't always helped his cause by flying below the radar or shying away from authorities. He's instead routinely engaged the men and women with badges in an antagonistic game of cops and robbers that only he seems to enjoy.
For example: Ott first blipped on the FBI's radar in the late '70s, when he stole an FBI surveillance van. There are, naturally, conflicting reports on whether they'd been looking into Ott prior to the theft, but the very real verifiable fact is that sometime around 1977, Ott made off with one of their vehicles.
"There was just a bunch of radios in the back," says Ott. "I didn't really know what they were for, but I figured it was the FBI. I took it down to Mansfield. They wanted to make a case against us because they were pissed about the radio and the van. They were embarrassed. I'm not even supposed to talk about the van anymore."
The surveillance van had been under the purview of FBI agent Keith Thornton, a man who would work Ott's case for the next few years with the help of one of Ott's accomplices.
"One of the guys we were working with was giving all this information to the feds," he says. "We told him, 'We know you're cooperating, just let us know what you told them so we can clean our act up.' So he did and we spent like two days going to different places we had stuff — a farm in Wayne County, a house in Richfield — putting it different places."
Ott lived near Bath, a suburb of Akron, and there was a Holiday Inn up the street where he would drink. He'd also leave the bar's number for people to get in touch with him.
"This barmaid would take messages for me," he says. "I don't want to give them my number. So I go in one night, ask her if there are any messages and she says no. I see this guy and he's staring at me. Never seen him before. He seems awfully interested in me. So I had another drink and he comes over and says, 'Keith Thornton, FBI.' I say, 'Dan Ott, Bath.' That was the first time I met Keith Thornton."
They'd interact on a professional level as Thornton put together the case that would see Ott sentenced to eight years in federal prison. But even when Thornton moved on to the Summit County Sheriff's Department, and even after he retired, Ott was nearby. Literally. He bought a house six doors down from Thornton just so he could "wave at him when he got his mail." They're neighbors to this day.
"I didn't have enough sense to quit aggravating them I guess," says Ott. "I used to screw with them. I'd get in my car to leave the house in the morning and I'd see two cars following me. I'd go down and off ramp and there they were. So I'd drive to all the way to Sandusky and get some ice cream and then go home."
Thornton, unsurprisingly, didn't respond to a request to comment for this story, nor did a roster of other law enforcement officials who investigated Ott over the years, including John Paskin of the National Insurance Crime Bureau, who worked for the Ohio State Highway Patrol during Ott's golden years.
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But there are a handful of officers, however, who are fond of the man in a way and who did talk to Scene. Because Dan Ott has stories, and many of them have been beneficial to law enforcement. The Vegas odds on someone with Ott's track record landing in jail are pretty high; the Vegas odds on someone like him staying out as long as he has say he's learned to play the game. Current and former officers described a mutually beneficial relationship over the years. If a friend was in trouble — say, a daughter of a friend who had recently passed away and who was picked up on a meth charge — Ott had a card to turn over to get her help. If he were in some serious shit himself, he had bigger cards to reveal.
One former officer recalled Ott helping him on a murder case in Cuyahoga County as far back as 1987. The Plain Dealer covered a case in 1996 where Ott testified against a man named Ronald Dudas who was accused of offering $2,500 to anyone who would break the hand of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Thomas Patrick Curran. (Dudas claimed Ott was just trying to lessen his sentence by lying. In 2005, Dudas was charged with trying to hire a hitman from jail to kill Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge David Matia.)
"He's a career criminal," says one current officer who's dealt with Ott. "He would call and I knew we were about to engage in business of a sort. I couldn't use him as a confidential informant because his criminal record was too bad, but he could provide me information and I could take that information and make the arrest on my own. His information was always spot on. The only thing he wouldn't do is say anything about the Hells Angels; I think he considered them family. Mongols and Pagans, sure. But no one wearing a red and white patch." Ott had built a relationship with the motorcycle club since his early days on the east side of Cleveland back in the late 1960s and early '70s. Most years, he'd head to Sturgis to join the annual biker party on his Harley too. "But when it came to a shitbag corner dope dealer or someone with guns, it was different.
"He calls me one time and asks if we're looking for a guy passing fraudulent American Express checks," the officer says. "I say yeah, I think the Secret Service is too. He says, 'Well, I got him in my car. Call your buddy and tell him I'm going to be going northbound at this intersection. Have him parked on the eastbound side. I'm going to run a stop sign. Have your friend pull me over. My friend in the car has warrants out for his arrest.'
