After a bad trip into the underworld of wreckers, storage lots and repair shops, you might think the accident was the best part of the experience.

Promila Kohli readily admits that the accident was her fault. A little over two years ago, she was driving behind Sharpstown Mall when she tried to make a left turn off Clarewood. Suddenly, an oncoming car she hadn't seen sideswiped her two-month-old 1993 Mazda 626 Sedan. The date was November 18, 1992; it's a date Kohli has been unable to forget.

That day lingers in Kohli's memory not because of any injuries she suffered. Though slightly shaken up, Kohli was quickly ferried by ambulance to Memorial Hospital Southwest, where she was checked out and released.

And it lingers not because of the severity of the accident. In many ways, there was nothing spectacular about Kohli's collision. It was just another fender bender, just a routine urban trauma, just one of 63,702 vehicular accidents reported to the Houston police in 1992. It should have resulted in nothing more than a temporary transportation inconvenience and a small financial setback.

Promila Kohli should have been so lucky.
While Kohli was on her way to Memorial Southwest, a scene that transpires dozens of times daily on Houston's streets and freeways was playing out on Clarewood. Some half-dozen wrecker drivers, alerted to the collision by police scanner, had descended on the accident site. One of the wreckers would eventually hitch up the damaged Mazda and tow it away to a repair shop in southwest Houston. When it did, it did a lot more than simply haul Promila Kohli's bruised vehicle off the street; it took Promila Kohli straight to a place that many Houstonians are far too familiar with: Wrecker Hell.

It would be 10 months before Kohli would get behind the wheel of her Mazda again, and even then, she says, the car wasn't working right. She had it examined by other body shops, then let it sit in her garage for another year before a car dealer finally agreed to accept the damaged vehicle as a trade-in. All told, Kohli figures that her left turn on Clarewood, and the wrecker/repair shop maze it led her into, ended up costing her $20,000.

With variations, similar stories abound in Houston. Any motorist who's had the bad luck to be in an accident, or to be late on a repair bill, can have his misfortune compounded and his wallet lightened when trying to navigate through the subterranean and interlocking world of wreckers, auto storage lots and body shops. In a city so auto-dependent, where a car is a necessity and the frequency of accidents makes auto insurance premiums sky-high, the network of fetch-and-repair and tow specialists can exert an amazing amount of power over people's everyday lives.

Of course, you don't have to be involved in an accident to be consigned to Wrecker Hell. One all-to-frequent phenomenon involves wrecker owners in the repossession business exercising mechanic's liens on cars for small debts on repair bills, then charging huge fees for the return of the vehicles. Or worse. Take the recent case of a 1989 Jaguar, whose owner brought it to Gessner Auto Repair to have its air conditioner repaired. When he couldn't pay about $100 more than the original estimate for the work, the shop agreed to let him leave with the car as long as he covered the balance of his bill later.

The money wasn't paid, so Gessner Auto Repair arranged with The Recovery Co., which listed an address on the Southwest Freeway, to tow the Jaguar from owner Sidi Boubacar Toure's residence -- while, as it happened, Toure was out the of country. The towing company apparently aimed to recover the money Toure owed for the repairs, and also turn a buck from the towing and storage fees it would charge him.

But after it was lifted from Toure's residence, the Jaguar somehow "disappeared." When Toure got back into the country and began asking after his car, no one could seem to find it. Concerned about what might happen to his automobile, Toure got a judge to issue a restraining order preventing Gessner Auto Repair from selling the Jaguar. But the restraining order was unnecessary: the shop couldn't find Toure's Jaguar, much less sell it. When police went looking for the wrecker driver to determine where the car had been taken, they had trouble even locating the towing company. Its address turned out be a vacant office, and the only evidence of its existence was an answering service for beeper-equipped wrecker drivers.

Adding to the mystery was a piece of African art worth $40,000 that Toure claims was in his Jaguar's trunk when it disappeared. He retained lawyers Paul Licata and Arno Schwamkrug to help locate the car in the wrecker underworld. Whether because of their efforts or the police helicopters that buzzed storage lots searching for the lost vehicle, the Jaguar recently materialized in front of Gessner Auto Repair. It was badly damaged and without the art Toure had said was in the trunk.

"It took two lawyers and a bunch of cops two months to get this Jaguar returned," says Licata. "Most people don't have the resources to find a car that has been grabbed. It's a real mess. These people, it's their own little world, and they're not afraid of anyone."

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