Longform

Beware of South Beach Tow Companies

The man's eyes are wide with fury as he pounds the hood of the Tremont Towing truck that's hauling his gun-metal Lexus from the plaza at 15th Street and Alton Road in South Beach. The truck stops, and driver Robert Ashenoff Jr. slowly climbs out. He dwarfs the angry Lexus owner, a slim man with dreadlocks, by at least six inches and 80 pounds.

"This is a mistake, man," the guy with dreadlocks says.

"I'm a repo man, and I don't make mistakes, man," Ashenoff replies. "You know your car is getting repoed."

Without another word, the Lexus owner plants a foot on the truck's front grill and does a backflip, followed by a couple of cartwheels and another backflip. Ashenoff tries to back away, but the man throws a couple of ninja roundhouse kicks that slam him right in the face. Ashenoff falls to the ground. "Do you feel like a puta?" the dreadlocked man spits.

But he doesn't notice Ashenoff's passenger, a husky woman named Bernice. She sneaks up behind him with a tire iron, then lays him out with a vicious blow to the head. Then she lifts Ashenoff off the ground. "I don't do karate," she huffs. "I do karazy. I'll fuck a bitch up."

The confrontation is absurd, hilarious, and totally unbelievable. It's also par for the course for South Beach Tow, a faux reality show that draws thousands of viewers every Wednesday night on truTV. For three seasons, cable audiences have been eating up the badly staged reenactments of day-to-day business at Tre­mont, one of the two companies that have monopolized towing on South Beach for decades.

But for the thousands of residents and tourists whose rides are actually hooked every month by Tremont and its competitor, Beach Towing, the truth is far worse than Hollywood's scripted version. The fact is, towing on Miami Beach is an unparalleled city-sanctioned racket even in a town of slimy scams. It's a decades-long, politically sanctioned operation to hold people's cars for ransom for hundreds of dollars. In the first six months of 2013, both companies reported $1.2 million in revenues just from cars towed off public property. That's close to 5,000 cars towed between January and June.

New Times has pored through a year's worth of complaints filed with the Miami Beach Parking Department, scoured 81 police incident reports for their tow yards, and checked out a half-dozen open lawsuits filed against Tremont and Beach. The records show how both firms reap thousands in revenue by tricking drivers — and suggest why city officials let them get away with it.

Many of the towing tactics are so outrageous, in fact, that the brawls on South Beach Tow pale compared to the real incidents involving irate car owners. They may not use karate, but car owners routinely scale walls, try to run over tow truck drivers, and attack employees to get back their rides, all while eating up valuable police time with hundreds of 911 calls.

Rafael Andrade, a Miami Beach attorney representing Beach and Tremont, says his clients would not comment on specific allegations reported in this story. "The towing companies exercise caution and diligence before a vehicle is removed and spend considerable resources to investigate all claims and allegations against them," Andrade says. "Most are determined to be without support. When a mistake is made, it is corrected."

Andrade adds: "Bottom line, vehicles are towed due to criminal or civil violations of the law, and the towing industry simply provides a necessary, albeit at times unpopular, public service to the city and private businesses within the city."

"Everybody on Miami Beach knows the horror stories," says James Barak, whose minivan was snatched from his own driveway in March. "Beach Towing and Tremont have a monopoly."

Based on our research, New Times has come up with the biggest complaints about Beach Towing and Tremont. Beware — or end up in the tow lot yourself.


Lot Watchers

Under Florida law, tow companies cannot snatch a car willy-nilly. Instead, whoever owns or rents the property where a vehicle is illegally parked must call to order a tow. Yet Beach and Tremont routinely flaunt this pesky regulation by deploying lot watchers, usually homeless people, to call their dispatchers on easy prey, according to several victims. This notorious practice is so prevalent on Alton Road that businesses have resorted to posting signs warning their customers: "Beware the tow trucks."

Miami Beach lifestyle blogger Rachel Mestre experienced the tactic earlier this year. On January 10, she parked her Ford SUV in front of the 7-Eleven on 14th Street and Alton Road. Mestre went inside the Liquor Store, which is separated from 7-Eleven by a shared wall, then spent five minutes looking over the wine selection before settling on a Pinot Grigio. The 41-year-old writer then paid the cashier, walked out, and looked around in confusion. Her SUV was gone.

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.