"Sure as shit, Ott runs the stop sign and the guy pulls him over," he says. "I had my radio on. There's a foot pursuit. My guy is chasing him, I'm listening. He calls me up. 'That cop you sent is really fast, because he caught him. Good thing you sent a fast one.'"
That's just one. The officer has seven or eight more, all along the same theme: When Ott is in trouble, he'll tell you something, but he's not going to give up everything at first, and he's only going to tell you what he thinks you need to know.
"He calls me up one time and says, 'Hey, I'm in trouble,'" the officer says.
Ott had been arrested in March 2008 in Akron for breaking and entering. An off-duty narcotics officer had come upon the old man loading appliances from a house that was for sale into a truck in February. Ott knew it was a cop and the cop knew Ott was a bad guy, so the cop pulls his gun and Ott hops in the car and drives off.
But they picked up Ott in March — they knew who they were looking for, after all, they'd seen his license plate; they were just curious how he did it — and Ott called the officer and the officer asked him how he got in the house and Ott told him: He'd known the realtor and her contract wasn't going to be renewed by the sellers and she turned over the lockbox code as a final eff-you.
"He wanted to know what it would take to not send him to prison," the officer says. "After talking to the prosecutor, I told him it had to be substantial. So he tells me: 'How about you check with your property crime people and see if they're missing a $30,000 Ditch Witch. I might know where it is.' They, of course, were missing one. I call him back and say meet me tomorrow morning at 9. 'I think I can do that,' he says. 'It's going to be real lucky if I can find this thing, but I think I can do that.' Sure as shit, he pulls up at 9 the next morning in his truck, a $30,000 Ditch Witch on a trailer. 'Call the prosecutor,' he says."
Just business, of a sort, if an odd one for someone who vilifies those he believes have snitched on him.
In the mid-2000s, Dan Ott was taking Corvette orders from Joseph Rosebrook in Ohio's Logan County. The man who the Columbus Dispatch called the Chop Shop King of Ohio operated what authorities believed to be one of the largest and best-organized operations in the nation. He'd done so for more than two decades in the heart of Ohio. That was both a testament to his skill —detectives say he compartmentalized his business so that no one arm knew much about the other — and his ruthlessness. Over the years, authorities had tried numerous times to bring Rosebrook down with the help of informants. But witnesses had a funny way of disappearing.
Back in October of 1983, cops picked up an associate of Rosebrook's named Ray Payne. Payne took a deal and was set to testify against Rosebrook when trial began on June 13, 1984. On June 11, Payne climbed into the van in his driveway, turned the key, and the van exploded. He wasn't killed, but three months later, after he recovered at the hospital under the watch of guards, he testified. He ranted about Rosebrook's attempt on his life, but the case was about breaking and entering. A mistrial was declared.
In 1999, Logan County detectives thought they had finally scored another big break when a Rosebrook associate, 18-year-old Mike Lattimer, began cooperating with them. In November of that year, Lattimer disappeared. He was last seen getting into Rosebrook's car, according to the Columbus Dispatch. He's never been found or seen again.
Authorities tried again, successfully this time, in 2004, raiding Rosebrook's 75-acre property after a lengthy investigation. Rosebrook was on house arrest awaiting trial on a slew of charges resulting from the raid when he reached out to Dan Ott. Rosebrook wanted a potential witness dead. He offered Ott $2,000 upfront and $13,000 afterward to kill Curt Frazier. The dealings were caught on a wiretap.
There are two versions of exactly how that transpired.
Ott says that he was never going to kill Frazier, that he told Rosebrook he would find someone to do it but that the wiretap had already been set up — their conversation was simply caught in the moment.
Logan County detectives tell a different version. The deal had already been in place when Ott got caught stealing a car there. He came forward, said he had bigger fish.
"He was given a deal," says one detective. "If you wire up and get incriminating evidence against Joe, we won't charge you."
Officers got what they needed and Rosebrook caught an additional conspiracy to commit murder charge on top of the stolen property items. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Rosebrook was allegedly not too happy with Dan Ott's role in putting him behind bars. So, according to investigators, he talked to 41-year-old Chad South, a guy he'd known very well in Logan County who also happened to be serving time in the same prison. Rosebrook's brother, Jeff, a Perry township trustee, would facilitate payment for the hit once South left prison and killed Ott.
Which is how Chad South allegedly came to be in Dan Ott's Burton township house with a shotgun and mask the morning of May 26, 2006. How exactly he was so wrong is unclear. Authorities believe he might have known that he had the wrong Dan Ott given the old man he was looking for and the young man he found, but the young man ended up dead nevertheless.
