“After 20 years of competing against each other, 20 tow companies are supposed to put their arms around each other and become partners?”
  • “After 20 years of competing against each other, 20 tow companies are supposed to put their arms around each other and become partners?”
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It's 8:30 Sunday night, January 20, and 41 tow trucks are lined up with their engines revving behind the Dow stereo store on Sports Arena Boulevard. For the tow truck drivers, this will be a lucrative night. Dozens of people who went to the Paul Simon concert at the Sports Arena figured to save the $4 parking fee by leaving their cars across the street in the huge lot that serves Dow, Ralphs grocery, Target, Mervyn's, HomeFed, and Home Depot. Their thriftiness is about to backfire, big-time.

The trucks, all from Western Towing, come roaring into the four-acre parking lot like a swarm of leeches on the scent of blood. Three uniformed rent-a-cops and a man in civilian clothes direct the trucks to the illegally parked cars. Some of these cars sit directly beneath one of the 216 signs posted on light poles throughout the lot that warn against parking here if you’re not a shopping center customer. The tow truck drivers work quickly, for their night’s pay is based on how many cars they tow. (They get about $20 per vehicle.) Some of the drivers slide thin pieces of metal, called slim jims, down into the car doors alongside the window glass and force open the locks so they can release emergency brakes and put transmissions in neutral for the tow. Others winch late-model Mercedes-Benzes, Blazers, and BMWs onto flat-bed tow trucks, hook up another car to the same truck, and haul two and even three cars simultaneously. Most drivers leave the lot through the back entrance onto Midway Drive, turn left on Rosecrans, then make a quick right onto a little-used road beside the Pic 'N Save.

Several hundred yards down this dark passage through the industrial outback, the tow trucks turn left at an unmarked gate onto a path that leads to the Western storage yard. They dump their cargo quickly, rush out another gate, and head back to the shopping center for more booty.

At Western’s back gate, a guy named Gary stands guard. As a visitor approaches out of the blackness, Gary grabs for a chain saw in a nearby truck. He refuses to allow the visitor onto the lot but seems willing to talk. “I’ve been wondering when a reporter was going to show up," he says, still gripping the saw. “This has been going on since August. But nobody’s going to talk to you about this. Think about it. We’re in the business of towing cars. If you tell people about how to avoid that, you’re hurting our business. If you were in our shoes, would you talk to a reporter and cut your own throat?”

As Gary talks, tow trucks loaded with cars ease past him into the storage yard. Each driver stares at the visitor suspiciously One stops and, seeing that Gary has the visitor engaged, says, “Oh, he’s one of us. I thought for a minute I’d have to beat him up," then drives on.

Back in the parking lot, concertgoers have already begun trickling out of the arena and across the street to retrieve their cars. A group of dazed young men stands around Lance Stevens, the shopping center's chief security guard. One of the men, quaking with anger, is taking down Stevens’s name and badge number. “I'm gonna sue!" he rails. “This is crazy!” Stevens, a career Navy man who is moonlighting, gives his name and then proudly remarks that he’s a “colonel" with Ranger Private Patrol.

In a lull between the time most of the cars are towed and the end of the concert, Stevens says, “We had 11 security people helping tonight, and we still couldn't stop ’em all from parking here." He says that his men and the guards who came over from the Sports Arena lot try to tell people that it’s illegal to park here and they’ll be towed, “but you can’t get ’em all.” Tonight 67 cars would be towed. Since last summer, when Ranger was hired by Mission Management, which oversees the shopping center (the owner of the center is a Florida-based holding company), close to 1000 cars have been towed, according to Stevens. “And we take the brunt of the abuse. Fifteen, 20 a night threaten to sue me. And, 'I’m gonna kill you if I ever see you off the property,' I’ve heard that many times. Rock concerts and hockey games are the worst. I've even had people towed more than once. The same guy!"

Stevens says that before tonight, the record was 54 cars towed during the Poison heavy metal concert on December 30. He claims that they only tow cars that security guards actually observe being parked and whose owners then leave the shopping center property. Some people continue to walk away, even after being warned, Stevens says. “I’ve had people park by the HomeFed over there, and I’ll tell ’em, ‘If you park here, you’re gonna get towed.’ And they say, ‘I have half a million dollars in this bank. You’re gonna tell me I’m not a customer?’” Stevens says the towing usually doesn’t start until a half hour after the last store closes because "customers don’t want to see tow trucks in the parking lot."

Near the entrance to Ralphs, six young men stand around a taxi cab. They’re U.S. Navy sailors on liberty, and two of their cars were towed. “We’re from Alameda," one explains, dejectedly. “Our ship's down here for a visit. We drove down to meet it." The sailors had parked here and walked across the street to see a movie at the Mann theaters, which have very little parking. As they talk, one of them looks up and says, “Look at that! That guy just broke into that car." A few feet away, a tow truck driver is using a slim jim on a car, which sets off the car’s alarm. “Is that legal?" the sailors ask.

One of their shipmates comes back from a nearby phone booth to report that he called the tow company and was instructed that he had to bring $100 in cash to retrieve his car. This news makes the group even more somber. "Luckily, I got money on the boat," says one. In addition, they have to pay cab fare to and from the 32nd Street Naval Station.

A sympathetic cab driver commiserates with the sailors, declaring, "Last week I gave rides to two families with children who had their cars towed and no money." A mysterious civilian who had been watching these bitch sessions around the parking lot suddenly speaks up. "The guards here tell people not to park," he says. "There’s a lawsuit because there have been rapes and robberies in this lot. And there are signs all over the place." The cabbie raises his voice. "Why do you need to tow people from here? You got hundreds of empty spaces."

