Cover Story: Towing the Line

The tow-truck industry is out of control. Will the city intervene?

By Aaron Kase
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 14 | Posted Aug. 24, 2010

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Now, the city is trying to tighten restrictions on private tow-truck companies including revamping the way they respond to accidents.

The need for new tactics and regulations comes from the fact that the city hasn’t bothered to enforce the laws already in place. In 2003, the city capped towing fees for illegal parking at $150 per tow and $25 a day for storage. Extra charges—most commonly labeled as special equipment fees, or storage taxes added onto the overall price—are illegal. In 2008, an ordinance passed requiring operators to take credit and debit cards.

City enforcement of towing regulations has been dismal, says Joe Parente, owner of Morton’s Towing and Recovery in Logan. “There’s none. There’s absolutely none,” he says. “You can make money out there legitimately, fairly; there’s no reason for all this stuff. The towing industry is now taking a real black eye.”

And so are the drivers. City tow-truck lore is rife with violence erupting between wreck chasers who monitor the city’s police scanners to be first on the scene—even before the cops. The business is lucrative, since chasers bloat the bill with redundancies like hook-up fees, gate fees and lot fees, which can bring total charges for a tow to as much as $800.

“That shit’s been going on for years,” says Mystical Towing employee named Mark. “People been getting in fights for years.” But he says lately, “it just got out of control.”

Last month, the fierce competitiveness took a potentially fatal turn.

Jose La Torre Jr. from J and Sons Towing arrived at an accident scene on Hunting Park Avenue in a Cadillac Escalade to claim a tow, but shortly thereafter, Angel Carrera from Mystical Towing showed up in a tow truck and tried to take over the job. The two men started arguing, and La Torre allegedly pulled a gun and shot Carrera in the leg.

The next night a fiery blaze engulfed a dozen cars in the lot of J and Sons Auto Collision in North Philly. Surveillance video shows a man pouring gasoline on the ground just before the fire. Half an hour later, six gunshots were fired into the office of Mystical Towing about a mile north on Ashdale Street, where owner John Campbell and his wife were inside, though no one was hurt.

La Torre Jr. now awaits attempted murder charges, while Carrera is recovered and back on the job.

However, tensions still simmer. “Everybody knows it was J and Sons,” Mark says. “We know that for a fact.” He claims the rival company lit their own cars for insurance money, then shot up Mystical to make it look like a retaliatory attack.

Jose La Torre Sr., owner of J and Sons, says: “Everybody knows who did it. We can’t be pointing fingers though—it’s still under investigation.”

Galvanized by the violence and subsequent headlines trumpeting Philadelphia’s “tow-truck wars,” the Police Department responded to the bedlam by yanking accident transmissions off their scanners and deploying by laptop instead so tow trucks on the prowl can’t listen in and beat cops to the location.

It should never have reached this point. In 2008, the city implemented a rotation list, created by Councilman Frank Rizzo, which directs the police to call certain tow companies after an accident. The system is designed to divvy out work fairly and prevent disputes. However, the policy was almost entirely ignored, because wreck chasers would have towing contracts signed with accident victims before the police had a chance to intervene.

Even with information going out over police laptops instead of radios, there is one glaring loophole: Insiders say police officers themselves are tipping off wreck chasers about accidents. “A lot of chasers have cops that send texts,” says Campbell. “We still get work no matter what.”

“Obviously that would be a concern,” says Police Spokesman Lt. Frank Vanore. “I haven’t heard of that being a problem yet, but where there’s a will there’s a way and we will have to deal with it as it comes up.”

The cops have other problems, too. With the force stretched thin by recent budget cuts, police have already said they will only show up to accidents that require a tow. “We don’t go to [accident scenes] where both parties agree to exchange information, minor damage, no towing required,” says Vanore.

But towers say it’s not their fault that police aren’t responding quickly enough. “It’s really the city’s fault,” says Mark from Mystical about the July 19 shooting. “If the police would have been there we wouldn’t be going through all this bullshit.”

 

Parente sits in the wood paneled trailer that serves as his office on the site of his 50,000 square foot vehicle lot in Logan. He sifts through reams of paper, looking for documents on the rotational towing list he has been collaborating on with City Council and the police since 2003 as spokesman for the Philadelphia Authorized Towers and Salvors Association, a group of 11 operators working with the city to improve towing policy.

