AUBURN – As Gregory Bates dropped his son off at school in March, he saw his old car for the first time in years. The white 2006 BMW 750Li had been taken from him back in 2011 and, although it certainly looked different, he knew the car in the school parking lot was his. The bold black words on the bumper told him so.
“This Vehicle Seized From a Local Drug Dealer,” it read, a D.A.R.E. sticker displayed on the side. "Auburn Police."
That local drug dealer was Bates.
In December 2011, Bates' BMW was seized during a major drug bust in which he was one of more than two dozen people arrested for selling cocaine. According to the state Attorney General's Office, 38 people in Cayuga and Onondaga counties were charged with smuggling narcotics from Georgia and New York City to Syracuse and Auburn.
“I was arrested for conspiracy to sell cocaine,” Bates said. “I wasn't at the top of the chain, but I was definitely involved in distribution.”
Soon after his arrest, Bates pleaded guilty to second-degree criminal sale of a controlled substance. He spent the next four years at Cayuga Correctional Facility, where he first learned his BMW was being used by the Auburn Police Department.
"My family let me know (about my car)," he said, recalling the photos his girlfriend sent of the BMW stamped with a D.A.R.E. emblem and large black lettering.
At first, Bates said, he was angry and ashamed.
"Whatever you do in the drug trade can be taken from you and anything you do in the drug trade will come back to haunt you," he said. "Every time I saw pictures or heard about (the car), I just wished I had done something different."
But he hadn't. Instead, Bates got involved with drugs at a young age, and he went to prison three times.
At 23 years old, Bates was first arrested in 1997 in Onondaga County and convicted of third-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance and criminal possession of a weapon. Nine years later, he was arrested again in Onondaga County and sentenced to two to four years in prison for fifth-degree criminal possession of a controlled substance. And in 2011, he was charged with 17 felonies in connection with two drug rings in Cayuga County.
"I plead guilty to the offer on the table," he said, accepting a plea bargain from the state. "It was like a slap on the wrist compared to what it could have been."
Then, after participating in the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision's Alcohol Substance Abuse Treatment Program and learning the fate of his BMW, Bates' attitude changed.
"When I learned about the effects drugs have on the brain and body and that my car was being used to represent the D.A.R.E. Program, I began to understand the significance of my responsibility to educate the community about the negative effects of the drug trade," Bates said. “Almost everyone in Auburn knows that was my car and the stigma with that is negative, but I want to turn it around and use it as a positive. I want to use it as a stepping stone to help other people and spread awareness.”
So he wrote a letter to the Auburn Police Department, thanking them for using his car to do just that.
"He (told us) that he was glad that we were making good use of his vehicle," Sgt. Gregory Dann said, explaining that the BMW is used by a school resource officer to travel between city schools. "Hopefully it sends a message to drug dealers that we might be driving their car one day."
Now 41 years old, Bates wants to use his story to warn children about the dangers of drug abuse.
"A lot of people turn to drugs because it's the cool thing to do and all their friends are doing it," he said, admitting peer pressure pushed him into drugs. "But if we can start young and get kids to understand that they don't have to do drugs to be accepted... they won't lose out on their life like I did."
Working at the Dollar Tree, the former truck driver is starting from scratch, looking to renew his license as he reaches out to community outreach programs in the area to volunteer.
"I'm not turning to drugs ever again," he said. "I'm trying to do better for myself so I can actually help someone else."