Act 1, Scene 1: It's late at night in Woodlake Square, a small strip shopping center at Westheimer and Gessner. J. Michael Douglas, the mild-mannered owner of Houston-based Bristol Motors Car Corp., comes out of a restaurant beaming like a glowworm after food and drinks with a friend. On top of the world, Douglas reaches for his keys as they walk to his car.
The car is gone. So is the night's ambience.
Douglas has been towed. He knows the drill. He knows this means he'll have miles to go before he sleeps.
World-weary, he wheels about and spots the wrecker driver who's circling the lot, looking for his next victim. "Why, why, why?" Douglas asks of the driver, of the heavens, of the fates. Douglas thought he was safe. Sure, he was parked in a striped sector, but the owners of that shop had wheeled their "warning, tow zone" sign inside the store as they closed up earlier in the evening. Douglas figured it was a daytime loading zone, so no one would mind if he used it tonight. Actually, he hoped it would be okay, with there not being any other place to park and all, but of course it wasn't -- not with money to be made for both wrecker drivers and storage lots.
"Did you tow my car?" he asks of the wrecker driver. "The cop told me to do it" is the driver's nonchalant reply, waving his hand in the general direction of a nearby police officer. "I don't believe that," Douglas responds, thinking surely the police must have something better to do. "Go ask him yourself," the wrecker driver says encouragingly. Which, of course, Douglas does not do, thinking that perhaps something better for police officers to do might entail arresting someone who's had a couple of drinks.
Fuming, he watches as the wrecker driver sidles up to another car. This one is in a totally legal designated parking spot. But one of its tires sits on rather than inside of the white line denoting the space. A quick hookup, and another vehicle is on its way to impound.
There is one bright spot: Douglas and his friend had driven separately to the restaurant, so they have transportation. Except, as they both realize as they walk over to her car, she'd tossed her purse into his trunk on their way into the restaurant. The purse and the car keys it contains are now sitting in a storage lot someplace miles away. Time to call a cab.
There are few more schizophrenic relationships than the one between humankind and wrecker drivers. Your car breaks down or runs out of gas, you're mired in sand at the beach, or you've just had an accident, and the guy driving up in the bright-colored truck with flashing lights is the white knight on a horse.
But exit a bar or restaurant after a night on the town, discover your car gone, and the wrecker driver is the Prince of Darkness. Catch him in the act, and even if you can convince him to unhook the car, it's going to cost you.
To people like Douglas, wrecker drivers are the perpetrators of a multimillion-dollar scam. He sees them as vultures, circling private parking lots, preying upon people in a vulnerable state. They take as much money as they can from the hapless car owners and get paid a bounty by storage lot owners looking to fill their properties. They don't follow the rules, Douglas says, as they hide behind an uninterested police force and their own abilities to make themselves scarce.
To people like Suzanne Poole, president of the nonprofit Houston Professional Towing Association and owner of A-Best Towing, wrecker drivers come in all manner of shapes, sizes and consciences. She readily concedes some are jerks and wants to see those drummed out of the corps. But most, she says, are hardworking folks who operate high-risk businesses that put them at some personal danger while they protect business interests and help stranded people. Sure, they get paid a bounty by the storage lots, but that's usually for cars involved in accidents -- cars that are going to stay awhile and generate huge fees, rather than so-called private parking pickups, which usually are bailed out by the next day, she says.
Poole says people need to be smarter both in their encounters with wrecker drivers and in understanding the market forces motivating the drivers. Understanding, in turn, is supposed to help allay that outpouring of rage that occurs when someone is taking your car away from you, charging you for the inconvenience and chuckling at you as he does so.
People get towed from restaurant and club parking lots in Houston because a lot of places have a huge capacity inside with little parking outside, Poole says. The Richmond Strip is a classic case in point, she says. People leave their cars at the first available spot and then clubhop the night away. "They'll park at Richmond and Sage and go all the way down to Hillcroft on foot. They keep walking from one bar to another. 'Course by the time they get to the fifth bar, they should be on foot," she says, laughing.
