Step aside Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio. James Sikes might just become the hybrid movement’s most recognized celebrity.
For the past several weeks, media and government officials have stirred widespread public concern about the safety of the Toyota Prius—publishing first and investigating later (if at all). But the truthfulness of the most publicized incident so far—what might be described as cross between the Balloon Boy Hoax and the OJ Simpson Highway Chase—is coming under increasing scrutiny.
Based on research by Jalopnik, the auto blog—which was picked up by Fox News, USA Today, and other outlets—Sikes’s background is checkered with problems: a police record for grand theft, a filing for bankruptcy, and ownership of a swingers website where users can post erotic photos.
Of course, Sikes’s questionable background doesn’t prove that the Prius and other Toyota vehicles are free of technical safety issues—any more than a series of reported problems is proof positive of major safety glitches. In fact, investigators may never come to a definitive conclusion about reported Prius acceleration cases.
Nonetheless, revelations that the Sikes incident might have been hoax could slow down media and government from knee-jerk reactions. In that sense, Sikes could be credited as the man who convinced the public to question if Prius safety questions are more hype than reality. Hybrid cars have long been a lightning rod for strong feelings for pro-hybrid eco-types and the anti-hybrid crowd who see Prius drivers as smug, wimpy or simply misdirected.
Emerging details about Sikes:
- Questions were first raised after his 911call became public. The 911 operator repeatedly told Sikes to put his Prius into neutral during the more than 20-minute call, but Sikes didn’t act on her requests, and didn’t try it. He said he was afraid it might slip into reverse.
- He’s been on TV before, and seems to cherish the attention. In 2006 he was on television, winning $55,000 on “The Big Spin.” As a real estate agent in San Diego, he boasts of his celebrity clients, including Constance Ramos of “Extreme Home Makeover.”
- Two years ago, Sikes filed for bankruptcy in San Diego. Documents show he was more than $700,000 in debt and owed Toyota $19000 for his Prius, his sole remaining car. Toyota was listed as a $19,000 creditor, the value of the leased Prius, which has to be returned. Sikes’ bankruptcy court filing showed he also owed $115,000 on 16 credit cards.
- In 2001, Sikes filed a police report with the Merced County Sheriff’s Department for $58,000 in stolen property, including jewelry, a mini-DV camera and gear, and $24,000 in cash.
- Sikes appears to have started the website AdultSwingLife.com. The AdultSwingLife website is not a pornographic site, but the online forum features erotic photos of its members. It’s not clear how much money the site is making, or whether it will help with the bankruptcy.
Toyota and NHTSA dispatched engineers this week to examine the car. There is a chance, though, that they’ll find nothing to confirm or refute details Sikes provided. On Thursday, a Toyota executive said the company is “mystified” by the Sikes incident. “It’s tough for us to say if we’re skeptical. I’m mystified in how it could happen with the brake override system,” he said.
If nothing else, James Sikes dispels the myth that Prius drivers are all goody-goody types. His chutzpah in perpetuating a possible hybrid hoax—as well as his brushes with the law and swinging lifestyle—show a level of bravado usually not associated with hybrid drivers trying to minimize their impact on Mother Earth.