Philly Stakes: They’re high because the bad guys are on a roll


Published: 12/17/2010

by Bruce Ebert


Starting last summer, a short but violent string of attacks by Philadelphia towers on each other — and possibly involving others acting in their behalf — has resulted thus far in one death and significant vandalism. This has focused attention on the industry’s longstanding reputation in that city for having a “wild west” culture. The extremely competitive rivalry among Philly tow truck companies is viewed by residents and officials as a danger to public safety and sorely in need of a crackdown.
          “This is as bad as it’s ever been” said Joseph Parente of Morton Towing in Philadelphia, who has not been involved in any incidents. “A bunch of hoodlums who represent a small percentage of people in the business are giving the industry a bad name.” 
          In July, Jose La Torre Jr. of J. & Sons Auto Body was arrested on a charge of attempted murder for shooting a Mystical Complete Auto Services tower in the leg at a car-crash scene in the Hunting Park area. It was followed by the torching of at least six vehicles on Mystical’s property and shots being fired at J. & Sons, police said. 
          In September, tower Glen McDaniel, 25, was charged with murder, homicide by vehicle, DUI, and other offenses for allegedly running down tower Ray Santiago, 30, at a parking lot outside a bar in the Kensington neighborhood. Police say the dispute was over towing territory and a woman. 

Theory & Practice

Those who have followed the turbulent Philadelphia towing industry over the years point to “wreck-chasing” as the main source of the problem. Claims over “turf” are part of the problem, too, in the same way that urban gangs fight over territory. 
          Wreck-chasing continues to thrive even though the Philadelphia police department has a rotation list, and despite that fact that police officers are now dispatched to wrecks silently via computers instead of over police radios, which could be monitored by wreck-chasers. 
          “The rotation list is a joke,” said one critic who, for business reasons, asked not to be identified. Police legally can stipulate which tower is in line to handle the next vehicle’s removal, but in fact, said the source, the tower who arrives first gets the job with little more than a shrug from officers. The police attitude is that their real priorities are the conditions of drivers and passengers, clearing the roadway, and moving on to the next wreck or crime scene, not who shows up to tow. 
          Philadelphia attorney William Brennan has represented towers in various cases. He said of the rotation system, “It’s good — in theory.”

Spot The Rogue

          Unlike legitimate, licensed, full-service tow-truck companies, the rogues often can be spotted by their second-rate equipment — sometimes just a pickup truck with a slide-in wheel lift for highway clearance. At the scene, they often make a bad circumstance worse for people already under duress. They push documents into motorists’ hands that authorize towing of their cars to body shops designated by the towers, and quote costs often far exceeding what ethical towers would charge. 
          “These people are victims,” said Parente. “You must be fair to them; they’re not in a good state of mind.” Off-balance emotionally and possibly injured, victims usually feel they have no choice but to comply. The wreck-chaser then will either haul the damaged vehicle to the repair shop with which he has an agreement, or shop it around to the garage offering him the biggest kickback.  
          Rounding out this picture of corruption are allegations by some observers that these rogues often have links to lawyers who also kick money back to them, and that some even peddle illegal drugs from their trucks.        Sometimes, when a wreck is a small fender-bender and too trivial for police dispatchers to bother to send overworked officers, the accident site becomes a wreck chaser’s dream because there is no police supervision.   

On The Case

          Two City Council members have dived head-first into the problem: 
          James Kenney has proposed putting the power to dispatch towers in the hands of the Parking Authority, a quasi-state agency that operates with ruthless efficiency but which critics charge has corruption issues of its own.
          Councilman Frank Rizzo would keep the power to authorize and supervise tows in the hands of Philadelphia police, but both agree that there would be fines, and jail time for third offenses, for towers who arrive to haul a car away and are found to be unlicensed. 
          Adding to their concerns are accounts of reckless driving by Philadelphia towers, coupled with pleas from citizens and officials alike that something be done by law enforcement to clamp down on these drivers. Rizzo said he even has heard of towers coming the wrong way down entrance ramps on Interstate 76 to beat the competition to a wreck site.
          One woman recently e-mailed Rizzo’s office with this eyewitness account: “As we were traveling…I could see in my rear view [mirror] two tow trucks — one white and one red. Both had come up fast behind me. The red truck driver pulled onto a side street and raced/floored the gas to get to the accident. At this block is a day care [center]. As I came to a stop the white tow truck driver pulled around me and blew the stop sign…My concern is for an innocent child or adult being killed by one of these drivers.” 

The Right Way

          “All we want is the problem resolved,” said Rizzo. No one wants to bust anybody, but they [towers] have to operate the right way.”
          Unfortunately, Rizzo added, the poor economy may have made a bad situation even worse for all tow truck operators. Philadelphia drivers are likely driving less and more carefully. “The economy has to be a piece of it,” he said. “When people ride better, there’s not as much business out there.”

          The Pennsylvania Towing Association has followed the Philadelphia story closely. PTA first vice-president Cathy Tennis said the situation there is “unfortunate in many ways and detrimental to the towing industry as a whole. There are towers out there every day, assisting motorists, law enforcement officials, and emergency workers, that do not deserve a black eye like this."