By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Blanche Duncan sits in her dark-red pickup truck in a deserted Budget Rental Car lot at the Industrial Park of Coral Springs. It's a rainy, dismal Sunday morning, but Duncan, in tight pink blouse and sparkling gold necklace (and one gold-capped tooth with a star-shaped cutout), is dressed for business. And, honey, Duncan means business.
You wouldn't want to be out in this kind of weather, but this is prime time for Duncan — off hours, the wee hours, when the odd restrictions of parking regulations kick in and when a motorist might let his guard down in the frustrating search for a place to park.
A hulking, leathery man hangs over the open driver's-side window of Duncan's pickup with an umbrella, shielding her and her customer, Fenton Ridgeway, from the rain.
Ridgeway is furious. His face is red, and he stammers. Last night, the company Duncan owns, Johnson Towing Corp., removed his vehicle from the Parkside Community in Coral Springs. He was visiting a friend who lives in the sleepy cluster of townhouses. Around 1 a.m., he had parked his car in a bright-orange spot labeled "guest." It was going to be a short visit, with Ridgeway stopping by to get the latest from his friend. But by the time he was ready to leave a half-hour later, his car was gone.
How was that possible? Ridgeway wondered, his eyes returning again and again to the empty guest spot, as if his car might suddenly rematerialize. The spot wasn't a reserved one. There hadn't been any park-in-guest-spots-at-your-own-risk signs in the vicinity. Certainly, there must be laws protecting him from getting his car towed like this.
There aren't. As Duncan calmly explains this to Ridgeway, he becomes even more irate. He starts to raise his voice, and the leathery man moves the umbrella away from Ridgeway, exposing him to the pelting rain.
Ridgeway shuts up and grudgingly absorbs Duncan's harsh lesson on the realities of parking regulation in Broward County. The law is unhesitatingly on her side, Duncan says. Her company has the right to tow any vehicle parked without a sticker or guest pass at Parkside after 1 a.m., regardless of any signage or lack thereof. It's the responsibility of the residents of Parkside — not hers — to inform their guests of this policy.
And Ridgeway shouldn't even think about bothering the police with a complaint about the disappearance of his car. Towing disputes are civil matters. There's nothing Ridgeway can do but pay Duncan the $180 fee. That's $120 for the tow, $60 for overnight storage and "equipment."
Oh, and cash only.
As Ridgeway opens the door to his freed vehicle and jumps in, he wonders aloud if there's anything that can be done about the way Duncan conducts her business.
"This is my business, sir," she snaps back in her husky voice. "If you've got a problem, you talk to me."
"I know how you do business, honey," he responds, sarcastically. "You're very professional."
There isn't much that gets under a South Floridian's skin quicker than a "lawfully" removed automobile.
"People think we're just stealing cars," says Jason, the night clerk at Kings Wrecker Service in West Palm Beach, his voice almost quavering with hurt pride.
It's a thankless job, all right. Tow clerks who work the night shift never get a smiling customer. Never. It's all narrowed eyes, waving fists, and punishing expletives. Tow operators develop very thick skins. When it comes to taking possession of a citizen's car against his will, there are no nuances. It's all black and white. If anything, the irate motorist who goes, cash in hand, to retrieve his car gets a sanctimonious lecture on obeying the law. Car owners who fail to read a sign or lose track of time — these are society's true villains.
"Whatever happened to personal responsibility?" tow operators like to ask dolorously.
True enough. People knowingly park in tow-away zones, then boil over when their cars go missing. But tow truck companies are hardly moral arbiters. The industry is a lucrative one that provides its service far more frequently than the marketplace demands. The instances of cars being towed because they blocked a hydrant or impeded a fire lane are rare. Mostly, tow operators step in to enforce ambiguous regulations, with never a thank you.
Tow operators are sorry for the inconvenience. Sorry all the way to the bank.
Study the complaint files at Broward and Palm Beach county consumer affairs divisions and you get a sense of tow operators plucking cars off the streets with reckless abandon, overcharging, and often getting away with it.
The complaints are full of anger and despair, certain to elicit a visceral twinge in anybody who has ever been towed. They talk about motorists whose cars were hauled off — hooked up in a minute or less by feral tow truck drivers — because they backed into parking spots rather than parking "correctly" by pulling in head first. They talk about how their cars disappeared while they were in the process of unloading groceries in front of their townhouses or helping a friend move a large television set into a new home. They complain about missing a renewal on a parking tag by one day or being towed for parking on their own grass because of construction.