Still, restaurants don't like this, knowing that some of their customers, daunted by the sight of a full lot, will assume there's a long wait for dinner and go somewhere else. "So they hire spotters to sit in a vehicle and see if people are going into the restaurant," Poole says. If the people go elsewhere, the spotters call in a wrecker driver who does his work and disappears into the night.
Attorney Gary Janssen and his wife decided to sell her car. They put a "For Sale" sign in it and parked it in a lot by his office on Westheimer at Beltway 8. A wrecker snatched it in broad daylight.
Janssen decided to fight the action and the $125 towing fee. So he went to "tow court," which operates out of the City of Houston's municipal courts at several locations. It costs $10 to file a tow court case, which is supposed to be heard within ten days. In Janssen's case it was all over pretty quickly. The wrecker driver claimed he had the permission of the parking lot owner to take the car, Janssen says. The parking lot owner denied that he'd ever given any such permission. The judge found in Janssen's favor and ordered a judgment against the wrecker driver and the storage facility.
Except, Janssen says, the judge's order didn't mean anything. It had no enforcement power, and when he went to the storage lot to collect, they just laughed at him. He couldn't find the wrecker driver. "I got a worthless piece of paper. When you follow that remedy, it's not a remedy."
Being an attorney and not having to pay for his own services, Janssen took it a step further. He filed a separate lawsuit in justice of the peace court. That court awarded a judgment against the wrecker driver (who did not show up for the hearing) but not the storage lot. The storage lot owner maintained that he didn't know what the wrecker driver was up to, and so shouldn't be held liable for his bad dealings.
Janssen never did collect any money. What upsets him, too, is that as the system is set up, it discourages anyone from fighting an unfair tow. He spent a good amount of his own time fighting the action, and if he'd been representing a client, he says, he'd have sent a bill for more than $1,000. Not too many people are determined enough or wealthy enough to spend $1,000 to get back $125. A person has a right to file a grievance but no way to collect on it, Janssen says, and the law needs to be changed.
Suzanne Poole disagrees. She says Janssen had other, more effective remedies available to him. When the storage lot refused to pay, he should have reported back to tow court, which would direct him to the City of Houston's Wrecker Inspector's Office, which makes a note of these claims, she says. Collect enough complaints, and the wrecker driver and his company can be hauled in for an administrative hearing and subject to losing their licenses, Poole says.
Of course, she says, an overzealous wrecker driver may feel it's worth it to step over the line. Yes, he may get hit with that administrative hearing and be forced to pay up, but 19 out of 20 times people have just gone ahead and paid him and moved on with their lives.
She herself was the victim of an illegal tow and took her case to tow court. "I was awarded all my stuff. They wouldn't pay." So the municipal court sent her to the Wrecker Inspector's Office.
"I got my money back," she crows, adding a little less triumphantly: "It took me a year and a half."
And this is an effective remedy?
Act 2, Scene 1: J. Michael Douglas is driving a car along Interstate 45 when it runs out of gas. Wrestling it over to the shoulder as far as he can, he is still a foot into the lane when he gives it up and starts hiking for the nearest gas station. He returns an hour later to find his car gone. Since the car had no gas in it, he believes it has been towed rather than stolen.
He knows he's on a stretch of roadway that marks a dividing line between two different constables' offices. And he knows HPD patrols the highway, so it's conceivable his car is at one of the city's preferred storage lots. He begins calling law enforcement.
All insist they don't have his car. He calls one constable's office all weekend, certain that this is the likeliest candidate. No, he's told over and over again. We don't have your car. He pleads with them, tries to appeal to reason. "Look, I'm going to have to report the car stolen, which is going to mean a whole lot more paperwork for you," he says. Go ahead and do that, he's told. We don't have your car. So he files a stolen car report.
On Monday, being the enterprising sort, Douglas goes to the storage lot used by one constable's office and yes, there sits his car. Relieved and pleased with himself for being right, he goes up to the cashier's office, announces he's found his car and is ready to pay to get it out. The young fellow behind the counter congratulates him and starts moving the paperwork. "Oh," he says, stopping, frowning. "We can't give it to you. It's a stolen vehicle. The police have to release it."
Douglas sits and waits some more while HPD sends out a team to investigate his car and release it to him.
