- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 28, 2001

Your car is stolen. Police catch the bad guy. You get the car back.
That's the way it's supposed to work. But things are different in the District.
"It's just really, really frustrating," said Bob Snowder, a D.C. resident who got the runaround from city agencies last year after his car was stolen. The car was recovered within days, but he wasn't notified for more than two months. By that time, the impound lot wanted $1,700 to release his car. He complained, nothing happened and eventually, he gave up and paid up.
"It stinks all over," he said.
Other D.C. residents with towed-car horror stories echo Mr. Snowder's comments.
"It doesn't make any sense how they violate people's lives here," said Lawanda Harris, who gave up her car because she couldn't afford the $1,000 fee to get it back from a tow lot. "They don't care. They don't care at all."
"I'm almost afraid to own another car in the District," said Donna Davis, whose car was found in a tow lot by an insurance agent two months after it was stolen. "I will probably never own another car. The system is awful."
Their experiences weren't isolated incidents, according to a D.C. inspector general report obtained by The Washington Times, which first reported on the abuses on Thursday. The report documents several cases of police officers scheming with tow companies to confiscate legally parked autos without any record or notification. The report also found that officers and the agency charged with regulating the towing industry fail to do their jobs, giving free rein to rogue tow companies and the "bandit cranes" used to confiscate legally parked cars.
The Metropolitan Police Department has been conducting an internal investigation into the practice, and it opened a new case after The Times inquired about the problem last week. Federal prosecutors also are pursuing a criminal investigation into the matter.
That's good news, according to Mr. Snowder, Mrs. Harris and Mrs. Davis. But it's poor compensation, they say, for all the people who, like them, were shaken down for thousands of dollars by towing companies or victimized by police malice and incompetence.

She gave up
Lawanda Harris attended Allen Chapel AME Church on Alabama Avenue SE for years, and she always parked in the same spot. On Oct. 15 of last year, she came out to find her car gone.
A police officer responded after about three hours and wrote down her information on a scrap of paper not a police report. Mrs. Harris checked with police daily until they told her to stop calling. About two weeks later, she found out her car had been recovered only three days after it was stolen.
She learned that only after a friend, a retired D.C. police officer, called in some chits with former colleagues and found out Officer Sheila Gary, badge No. 4109, recovered the car. Farco Towing took the car to its lot at 1923 New York Ave. NE.
When Mrs. Harris went there, she was told it would take $1,000 to get her 1984 Chrysler LeBaron.
"I shouldn't have to pay anything for something they did without my knowledge," said Mrs. Harris, of Greenbelt.
The only explanation she got from Officer Gary is that she went on leave soon after the car was found.
Her letters to Mayor Anthony A. Williams and D.C. police Chief Charles H. Ramsey were forwarded to the Office of Corporation Counsel. Patrick Gordon, an investigator in the general litigation claims unit, wrote that he was on the case.
Later, he said he needed more time to investigate. Mrs. Harris hasn't heard back from him.
Mrs. Harris, who was pregnant at the time, had to take the bus to her job at Prince George's County Public Schools.
When she last checked with Farco, her bill was up to $3,000.
She's given up on the car, attending that church and setting foot in the District.
"I haven't been back to that church," she said. "I'm scared to go back to D.C."
Her daughter was born in April, but she still doesn't have a car and is worried about getting to work in the winter.
As for the police and D.C. government, she said, "I figure they owe me. I feel like I was being violated. This issue could have been solved, but they kept giving me the runaround.
"I hope once they read this, they start reimbursing people and give us our money back," she said. "They seemed like they really didn't care."

Pay up or else
Bob Snowder finished his bartending shift on Capitol Hill on Sept. 6 last year and found his car gone. He filed a police report and routinely called the "Teletype" office for any news. There was none — until Nov. 13, when R&R; Towing and Recovery called to say they had the car.
Mr. Snowder went to the lot and found broken car lights, a little body damage and a cracked exhaust. Curiously, there was none of the damage that typically occurs with a stolen vehicle. No broken windows, no torn up steering column or jimmied locks.
The lot wanted $1,700, which he didn't have. He sought recourse with the police and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which is supposed to oversee the towing industry. He got little help, but he did find out that police originally found his car Sept. 10 — four days after it was stolen. Towing receipts showed the car sat on the impound lot for more than two months.
The investigator at DCRA "was pleasant, but he wasn't helpful."
"There really isn't anything that can be done," Mr. Snowder recalls him saying.
When the lot threatened to sell his car, Mr. Snowder rounded up enough cash to get it back.
He's not sure if he's a victim of incompetence or a scam, but "it sure doesn't look right to me," he said.

'Not sure where the ball was dropped'
Donna Davis returned from a family outing to her parents' home in Northwest on July 8 last year to find her 1989 Toyota Camry gone. She filed a report but never heard from police, despite repeated calls.
More than two months later, an insurance investigator found her car by chance at Abe's Towing lot on Kenilworth Avenue NE. Documents show the car had been there since July 11 — three days after it was stolen — when D.C. police found it abandoned and called a tow crane.
Abe's Towing said it would cost $2,500 to get her car back.
"That was like a slap in the face," said her husband, Rick Davis.
They were also suspicious because the car's windows weren't broken and the steering column wasn't cracked open.
In an article on their problems published in The Times on Nov. 16, Capt. Willie Smith of the 3rd Police District said, "I'm not sure where the ball was dropped."
Capt. Smith also said the officer who found the car left the department.
After the story was published, Capt. Smith visited the Davises and said the tow company agreed to drop the bill to $150, which is about the standard fee for towing a car and a few days of storage, according to Mrs. Davis.
When they went to retrieve their car, it was gone.
"They said, 'sometimes we can't hold cars forever,' some off-the-wall excuse," Mrs. Davis said."They never actually said what happened."
After all that, she got a call from police about a month ago. They asked if they could change her car's status from "stolen" to "recovered."
"I said, 'No.' I never got my car back."
Mrs. Davis still drives her parents' car because she can't afford a new one. Even if she could, she's reluctant to buy another.
"I'm almost afraid to own another car in the District," she said.


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