"[Rosebrook] never really knew where I lived, just that it was a suburb of Cleveland," Ott says. "He never really knew my name. We've done business for years and years and years, but all he ever called me was Red."
Joseph Rosebrook, Jeff Rosebrook and Chad South were arrested on June 1, 2015, for Ott's death. The murder-for-hire plot gone wrong made national news.
"It was only six months in [after the killing] that this theory began to evolve," says Geauga County Sheriff Daniel McLelland. "The issues with this group, you have to understand, this group is known to do this. The crime stems from witness intimidation. So people, in general, were reluctant to talk. From the start, this was basically an attempt to silence somebody."
Alleged triggerman Chad South and the Rosebrook brothers were arraigned in late June. Ott's parents, Leroy and Linda, were in the courtroom.
"I know how bad these people are and they kill witnesses and stuff," Ott's father Leroy told the Geauga County Maple Leaf. "My hope is nobody else is killed." The father was mainly concerned that people in the neighborhood still believed that his son had somehow done something to invite trouble. "They need to know he didn't cause his own death and he's not responsible," Leroy Ott told the paper. "It was a mistaken identity."
Dan Ott had never mentioned the other Dan Ott, or the Rosebrooks for that matter, before the arrests were announced. Asked about the news a few weeks later, Ott fills in some blanks. Authorities had called him back when Ott was murdered, and there'd been at least one attempt on his life after that, he says: A car sprayed bullets at him in his driveway one morning.
As for the unfortunate soul who did nothing to put himself in danger except share his name, the guy with the green thumb and the girlfriend and the bulldog named Mulligan, Ott doesn't elaborate much but says, "The more I read about it … the guy worked at a nursery. He was just a Joe Blow civilian."
If the job offer from GM was a chance at becoming a normal citizen that Ott never got to take, the bullets sprayed at his truck were another in a string of chances he chose not to take.
With the Logan County operation shut down, Ott found other outlets for his talents. For four years after diming out Rosebrook and dodging another courtroom, Ott stole Corvettes for a chop shop ring based out of Northeast Ohio. That he avoided arrest during that time wasn't entirely surprising. He'd done it before, and age hadn't dulled his skills.
"One of the lead investigators said he was one the best he'd ever seen at eluding police," says one current officer familiar with the case. "And in my career, he was one of the most sophisticated criminals I'd ever dealt with."
The feds finally got their man though. In June 2010, aircraft tracked Ott as he dropped off a stolen red Corvette in a garage. Hours later, two unmarked cars and two Ohio State Highway Patrol cars pulled Ott over on Route 8. He was driving his truck at the time. Hitched to the back was a trailer he'd stolen from a parking lot.
"I was so sure of myself," he says. He thinks a guy he was working with ended up talking to the feds after being caught selling meth, and he might have, but authorities had also been tracking Ott's cell phone to towers near dealerships where Corvettes had disappeared. Like the one in North Canton and the one in Pennsylvania. (Ott told investigators he did the Pennsylvania dealer a favor by taking a 2003 Corvette, calling it a piece of junk.)
Ott was indicted for stealing 14 Corvettes in all, worth some $700,000. He told investigators at the time of his arrest they probably missed another four.
"They didn't know half of it," he says now. "They still don't."
The dominoes fell from there. Sixty-one-year-old Ronald Mysyk of Westlake and alleged co-conspirator William Rocco of Macedonia were at the end of the trail. They'd allegedly operated a $1.5-million chop shop with garages in Bedford, Brunswick and Sagamore Hills, according to a 2014 RICO filing in Cuyahoga County.
For his part, Ott was sentenced in 2011 to 51 months in federal prison in North Carolina and ordered to pay $533,000 in restitution. He served three of the four years.
Dan Ott still lives in the same Akron suburb where he's neighbors with former FBI agent Keith Thornton. He did end up building a nice little legal nest egg for himself. He's got a vacation property in Florida and a slew of rental properties he owns and works on. He's still got his truck and the red 2002 Corvette.
"I'm sure if a Corvette came up missing, they'll come knocking at my door," Ott says. "But there's nothing to follow me about now. [Ohio State Highway Patrol Detective Mike] McCarthy is the latest guy who has it out for me. I'm sure he thinks I'm still doing stuff. It's all too involved. I'm too old for that stuff now."
You'd like to take Dan Ott at his word, but it's hard to.
"He will never stop doing this," says one current officer. "His rap sheet is as tall as you with real small print. He will be committing crimes till the day he dies."