“They’re getting out there fighting over a car, stabbing other companies’ tires, chasing out insurance adjusters,” he says. He declines to name the worst violators—“I don’t want my place getting shot up too”— but hopes the new regulations can bring order to the chaos. “There are laws. They’re not enforced,” he says. “Revoke the license. Put them on suspension.”

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 14 of 14
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1. Josh said... on Aug 25, 2010 at 09:57AM

“Excellent reporting. Especially disturbed by the account of Otterson II. Here's his facebook profile:

www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Otterson-II/100001362560577

"Mike Otterson II Got traffic court tomorrow for driving over a 100plus on 42 thank god for knowing really good lawyers. WTF...."”

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2. Joe said... on Aug 25, 2010 at 01:33PM

“Typical day in Bullydelphia...place should be nuked.”

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3. GavinM3 said... on Aug 25, 2010 at 01:37PM

“Great article!!!! Well written and researched.

Hopefully this article shines some light on all of the towing corruption that goes on in Philly. These high school-dropout towtruck drivers get to be judge and jury every night while your car is held ransom.

Some of my friends in the 'burbs refuse to visit Philly simply due to the parking and towing situation. This problem needs to be addressed!

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4. Anonymous said... on Aug 25, 2010 at 03:40PM

“This is shocking. I went on to southphillytowing.com (Otterson's company), they clearly state that they are open 24 hours a day but told Barry that they were closed when he wanted to pick up his car the night of the towing. I hope that people who are looking for a tow truck by choice (i.e. a breakdown) boycott South Philly Towing. Good on you Philly Weekly for this excellent piece of journalism and shame on you tow-truckers.”

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5. mufffin said... on Aug 25, 2010 at 03:46PM

“I hope it does kill the industry and all the towers go hungry. . .that would make me really happy actually.”

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6. Shawn said... on Aug 26, 2010 at 10:56AM

“WMMR's Morning Show "Preston and Steve" spent several days talking about this the day after the fire and shooting. Its good that other media outlets are getting involved, perhaps the city and the businesses themselves will feel some pressure and start working to fix things. Philly gets enough of a black eye with things, we really don't need one more to add to the list. My suggestion to anyone who's had this problem is to start using the media. Call the radio, newspapers and TV stations. Start a Facebook page, see if all of you can band together. If you simply give up, nothing will ever be changed. One of my favorite sayings is "the squeaky wheel gets grease".”

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7. MORTON TOWING said... on Aug 26, 2010 at 09:14PM

“Well written Aaron,
The only down side that I read is that the PPA have been braught into this rotational towing. They as a municipality, have no business taking business from honest towers. It seems that they will eventually take over the industry, which is illegal. But your article was informing and well written.”

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8. Mike Otterson said... on Aug 29, 2010 at 01:54PM

“I usually try not to respond to the negative comments left online, but in this case I will make an exception. Without getting into all the he said she said stuff, let me first say that unfortunately you can not trust that everyone interprets a situation exactly the same, I'm sure that the Schwartz's really do believe that there side of this story is the way that they recollect what happened. But through the years of doing a good bit of Parking Enforcement I can absolutely tell you that the customers version of what happened is always quit different than what actually occurred. The statement I made in this article about no one taking 100% responsibility for there actions is accurate, we at SOUTH PHILLY TOWING take pride in the fact that we would never touch a car that was even questionable, not to mention the fact that when there is an event going on down by the stadiums the Police presents is overwhelming, and they scrutinize everything that is going on down there, so if in fact the Schwartz's did park on the other side of the street I assure you that we would not have touched there vehicle. The business owners complaint in that area is that some of the people that park down there end up trashing their property and also prohibit the tractor trailers from being able to deliver there goods, this is why we get the pleasure of performing this service for them, it is always the case that the people we end up towing say that they are not the ones that are doing this, but unfortunately the people that do, ruin it for everyone. As far as telling them that they could not retrieve their vehicle that night, my son was the one on the phone with them and they became very belligerent so he warned them that they would give up their right to pickup their vehicle till the next day if they continued, and they continued so he told them that they had to come the next day. It has been our experience that when given the opportunity of time people have a tendency to calm down, this did not happen in the Schwartz's case, when they showed up the next day they were still belligerent, to the point that when one of my drivers showed up to release the vehicle to them Mrs Schwartz immediately jump in his face calling him names and cursing at him, that driver did not want to disrespect her so he called one of my other drivers who was able to handle the situation, as far as saying I know where you live b##ch, that was not the way it was said, they were threatening our property and we occasionally have to remind the customer that they just provided us with positive ID for who we released the vehicle to so we do in fact know where you live, not as a threat but to say IF anything was to happen we will let the police know. As far as the neighborhood being a demilitarized zone, I take offense to that because I personally don't think it is that bad considering that I grew up in that area, and my mother in-law owns a luncheonette on the corner of the block that has been in her family for over 60 years, I would not go as far to say that its a perfect neighborhood it does has it's faults, but it's better than other neighborhoods I visited, and I still wouldn't slander them either. The thing is I truly do understand what the Schartz's went through at that time and I'm sympathetic to their situation, but unfortunately this is one of the many services that we provide as a company, and we do our best to give all of our customers the best service we can. (In this case the customer would have been the property owner) As far as the other negative accounts on the internet, most of them are people that were parked illegally and were towed, they were not happy from the get go, no further explanation should be needed. It is and never will be my intention to give the towing industry a black eye and I sincerely apologize to any one who thinks that we may have, all that I feel that I am guilty of is trying to provide the best service in a very competitive city.

