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Down the shadowy street stand the digs where a majority of South Florida's towing disagreements go down. Barely visible, the sign for Kings Wrecker Service (a business registered as Gold Star Inc.) directs the unlucky "consumers" to a waiting area under a painted-green awning, its surroundings littered with cigarette butts, perhaps stubbed out in frustration and carelessly discarded in a small act of defiance.
In the past three and a half years, 108 motorists have filed complaints against the company with the county Consumer Affairs Division; six people have filed lawsuits. Kings has gotten 86 more complaints than any other Palm Beach towing company, and it's comparable to the number of all complaints registered in Broward County over the same period.
Behind the bulletproof glass of the transaction window are the clerk's quarters, complete with television, kitchen, bathroom, and all the amenities somebody might need for an overnight job. A festive sombrero rests on the refrigerator like a misplaced party favor. There's no party here.
Jason (who wouldn't give his last name) can attest to that. He's the weekend clerk who works 24-hour weekend shifts, with only short breaks for eating and napping. Jason has called the sheriff over disputes more times than he can count, he says. He's also got two intimidating pit bulls, Lita and Bob, roaming the property just in case.
About 9 o'clock nightly, Jason gives each of the nine nocturnal tow truck drivers a wake-up call. They plop into their self-loaders and flat-bed trucks and set out to communities that have signed exclusive contracts with Kings.
When predatory towing was outlawed in Palm Beach County in 2005, tow operators like Kings got creative.
Eugene Reavis, a mild-mannered towing investigator who wears two pairs of spectacles on straps around his neck, is a student of those methods since the law changed.
A major defect in the system, he says, is presigned towing permission slips, issued in advance by homeowners' associations so they won't have to authorize each individual tow. It's a blank check for predatory towing, plain and simple, Reavis says.
"We can't tell when the ink dried," Reavis says.
With signed-in-advance permits, it's the towing companies — which stand to profit from every vehicle dragged away — making the towing decisions, even though the contracting associations are held legally responsible.
Same goes for when homeowners' associations subcontract with third-party spotters. Some call themselves "community parking maintenance" operators (CPMs) — their only qualifications being that they can wander through neighborhoods searching for violators, then call the tow trucks.
"They could be anybody," Reavis says. "They could be you." Reavis adds that he would love to have conversations with a few CPMs, notorious for violating regulations.
In the thick stack of complaints that have been filed with the county, a few names of CPMs who have been authorizing Kings tows come up again and again. Cross-referencing them in the Palm Beach County court database reveals multiple traffic infractions for each and the occasional misdemeanor or felony. George Edward Hude has 27 entries in the database, most of which are traffic infractions. Awni Abdallah has ten traffic infractions, one misdemeanor, and one felony. Reavis' favorite, Jorge Sosa, couldn't be cross-referenced. Too many people with that name. (None of the CPMs could be reached for comment.)
"It reminds me of [the 1995 film] The Usual Suspects," Reavis says. "Keyser Söze, right? Who is this guy?"
Reavis has been with the division for two years. In that time, he has noticed that, as new residential communities have sprung up in Palm Beach County, towing complaints have increased. It never takes long for a "Tow Away Zone" sign to go up in a new community, he says.
"They go out when these communities are being built, and there's a lot of competition in these areas," he says. "The towing companies have very skilled salespeople."
The increase in complaints was a big reason that West Palm Beach passed an ordinance in 2005 that outlawed predatory towing and required tow companies to register with the county and obtain licences. Still, it remains fairly easy to discover and exploit the loopholes.
Police don't often get involved, according to Capt. Patrick Kenny of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, because the traffic division is busy with things like vehicular homicide. "We don't have time to do the intricate details," he said. "If we do hear of a tow company doing something illegal and it's more than a couple of complaints, we'll send somebody to do an inspection. But it's a huge undertaking. It's just such a big business."
Consumer affairs divisions handle the majority of the complaints through their lengthy process. Of all the complaints in the county in the past years, none has resulted in any towing company's losing its license.
Nobody who lives within the purview of a towing contract is protected from the tow operators' intrusive reach.
Even a Riviera Beach police officer, Cornelius McGriff, had to cough up the cash. His car was targeted by a CPM for backing into a spot in Presidential Golfview, where McGriff rents an apartment. He was told he would have to pay $140 (the legal limit is $105 in Palm Beach County if the car is held for less than six hours). In addition, there was no sign that said he couldn't back into a spot, and, according to the community's rules, he was entitled to a warning and 48 hours before he was towed. McGriff contacted consumer affairs and got out of the fine.