Zero tolerance never gets closer to zero than in privately administered towing policies.
And the practice is spreading like a virus. As fast as new middle-class residential communities spring up in South Florida, tow companies make deals with homeowners' associations, says Eugene Reavis, a tow investigator for Palm Beach County. The new developments offer a virtual smorgasbord for voracious tow trucks.
The homeowners' associations, not keen on dealing with towing issues, tend to sign over the rights to tow their communities faster than you can say beauty sleep, Reavis says. And once they've done it, any minor violation is fair game for a tow company to make a quick Benjamin.
To understand how towing companies have gained the rights to terrorize South Florida neighborhoods, it helps to know a little about the law and how it got that way. The Florida towing industry has always operated in a fuzzy area between uprightness and shadiness, but recent legislation and litigation have helped pave the way for an escalation of abuse and extortion, particularly in Broward County, authorities concede.
Until 1999, Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties all required that tow companies register with them and obtain licenses. Then a U.S. appellate court decision restricted cities and counties in how they could regulate tow companies. No more registering or obtaining licenses. The counties didn't rescind their regulations quickly enough, and all three were hit with a class-action lawsuit from several towing companies. The settlement cost the counties more than $343,000.
Then in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the appellate court's ruling, though not everybody was quick to reinstate the regulations. Dade and Palm Beach counties cautiously rewrote their regulations, but Broward, apparently still sore from the costly settlement, opted to stick with its minimal restrictions.
For now, all Broward can do is set the maximum rate limits that tow companies can charge for tows from private property and get your money back if you're overcharged. Of course, you must be able to prove this with a receipt. And it can take about a year for you to get back the $20 or so that have been gouged out of you.
In any South Florida county, if you believe you were towed illegally, you must take it to court. If your property was damaged or something was stolen out of your car during the tow, you have to take it to court.
The situation often leaves bereaved motorists feeling violated by tow truck operators, with no viable recourse, no mode of complaining except through a weak, poky civil court process. Contributors to online motorist chatrooms sometimes talk wistfully about a constitutional challenge to the system as a violation of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure. But so far, no one appears to have mounted a serious legal challenge.
A New Times inquiry of the South Florida office of the American Civil Liberties Union brought a brusque e-mail reply from Assistant Director of Communications Alexandra Bassil: "If there is a sign warning drivers that their car may be towed in the areas you mention there are no violations of the 4th amendment."
Perceptions of the towing industry have sunk so low that even the Professional Wrecker Operators of Florida — a lobbying group of about 500 towing companies — has begun to call for more oversight. The organization was trying to save its reputation while weeding out "gypsy" companies that were breaking laws and stealing business. The problem, says Mike Seamon of the operators group, is the ease with which anybody, regardless of his ethics, can enter the industry.
"It doesn't require much — just a truck," he says. "And lots of people think it's a good way to make a living."
The fuzziness of the laws are part of the problem too. When motorists don't think the law will give them a fair shake, they're more likely to take it into their own hands.
Some, like University of Florida football player Tony Joiner, have tried to steal their cars back from lots. Joiner was arrested on a felony burglary charge after he tried to retrieve his girlfriend's car from a Gainesville tow company. The charges were later dropped.
Others have gotten violent, to which Chattanooga's Wall of the Fallen — a memorial to tow truck drivers killed in the line of duty — can attest.
And, of course, the violence swings both ways.
In 2003, a 16-year-old who appeared to be working at Beach Towing on Dade Boulevard attacked a man who had come to claim his car. Nasseer Idrisi had entered the office angry about the tow, but that didn't give Manuel Cabrera the right to break his nose and fracture his skull and right leg. Idrisi, 43, sued and won $975,000 in civil court. Cabrera pleaded guilty to aggravated battery.
On the first winter-cold night in South Florida, the wind whips down Wallis Road in West Palm Beach. A chunky, smile-shaped moon glows over the heavily pocked back street, and a dog's plaintive yowl erupts in the distance. Headlights of passing cars infrequently illuminate piles of trash and abandoned tires that apparently nobody in this neighborhood of warehouses and construction equipment feels like cleaning up.
