The tow-truck industry is out of control. Will the city intervene?
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.”
Private tow-truck drivers are fed up with an ever-changing web of inconsistently enforced city regulations. They’re angry about the constant specter of the Philadelphia Parking Authority threatening to elbow in on their business. And they’re pissed off that media always portrays them as the bad guys.