Suzanne Poole is a fount of tips for how to better deal with the wrecker system. Don't bother calling law enforcement to ask if your vehicle has been towed. Call the city's tow line. Storage lots are required to notify the line within an hour and a half of acquisition of a car. In Douglas's case, she says, he definitely should have called the tow line, because Metro and the Texas Department of Public Safety also could have ordered his car towed. Don't try to wade through that much officialdom, she says. Let the tow line do that for you.
Vehicles aren't being towed off the highway as much as they used to be, Poole says. Douglas's problem was that he didn't make it all the way onto the shoulder, she says. And he should have left a note saying he was going for gas. As long as he got back within a reasonable amount of time, he'd be okay, she says. If your car disappears and the tow line doesn't have it, then do report it stolen, no matter the inconvenience, she says. Thieves carry gasoline with them for quick fill-ups and drive-aways.
If you're going to challenge a tow as being illegal, you should get your car out and make sure there's no damage. Take photographs of the area you were towed from because there are strict rules about the size, location and language of towing signs, Poole says.
"The only way you're going to stop the renegades in the business is to take the bad ones out," Poole says. "Otherwise it's going to continue."
But Douglas and Janssen certainly have gone the extra mile in filing complaints, and had little success. After being towed from Woodlake Square, Douglas called police to report there was a scam going on. "I didn't see any other cops show up." He called the Harris County district attorney's office, whose level of interest rose to sending him a complaint form to fill out. He tossed it.
Poole's association has a bill of rights that they ask officers to hand out at accident scenes. You're entitled to know the name of the towing company, the address of the storage lot, the full and complete disclosure of costs and the driver's name (not just a truck's unit number, since several can share the same truck). Fill in every line on the wrecker's estimate of costs, she advises, since blank spaces have been filled in later by unscrupulous wrecker drivers.
A plain-vanilla tow from an accident scene should run $125 to $250 max, Poole says. "We've seen tow tickets up to $800, and insurance companies started refusing to pay that."
A police officer will call for a tow himself if a driver seems incapacitated. But so many times, Poole says, drivers in an accident will tell a wrecker driver, "Oh, just go ahead and tow my car" and will sign a blank ticket. "Would you sign a blank ticket at Foley's?" Poole asks. "Why in the world would you do it for a wrecker driver?" And, she says, if five wrecker drivers are standing around you, there's nothing wrong with asking each one how much they'd charge you for the tow.
There should be no extra charge for a ride home, a cleanup of debris at the scene or the wrecker's waiting time, she says. When a car is so mangled that it has to be dollied on a special ramp over to a lot, yes, that's going to be some extra money. Most anything else, no.
In what may be her No. 1 tip, Poole says one of the best things you can do at an accident scene is say, "Officer, I would like you to take charge of my vehicle." Once he does that, it's a police-ordered tow with a maximum $125 charge. Security and peace of mind.
Act 3, Scene 1: J. Michael Douglas sells a car on a payment plan to a young woman who a few days later has a flat tire. A wrecker driver stops and helps her, not mentioning anything about money until after he's done. Then the Good Samaritan turns into a mercenary demanding $40 for his troubles. She tells him she doesn't have it.
Do you have it at home? he asks. Yes, she says. Well, fine, he says and hooks her car up and drives her there. Whereupon he announces she now owes him $130 for the tire changing and the tow.
She really doesn't have that kind of money and tells him so. Well, fine, he says, I'll take it to a storage lot and you can pay it from there. Well, okay. He hauls it. She abandons the car and stops paying on it.
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By the time Douglas finds out about it, the combination of the wrecker's fees and the storage fees have jacked the bill to $700. Irate, he calls the storage lot, saying he is the lien holder and reminding them the law requires them to notify the lien holder within 24 hours. "We're not required to do so on a voluntary tow," he's told.
"I just said screw it. I just let them keep the car."
Most people who encounter a bad situation with a wrecker driver chalk it up to a somewhat pricey learning experience. Few pursue it beyond that. Those who do either report disinterest on the part of law enforcement or a relief system that, however well intentioned, doesn't provide much relief. Apathy at all levels of this process allows the bad wrecker drivers to thrive.
And time is on their side. They've got that and your money to spare.