Monday, July 28, 2008

St. Louis Post-Dispatch Rips The Lid Off An Ugly Towing Scandal photo

A complex controversy has emerged in St. Louis, Missouri, which has already caused the resignation of a police chief...

An excellent article by three reporters at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch lays out the sordid details, including these choice nuggets:

1.) The impound lot of S&H parking looks like "a prison for cars," with razor wire topped fences and--good grief!--guards in elevated towers standing watch. A photo taken by Dawn Majors of the Post-Dispatch shows a sign with a snarling German Shepherd, warning "GUARD DOG ON DUTY."

2.) (Former) Police Chief Joe Mokwa has resigned in the wake of the scandal and questions about his creditability but not to worry! He walked away with a $100k severance package.

3.) The chief's daughter and "an unknown number of officers" received the free use of impounded vehicles for years. This is not an allegation, but an admission of the Police Board.

4.) The city's towing director, Denney Hunter, wrote a memo (obtained by the newspaper) directing the choice cars to be towed to S&H Parking--which is at the center of the scandal--and the crappy, inoperable cars went to the city tow lot.

5.) This worked out nicely, since S&H was allowed to keep vehicles unclaimed after 30 days once they "attempted to contact" the vehicle's owner. Yeah, I bet those were some really listless attempts. How did S&H work out this sweetheart deal? A former police officer named Gregory Shepherd, who came loaded with experience and a heroic reputation for drug busts, spent the last two years of his cop career dealing with his department's Asset Forfeiture unit.

This unit dealt with cars seized as part of a crime. When he left the department, Shepherd brought his experience, insight and contacts to S&H, which soon built a lucrative business dealing with seized vehicles.

6.) The vehicles were sold through Parks Auto Sales. S&H paid only half the towing fee to the city and kept various surcharges. This deal was described as "unusual" when compared to the deal worked out with another (less favored) entity called Bill's Wrecker.

7.) There were instances of employees being told they had to wait outside the office because Police Chief Mokwa was inside, meeting with S&H owner William Bialczak and Shepherd, the towing operation manager. (To be perfectly objective, I don't see an issue with this. Lower ranking employees are often barred from meetings of higher-ups. I've witnessed this all my adult life and I expect to continue witnessing it)

8.) Even after turning over the really sweet cars to S&H, the St. Louis tow lot still averaged over a million dollars a year in profit. OK, that's just obscene. Towing lots should be run in a break-even manner, not a source of squeezing blood from citizens. Shame on you, St. Louis.

9.) Parks Auto (the entity selling the seized vehicles) gave the Chief's daughter, Aimie Mokwa, a 2000 Dodge Neon, which she wrecked in 2002. Parks sold Aimie Mokwa three vehicles in the next five years for prices "far below wholesale value." The Post-Dispatch uncovered the car accident, which helped to show the police chief wasn't telling the whole truth when he said he didn't learn of his daughter's (frequent) use of S&H cars.

The (former) police chief now says he "might have known about it sooner but didn't think much of it at the time." OK, think about this: a business entity run by somebody who is (reportedly) one of your best friends...a guy who invites you to his son's your daughter a new car. She wrecks the car. She proceeds to get more cars at a steep discount. But you don't think much of it?

This is why the chief resigned. This is why he lost creditability with his board. Because Aimie Mokwa wrecked a car. That's how the whole mess unraveled.

This is the first towing scandal I've blogged about coming out of the state of Missouri. Oh, sure, I blogged about a mud-bog parking lot, and Missouri did get mentioned in the comprehensive Minneapolis report about abusive booting practices. But this is the first big Missouri story to hit

Thanks, S&H Parking for putting Missouri on the map when it comes to abusive and predatory practices in the towing industry.

Now I just need to do my usual thing: point out this is not a local phenomenon, but part of a national pattern of predatory towing practices.


Anonymous said...

They are sensationalizing the razor wire and guards in towers. Thieves are always targeting tow lots, and the razor wire is a small help. There are people in the booths that report any breach and open gate for trucks coming in. They are usually sleepy old men watching television between naps.

Johnny T. Utopia said...

It seemed to me they were just making it clear why the impound lot "looks like a prison for cars." They were justifying their description, not adding more than what was there which would be more like sensationalizing.

debry said...

I had my car STOLEN in 1998 by the st. louis city cops - they manufactured traffic charges against me the morning I got bonded out of jail. I spent a week attempting to get my auto back -- to no avail. The cops told me I did NOT have ENOUGH DOCUMENTATION to PROVE I OWNED THE CAR (I took the entire contract from the purchase of said 1994 Pontiac Firebird convertible - NICE CAR - that I had only purchased 10 months prior to my hokie arrest).

To date I still have not gotten my car back - in fact - a reporter for st. louis ran my vin# and discovered that my car was now in the state of nebraska. Why? Well . .. you figure it out - I've been in court in a civil case against the Board of Police Comms, the Mayor and the 2 (bad) cops.

It's all conspiratorial and -- I just wonder - WHO owes me a car????!!!

Johnny T. Utopia said...

If you have more details and care to provide those details, please, spill! The more people know about this, the better.

Sorry it took me a while to approve your comment. I was doing some commercial driving for a week, and racked up 60 hours of driving, 2055 miles. I saw a road sign for St. Louis, but I had to go the other way.

Anonymous said...

I was a victim of this tow yard and this very scandel. Af first I couldn't understand why St. Louis City Police wouldn't help me get my vehicle back, but after everything was exposed I was shocked to learn that the police department was behind them the whole time. The saddest thing is that even with this company being exposed I still haven't gotten any justice. I did a story with Post-Dispatch, worked with the FBI (giving them a copy of a recording that I had with S H Towing incriminating themselves) and I just seem to be out of luck. I can't find anyone to help me with this. I welcome ANY advise.