The family of a teenager killed in a crash involving a truck with a fraudulent Texas paper license tag has a plea for state lawmakers and Republican Gov. Greg Abbott: Give law enforcement more tools to eliminate the massive marketplace for illegal paper tags.
Terrin Solbrig died in October 2020, his life ending in a cloud of dust along a country road in Caldwell County in Central Texas.
“He was the nicest kid you'd ever meet,” said Terrin’s father, Stewart Solbrig.
While riding dirt bikes with a group at a friend's ranch, the group ventured onto the road kicking up dust that left Terrin hidden from a pickup truck that was traveling down the middle of the road.
“It's very hard to live with the fact that you don't have your kid,” said Tawny Solbrig, Terrin’s mother.
That sadness and frustration only grew, the Solbrigs said, when they learned the pickup that hit their son had a fraudulent Texas paper tag.
It’s one of hundreds of thousands of tags issued by car dealers suspected of using the Texas Department of Motor Vehicle’s system to print tags and sell them for black market profits.
Paper Tag Nation
The Solbrigs believe the truck that hit Terrin would not have been on the road without that fraudulent tag.
“It was not what caused the accident, but it actually started the process of that truck being on that road,” said Tawny.
NBC 5 Investigates obtained the tag number from the accident report and discovered the tag was issued by Texas Motor Company, a licensed car dealer that’s been investigated by the FBI for allegedly printing hundreds of thousands of fraudulent tags.
The FBI said the owner of Texas Motor Company, Emmanuel Padilla Reyes, also known as Christian Hernandez Bonilla, is currently a fugitive facing federal wire fraud charges accused of selling Texas tags across the United States.
The truck that hit Terrin Solbrig was not allowed to have any paper tag.
State records show it had not received a state inspection in years. Under Texas law, dealers can only issue temporary buyer’s tags to cars inspected in the last 180 days. And they can only issue buyers tags to vehicles they actually sell.
But as NBC 5 Investigates has reported, time and time again, small dealers have been able to use their dealer license to access the state's electronic tag system, create tags, often using bogus names and addresses, and then sell them for black market profits.
The Solbrigs want it to stop.
“I want [them] to know that Terrin has a name,” Tawny Solbrig told NBC 5 Investigates.
“He didn't just die on the side of that road for no reason. If something good could come out of this whole thing, it's maybe that we could prevent somebody else's family from having to experience the same tragedy that we've had,” Stewart Solbrig said in an interview.
The Solbrigs want Abbott and the state legislature to give police more funding to attack the problem.
In 2017, Abbott de-funded special police units that investigated paper tag and vehicle inspection fraud when he vetoed a clean air bill that helped pay for those units in big cities.
The governor said at the time he was opposed to what he called a "cash for clunkers" type of program in the bill.
But the veto also shut down special enforcement units like one in Dallas County that used to take tag sellers off the streets.
“I think it was very irresponsible for the governor to do it. And I think that if he ever had to experience what we had to experience, he would never have done that,” said Tawny Solbrig.
“We'd ask the governor, please reconsider … we need to eliminate the problem,” Stewart Solbrig said.
As NBC 5 Investigates reported on Sunday, police departments across North Texas say they need more help combatting serious crimes involving fraudulent tags.
From high-speed chases to drug smuggling and identity theft investigations police say suspects in crimes are often using fraudulent tags to hide.
Rogue car dealers who sell tags often enter false names and addresses into the state's license tag system, investigators said. This effectively creates what police call “ghost cars” that are difficult to trace and help bad guys escape police detection.
“These vehicles should not be on the road,” said Stewart.
The Solbrigs believe special police enforcement units are essential for sharing intelligence among law enforcement groups and training more police officers to recognize fraudulent tags.
In their son's case, they say the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) did not even ticket the owner of the truck for having a fraudulent tag.
The Solbrigs have filed a complaint with DPS.
In a statement, a DPS spokesperson told NBC 5 Investigates the agency cannot comment on the case because the trooper who handled the crash, "…is currently under internal investigation by the Office of Inspector General for his handling of that incident."
At a recent TxDMV meeting, Tawny Solbrig told the agency's board the DMV failed her family by allowing Texas Motor Company to print hundreds of thousands of tags before the agency revoked the company's dealer license for suspected fraud.
"This accident never would have happened if the driver did not obtain illegal paper tags through your failed system," said Tawny.
She said it is only the FBI and federal prosecutors who have helped bring justice.
“This dealership has been indicted because of those people over there," Tawny Solbrig said, motioning toward law enforcement officials attending the meeting. "Not because of y'all. Y'all failed the system," Solbrig added, referring to the DMV.
Now the Solbrigs are on a mission to see that the governor and state lawmakers give police more funds to find the fraudsters.
