Tow truck drivers, property managers used falsified documents to justify towings

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Andrew Marra

Published July 19, 2010

Tow truck drivers from one of Palm Beach County's largest towing companies have been using falsified documents to remove cars from private communities, often with the cooperation of the communities' property managers, investigators allege in court documents.

Records show that sheriff's deputies earlier this year found stacks of pre-signed "tow slips" from property managers in two King's Wrecker Service tow trucks. Pre-signing those slips, which give a tower permission to remove an individual car, is a violation of a county ordinance specifically created in 2005 to protect vehicle owners from so-called predatory towing.

After discovering the falsified documents and speaking with a confidential informant, deputies on July 8 raided King's Wrecker Service's office west of West Palm Beach with a search warrant.

During the search, they found even more pre-signed tow slips, an agency spokeswoman said. The company, which did not return calls for comment, is now a target of investigations by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and the county Department of Consumer Affairs.

The investigators' findings so far underscore concerns about how widespread violations of state and county towing regulations may be and raise questions about property managers' possible complicity in falsifying documents.

State law holds a property owner or manager financially responsible for any illegal tow, but it appears that in at least some cases property managers were unaware of the county's towing regulations and depended on towing companies for guidance.

After the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office issued a warrant at King's Wrecker Service located at 6738 Wallis Road in West Palm Beach, Deputy Sheriff Kurt Kloepping searches a tow truck for evidence of illegal towing practices. Deputies say that numerous complaints have been made to the Better Business Bureau regarding the companies operations.

"We go by what the towing company tells us to do," said Elaine Peitrzak, who manages the Palm Beach Grande community in West Palm Beach and the Nautica Lakes community in Royal Palm Beach.

Peitzrak's properties use King's for towing services, and Peitzrak told The Palm Beach Post she occasionally allowed its drivers to tow cars from the properties without verifying herself whether the cars were improperly parked - an apparent violation of the county's towing rules.

Peitzrak said she did not realize she may have been violating the county's ordinance and said that verifying that a car was improperly parked was often logistically difficult for her to do personally if she was not nearby. She chose to rely on the judgment of King's drivers.

"I don't get paid enough to sit out there at 1 a.m. and tow cars," she said.

Investigators point out that the rules are in place to ensure that tow truck drivers, many of whom earn commissions on each tow, do not take cars that are properly parked. In a search warrant application, sheriff's deputies said that King's practices at Peitzrak's two properties "clearly shows that King's Wrecker Service was in the practice of predatory towing."

No one has been charged or fined so far in connection with creating the tow slips but one of King's drivers, Froylan Castro, 33, was arrested in late June on a charge of grand theft of an automobile after allegedly towing a car in violation of other state and county regulations.

Sheriff's Sgt. John Churchill, who oversees the traffic homicide unit handling the criminal investigation, said the pre-signed tow slips are "just one aspect" of their investigation.

"We're looking at everything," he said. "It's not going to be just King's. We're looking at towing in general."

He added that property managers and their actions are also being examined.

Tow companies are allowed under state law to remove vehicles from private property with the property owner's consent, but state and county lawmakers heavily regulate the towing process in order to protect car owners from abuses.

The county's towing ordinance says that a vehicle may not be removed from private property without the "prior express instruction" of the property owner or manager. The owner or manager is required to either sign the tow slip in the tow truck driver's presence or fax the driver a signed form with an electronic time stamp.

Using pre-signed tow slips, the ordinance says, can result in a citation, suspension or revocation of an operating permit. State law says that illegal towing can constitute a first-degree misdemeanor or third-degree felony.

What is less clear is the liability, both criminal and civil, for property managers in private communities. State law holds them responsible for the financial costs of an illegal tow, and it's their signatures on the documents.

A confidential informant allegedly told sheriff's investigators that the owners of King's knew their drivers used pre-signed forms, and that one of the owners even solicited the forms from property managers, according to the warrant application.

King's Wrecker Service's legal business name is Gold Star Towing. It owners are listed in state records as John and Melissa Devia of Wellington and Keisha Pepper of West Palm Beach.

King's has five registered tow trucks, making it one of the county's larger towing businesses but still signifcantly smaller than Kauff's of Palm Beach, Emerald Transportation Corp. or Sisters Towing and Transportation, each of which have more than 10 trucks.

But while the county's largest companies focus on other services like assisting stranded drivers on the highway, King's appears to generate most of its business from so-called "private property impounds," Churchill said.

Dennis Moore, director of Palm Beach County's Division of Consumer Affairs, said that "historically there has been a cozy relationship between towing companies and property owners," and that it is part of the difficulty in investigating towing complaints.

The other key problem, he said: the fact that tow truck drivers often are paid on commission.

"There's a great incentive to move in to try to get more vehicles picked up," he said. "That at this point is the nature of the beast."