Conflict from a Harris County couple’s pending divorce rode in a six-year-old SUV when it arrived at Brownwood’s Ford dealership last month.

The arrival of the Ford Expedition at Brownwood Ford Lincoln Mercury on May 27 spawned events including allegations of possible forgery on a title application; a criminal complaint against the auto dealership’s general manager; and a dispute over whether the dealership or the man who claims ownership — a surgical assistant named Mark Athans — should have possession of the SUV. Athans, 46, is the husband in the pending divorce case.

Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Jim Cavanaugh settled the dispute question — for now — following a hearing Tuesday. Cavanaugh ruled in favor of Athans. But he won’t be driving the SUV away just yet.

For now, Cavanaugh ruled, the Expedition will remain where it is at the Brownwood Police Department. Unless the Ford dealership prevails in an appeal to county court, the vehicle will be go to Athans. Athans will be required to maintain possession “until any criminal charges resulting from the criminal investigation by the Brownwood Police Department are disposed of,” Cavanaugh ruled.

Criminal investigations

Dealership general manager Mauri Payton, 48, was arrested on June 4 on a charge of tampering with or fabricating physical evidence in connection with the Expedition, Brown County Jail records state. He is free on $10,000 bond, and the case is pending in district court.

Darrel Haynes, one of two attorneys representing Brownwood Ford, said after the hearing that Payton would have no comment.

In a matter unrelated to Payton, Brownwood police have been in contact with the district attorney’s office regarding a forgery investigation related to the Expedition’s title, Brownwood police Sgt. Troy Carroll said. No charges have been filed in that case.

Background

According to testimony at Tuesday’s hearing and documents Carroll filed in Cavanaugh’s and Court-at-Law Frank Griffin’s court:

Mark Athans told Brownwood police on May 30 that he was in Brownwood to take possession of the Expedition based on a court order from Harris County. The court order directed Kelly Athens, who’d had possession of the vehicle since October, to turn it over to Mark Athans.

Athans believed that the title to the Expedition was forged from his corporation’s name into the name of Kelly Athans. The application for the allegedly forged title was made Jan. 12, 2009.

Athans told police his estranged wife obtained a loan from Mid-Tex Federal Credit Union on March 19 using the Expedition as collateral.

Later, Kelly Athans learned of the Harris County court order that put the Expedition in Mark Athans’ possession. She traded the Expedition at Big Country Ford for a 2007 Mustang, which was financed through Ford Motor Credit.

“Based on this information (I believe) Kelly Athans forged the application of title, obtained the loan from Mid-Tex Federal Credit Union and then traded the (Expedition) to Big Country Ford in an attempt to deprive Mark Athans of the said vehicle,” Carroll stated in a court document.

Seizure warrant

On June 3, Carroll went to Big Country Ford and told Payton of the pending investigation. Carroll told Payton of the allegation that a title application for the Expedition had been forged.

“(I) requested to take possession of the (Expedition) due to it being evidence in a criminal investigation … Payton refused (me) possession of the (Expedition),” Carroll wrote in a court document.

In testimony before Cavanaugh, Carroll said Payton insisted on a “judge’s signature.” Carroll told Payton he’d be back the next day with a signature, Carroll testified.

Carroll obtained a seizure warrant the next day and returned to Big Country Ford, but the Expedition was gone, Carroll wrote in court documents. Payton said Carroll would have to go to Dallas because it had been taken there and sold at auction.

The Expedition had been taken to Dallas, but it had not been sold and Big Country Ford brought the vehicle back to Brownwood, Carroll said.

Carroll alleged in court documents that Payton had concealed the Expedition “with intent to impair its availability as evidence in the (criminal) investigation.”

Testimony before Cavanaugh

Brownwood Ford’s attorney, Stephen Haynes, and Assistant Brown County Attorney Elisha Nix took turns questioning two witnesses — Carroll and Mark Athans — at Tuesday’s hearing before Cavanaugh.

Payton attended the hearing but did not testify. Cavanaugh referenced the criminal case against Payton in a couple of questions he had for Haynes.

Haynes, arguing that the Expedition should be returned to Brownwood Ford, challenged Athans’ claim that his signature had been forged on the Expedition’s title application. Athans insisted he did not sign the application, but neither did he accuse his estranged wife, saying he didn’t know who did it.

Nix argued that the Harris County court order clearly gave Mark Athans possession of the Expedition.