“Terrin loved to help others. He was all about it, is all about service, and we're committed. We are very committed to making sure that this is not going to happen all the time and that there needs to be [a] change,” said Tawny.
For months, NBC 5 Investigates has reached out to Abbott's office asking to speak with him about this issue. His staff has repeatedly turned down our interview requests.
Instead, they have sent NBC 5 Investigates the same written statement several times which says in part, "Gov. Abbott worked with the legislature and TxDMV to efficiently address the issue..."
The statement said the governor worked with the DMV to pass legislation allowing the agency to shut down dealers suspected of fraud more quickly and limit the number of tags dealers can print.
The statement goes on to say "...we continue working with (the DMV) and the legislature to review other potential legislative changes needed and build on this progress."
After NBC 5’s investigation revealed the massive scope of the tag fraud problem in November, showing how it has become a $200 million black market business, the chairman of the Texas House Transportation Committee pledged to hold hearings soon to begin addressing the issue even before the start of the next legislative session in January.
Paper Tag Nation
- June 12, 2023 - Gov. Abbott signs law eliminating paper license plates in Texas
- May 24, 2023 - Bill to Eliminate Paper License Plates in Texas Passes Texas Senate
- March 27, 2023 - Texas DMV's New Paper Tag Design Easily Counterfeited, Police Say
- Nov. 17, 2022 - Texas DMV Redesigns Paper License Tags to Include New Security Features
- Nov. 15, 2022 - Police Searching for Paper Tagged 'Ghost Car' in Deadly Grand Prairie Chase
- June 1, 2022 - Police Make Bogus Tag Bust Tied to Social Media Ads
- May 18, 2022 - TxDMV Names New Executive Director Amid Paper Tag Crisis
- May 17, 2022 - Vehicle Used in Dallas Salon Shooting Had Paper Tag
- May 12, 2022 - Ads for Fake Tags Persist, Despite Facebook, TxDMV Efforts
- May 4, 2022 - Texas' Paper Tag Problem Compounded by Small Dealers Misusing Them
- May 3, 2022 - Dallas Police Shut Down Accused Fake Paper Tag Dealer
- April 26, 2022 - Texas House Set to Hold Paper Tag Hearings
- April 14, 2022 - Texas DMV Cracks Down on Dealers Selling Temporary Paper Tags
- April 13, 2022 - TxDMV Closes Inspection Loophole That Put Unsafe Cars on Roads
- April 12, 2022 - Dallas Police Go Undercover to Fight Illegal Paper Tags
- April 7, 2022 - Police Warn of Fake Paper Tags Used to Cheat Car Buyers
- April 5, 2022 - Texas Senate Will Investigate Illegal Paper Tag Crimes, Smuggling
- March 9, 2022 - Texas Paper Tag Crime Danger Extends Nationwide
- March 5, 2022 - Texas House Will Hold Hearings on Paper Tag Mess
- Feb. 28, 2022 - License to Smuggle: Drug Cartels and Human Smugglers Use Paper Texas Tags to Evade
- Feb. 15, 2022 - Fort Worth Police Announce Special Operation Targeting Paper Tags
- Feb. 14, 2022 -- Crash Victim's Parents Want More Cops to Police Paper Tag Fraud
- Feb. 13, 2022 - More Funding Need to Fight Criminals Using Bogus Paper Tags: Police
- Feb. 10, 2022 - Police Report Drop in Fraudulent Tags But Warn Crooks Are Adapting
- Feb. 9, 2022 - Texas DMV Shuts Down Six More Dealers Suspected of Selling Paper License Tags
- Feb. 7, 2022 - TxDMV Director Resigns Amidst Paper Tag Mess
- Jan. 27, 2022 - TxDMV Takes Emergency Action to Keep Crooks From Selling Paper Tags
- Jan. 21, 2022 - Dallas Police Operation Targets Fraudulent Paper Tags
- Jan. 17, 2022 - Recording Shows Police Warned TxDMV of Paper Tag Security Flaw Years Ago
- Dec. 16, 2021 - DMV Committee Recommends Fingerprinting Some Dealers to Slow Paper Tag Fraud
- Dec. 14, 2021 - Texas House Transportation Chair Vows to Stop Paper Tag Fraud
- Dec. 6, 2021 - Texas DMV Boss Deflects Blame for Paper Tag Debacle
- Nov. 23, 2021 - Illegal Paper Tags Costing Texas Taxpayers and Toll Roads Millions
- Nov. 10, 2021 - Suspected Paper Tag Peddler Shut Down Tuesday, Reopens Wednesday: Investigators
- Nov. 8, 2021 - How Texas Paper Tags Became a $200M Criminal Enterprise: NBC 5 Investigates