Thank you for listening,
Mike Otterson
SOUTH PHILLY TOWING
mickeyott@southphillytowing.com”

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9. tnieves said... on Aug 31, 2010 at 01:08PM

“we're talking about philly here. nothing will never ever get done or "back on track".”

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10. Anonymous said... on Nov 9, 2010 at 08:25PM

“does anyone know of top notch towing 25 &moore sts. My car was towed by them. They are closed now,phone disconnected.And they have my car. I dont know how to get in touch with them.The insurance adjuster wants to see the car.”

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11. T - owed said... on Dec 29, 2010 at 04:45PM

“I attended the Eagles game on tuesday night with my son and had the same thing happen ! Then the company said they had pictures of me tailgating and destroying there sign ,then upon further investigation I found they have a money maker with the spots they tow from ( they take the sign down before the events and post them when the spots are full so they can tow vehicles !! To top it all off the 911 dispatcher and police on the seen do not even help while you are trying to figure out if your car is stolen or towed until after the car release time at midnight when you can not get your vehicle until 9 am with a 2 day storage fee !! I can not prove it but I think they have someone on the police force that helps them hold your car hostage for our cash only they say on the phone STILL..”

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12. Anonymous said... on Mar 9, 2011 at 01:23PM

“Manton is easily the worst of the lot. The business is run by a sociopath with no remorse for his crimes. Scum like Manton give the whole industry a bad name. Most of the scum in the business specialize in 'patrol towing' and the more unethical ones like tow squad use spotters in parking lots. Whenever I see spotters I call the police and tell them there is a shady looking character using drugs, smoking pot or taking pictures of little kids. Works every time1 Once the spotter had warrants and was hauled away in handcuffs! Made my whole day.”

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13. AVOID said... on Feb 25, 2014 at 04:53PM

“Saw the report about the towing situation in Philly last nite. Simply victimizing tactics are employed. My applause to Mr. Otterson. You seem very articulate for strong arm criminal. You and those like you tear at the fabric of decency for which it seems there is merely a thread left. Repulsive. Poor you and you're predatory methods. You take people's property, leave them stranded in an unsafe city, then extort cash knowing you've got them by the balls. Legit my ass. Are they "customers" to you or prey. Karma to all you bastards who extract a living from your fellow citizens "legally" or "illegally", and to all those who look the other way. Shits too fucked up to believe anymore. Those who visit the city are careful not to park illegally. As they are aware of the consequences. Now visitors to the city can get towed regardless? Nice warm welcome to our city of OTHERLY LOVE!!!”

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14. Anonymous said... on Mar 6, 2014 at 12:29PM

“I for one will never go to Philadelphia again. My vehicle was parked legally, but towed as it supposedly encroached onto a handicapped spot. Unscrupulous tow operators have caused me to be outspoken against the City of Philadelphia in general. I make a point to tell my story to MANY people. Watching their city's reputation deteriorate and the effects that has on tourism and taxes are the only thing that may make them notice. Then again, from what I understand, this is just business as usual for these people. I'll be getting my Philly Cheesesteaks somewhere else...”

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