By Michael E. Miller
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The limited parking in Dania Beach has led some of the Grampa's customers to park across the street, and when they do, there's a tow truck in the shadows, just waiting to pounce. "It just isn't right," said Carol Grampa, co-owner of the diner.
Several weeks ago, a customer who had been shopping across the street popped into Grampa's to pick up a pizza. When he headed back to his car, he found it missing. Mac's Towing had struck again. The incident rattled Carol Grampa, particularly because McElyea, a frequent customer, was noshing in one of her booths as his tow truck went into action.
At first glance, Ridgeway's sarcastic reference to Blanche Duncan as "professional" is true. Her feisty entrepreneurial spirit helped her discover a devious but legal method of nabbing cars. But aside from this, Duncan appears to be violating nearly every one of the few towing regulations that exist in Broward County and the City of Coral Springs.
In addition to Johnson Towing, Duncan owns the security company that patrols Parkside, giving her total access to its parking lots. While she gets paid to protect the neighborhood, she's also lining her pockets with tow cash. There's no law that says she can't.
It would be a work of genius if only Duncan weren't also apparently breaking the few regulations that Broward and its cities have in place. First, she's overcharging. The county ordinance states that she can charge only $100 for a tow and $60 for holding a car overnight. Victims of her tows complain that she charges upward of $180 and, in at least one case, as much as $230.
Furthermore, Duncan is required to give the car back within an hour that a driver asks for it. Fenton Ridgeway first contacted Duncan just half an hour after he first found his car missing, he says, around 2 a.m. He claims Duncan told him he could not have his car back until the morning, which allowed her to tack on the extra charge.
Finally, Duncan is illegally storing cars in a lot in Coral Springs. When New Times informed Officer Joe McHugh of the Coral Springs Police Department that she was doing so, he sounded stunned and said he would look into it immediately. Since then, repeated calls to McHugh about the progress of his investigation were unreturned.
Meanwhile, others have come forward to complain about Johnson Towing's ruthless tactics.
When Carlos Mionis stepped outside his Parkside townhome to take his family to breakfast on a Sunday morning in September, his stomach dropped. The electric-blue Volkswagen Cabrio he had purchased for his daughter just the day before was not where he parked it.
It brought back images of when his own car had been broken into just months before. Thieves had taken only loose change and some aspirin, but it shook him up just the same. Mionis called the Coral Springs police, who informed him that Johnson Towing had towed the car in the early-morning hours.
Were they serious? He had just brought the car home Saturday and parked it in a guest spot, still displaying its dealer tag. He had made the effort to obtain a guest pass from Phoenix Management — Parkside's community managers — and found them closed for the weekend. He figured he could wait until Monday to get the pass. Wrong.
Fuming, Mionis contacted Johnson Towing and learned he owed $180 for the tow and overnight storage. It was more than an inconvenience for a man who had been breaking even financially and was now struggling to pay his wife's hospital bills. He had gone out on a limb to buy the used car for his 17-year-old daughter, who now felt responsible for the additional burden.
"She flipped," Mionis said.
After it happened, he wondered how the car could have been spotted so quickly. The answer is simple. Over the past six months, Duncan's dual roles as security guard and towing company operator facilitated her ability to tow Mionis' car and others like it.
Upon learning of the double dip, Mionis was irate. "Let me get this straight," he said. "She's making money off of [the homeowners' association] and making money with the towing?"
Where was the security when Mionis' car got broken into? Instead of focusing on the safety of the complex, Duncan was cashing in on towing scores, Mionis concluded. And she was using the Parkside Community golf cart to cruise around and target the cars of residents and guests.
At a recent meeting, the consensus among board members was that Duncan's dual services were cheaper than hiring two separate companies. An obvious conflict of interest, true, but for a complex that has too few spots, too many families, and little money in its treasury, there aren't many options, board members agreed.
But the deal with Duncan has introduced some bad vibes into the community. "I hate this place for that. No I really do," Mionis says. "At my earliest convenience, I'm going to move out."
Both he and Ridgeway were out $180. Though they called the Coral Springs Police Department, they were not able to recover any of their money. Chances are, they never will.
Meanwhile, on a recent, ominous Saturday evening, Duncan was patrolling the quiet streets in her Parkside golf cart, hungrily eyeing the cars, cell phone at the ready.