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.
But several months later, he backed in again to do some work on his car. He stepped away and got towed (a violation of the 48-hour warning policy). This time, he was forced to pay the $105. He filed another complaint with the city.
"Police officers don't even have that kind of control," McGriff told New Times, referring to the way cops issue tickets for illegal parking. Even if somebody leaves a car on the side of the road, law enforcement has to give 72 hours' notice to move it.
"The saddest thing about it is that these are hard-working people around here," he said.
His neighborhood is not unique. Pine Ridge North II in West Palm seems to have a particularly devious CPM patrolling the neighborhood. Resident Carol Davis' car was towed for an allegedly expired tag. When she found part of her valid sticker on the ground next to the spot from which her car was taken, the homeowners' association of Pine Ridge — not the CPM or Kings — issued Davis a refund.
The majority of the complaints against Kings have accused the company of violating the city ordinance, and the majority have been closed and stamped "no violation of law." Only 13 of the 108 cases resulted in an adjustment, refund, or repair. Still, the company has received eight warnings.
Those who work at Kings act as if it's the "consumer" with the problem. Jason, his eyebrows rising like apostrophes on the far side of his bulletproof protection, wonders why his employer elicits such loathing.
Kings has a great reputation, which is why they get so much business, he insists.
"Our signs dominate the property in Palm Beach County," he says with pride. "People recognize that we do a good job. We're providing a service."
In fact, towing companies in Broward get away with more than Kings does, committing every underhanded offense possible, according to complaint records. In some instances, they're even violating the one law that Broward County's Consumer Affairs Division has the (limited) power to enforce: prices.
The worst offender appears to be SOS Towing, owned by Yona Edelkops. In 2007, the Broward Consumer Affairs Division received 11 complaints from people who lived in residential communities and had been towed, perhaps unfairly, then charged in excess of what the law allows. Under county regulations, tow operators may charge only $100 until a vehicle has been held for six hours; then an additional storage fee of $24 can be tacked on. After 24 hours elapses, tow companies may charge another $30 for the research it does to determine ownership.
SOS, in 11 reported cases, charged $190 or more for holding cars less than six hours. Although the wronged parties (many of whom parked at the Fairways of Inverrary complex in Tamarac) got refunds, SOS has ignored the warnings of Consumer Affairs and continued overcharging. If the victims of those crimes agree to testify in court (and that's a big if, according to Joel Metter, supervisor of the division's Consumer Protection Section, since once people get their money back, they tend to disappear), then SOS may find itself issued a cease-and-desist order that could include fines of up to $500 per day.
Another overeager Broward tow company has been terrorizing Nova Gardens Condominiums, where residents' cars parked temporarily in front of buildings, with groceries ready to be unloaded, have been dragged off. It happened to Ralf Meinzer on November 7, just six days after Bekah's Towing & Recovery entered into its contract with the homeowners' association.
"Since then," Meinzer wrote, "the towing service has been aggressively towing in the units of cars for doing the same thing I did. Everyone here parks in front of their building to unload groceries, small children, etc. etc. The towing service is constantly seen driving through our property and has been seen numerous times parked in various areas on our property, waiting for a unit owner to unload items from their vehicle in front of the building."
Meinzer said he knew of at least four other residents who had been victimized this way. In a letter to Meinzer, the supervisor of consumer protection in Broward County explained that the ordinance in Broward County did not prohibit predatory towing. So unless Broward County commissioners pass a new ordinance, dragging away a car filled with fresh groceries will remain legal.
No county commissioner responded to an inquiry from New Times for this article, though two secretaries directed a reporter to the all-but-powerless Consumer Affairs Division.
In Dania Beach, the politicians aren't just lax about towing. One former commissioner and mayor has made his fortune off it. Residents have long questioned whether C.K. "Mac" McElyea's political ties scored him towing contracts with local municipalities, including the Broward Sheriff's Office. Three years ago, he was sitting on the Dania Beach City Commission, voting on whether to extend the BSO contract in Dania Beach at the same time that BSO was using his towing services in Dania Beach.
After an article in New Times exposed the quid pro quo, McElyea lost the contract. But he continues to tow from private property in Dania Beach in a manner that has disturbed the owners of Grampa's Restaurant.
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.