The stranger, who had declined to identify himself to a reporter, is Steven Hendrickson, owner of Western Towing. Whether he helped scout the cars that were to be towed is unknown. If he had, he would have been breaking the law. It is illegal for tow company employees to troll for business that way.

Hendrickson tells the cabbie that this is private property and the owners “want the lot cleaned up. Plus, the guards in the yellow jackets [Sports Arena security] tell people not to park here,” he asserts.

Everyone is silent for a moment. Towing the cars of concert and movie patrons seems incongruous with getting "the lot cleaned up." Finally, one of the sailors comments, "We walked right past one of those guys in the yellow jackets, and he never said a word. We thought he was a wino." Another one says, "Granted, the signs were here. But the lot was nowhere near full. This ain’t right." The cabbie wants to argue with Hendrickson some more, but the sailors say they need to get going. Sullenly, they squeeze into the cab and drive off.

As the concert lets out, groups of people cross the street, search fruitlessly for their cars, and go through a series of emotions akin to those who have lost loved ones. First, denial. Their heads rotate back and forth, thinking that they have merely forgotten where they parked. Then, seeing others doing the same, it dawns on them. They approach the security guards, politely at first, and are handed a business card from Western Towing. They stare at the card, look up, stare at the card some more. Finally, they accept their fate and, with a thousand-yard stare, remain motionless for a few moments. Then the anger explodes.

A man in a tan sport jacket, his face crimson: "This makes me so mad I want to throw a brick through your building when you're not here!" He’s pointing to Ralphs and shouting at Lance Stevens. "And I’m a good citizen! Just think what other people would do! You're gonna piss people off so much they’re gonna come back and do real damage!"

A woman in a raspberry sweater stomps in circles, almost apoplectic: "I'm gonna read what this fuckin’ sign says!" She reads the tow-away notice attached to the light pole where she was parked. "This is incredible! Just incredible! I came in at the Mervyn’s entrance down there. There weren't any guards. This is just a racket. There’s no reason in the world people can’t park here! I’ve been a customer at Ralphs for years, but not anymore! Jesus! War breaks out, I see somebody get stabbed today in the Gaslamp Quarter, and now this!"

The lines in front of the phone booths stretch along the wall of Ralphs. Several people look comical, dressed in the latest cool concert garb, going through this degrading exercise. Many slam the phone down after calling the tew company and turn to no one in particular to report that they'll need between $100 and $129 in cash to get their cars. Some jump in cabs, others trudge to the nearby ATM machines, and a few begin the walk to the Western Towing lot at the corner of Kurtz Street and Pacific Highway.

At that corner is a big red-and-white sign that reads, Support Your Local Police As If Your Life Depended On It! The irony is lost on those lined up at the mobile home that serves as Western's office. It is the San Diego Police Department that licenses tow companies to confiscate people’s cars (they call it "private impounds"), and the police department sets the fees that tow companies can charge for such a service. And as the tow truck drivers were jimmying car locks, cops had driven slowly around the shopping center lot, looking to stop physical altercations between vehicle owners and the towers. Western’s life does indeed depend on the police.

As everyone in line at Western’s office was more than willing to assert, the police have entered into official relations with an industry that specializes in depriving people of their cars and holding them for ransom. And anyone who can’t afford the towing fee could lose his car completely; towers have the right to auction unclaimed impounded vehicles, a harsh penalty to pay for a minor transgression like illegal parking.

And many in line say towing is a business that seems to have a high sleaze factor. One bit of evidence could be found in the handwritten note taped to the window of Western’s office that Sunday night. It said that the company would begin "releasing” cars at 11:00 p.m. and that owners needed proper ID and "$100-$129 cash." This was a lie, but nobody in line knew it then. State law (California Vehicle Code Section 22651.1) requires that tow companies accept credit cards as payment. Those who pleaded with Western's office clerk that they couldn't raise the cash were grudgingly informed that they could use a credit card.

The towing bill generally breaks down this way: $60 for the tow; $28 for the gate fee — that is, for retrieving a car after 5:00 p.m.; and an hourly storage fee of $1.50. Tonight, most people would end up paying about $90, although several unlucky motorists would have to remit another $32 because their cars required dollies under their back wheels in order to tow them. Although Steven Hendrickson declined to talk about his business, the one thing he did say was, "The city sets the fees, the city sets the fees." More accurately, the city decrees the maximum fees that may be charged; Hendrickson sets his own fees as high as the law allows.

So on the night of the Paul Simon concert, 67 people paid $60 for a tow of less than a mile. This city-authorized fee is nearly twice what most tow companies charge if a person's car breaks down and he needs a tow to a garage less than five miles away. The $28 gate fee is intended to cover the extra costs to the towing companies of processing a car’s paperwork after hours, when the company’s office is supposedly short-handed. But in Western's case, Hendrickson can anticipate that during large events at the Sports Arena, many cars will be towed. Western is the only tow company Ranger calls for impounds from this particular lot. (Even on nights when there’s no event scheduled at the arena, Western regularly tows movie and nightclub patrons' cars from the lot.)

The gate fees collected that Sunday night amount to more than $1800, a kind of city-awarded bonus in addition to the bloated towing charges. And vehicle owners are rarely told that they can save the $28 if they wait until business hours the next day to retrieve their cars. However, then they’re charged the $12-a-day, city-authorized storage fee.

As they mill around the tow company office, waiting to reclaim their cars, none of the concertgoers will admit they were stupid to park in the shopping center lot, which, of course, they were. Instead, most of them say they walked right past the guards and were not warned. "We’re gonna get a class-action suit going!" fumes one furious man.

In this country, private property rights often seem to be valued more highly than human life. So to avoid a tangential argument about whether someone has the right to tow cars from the shopping center parking lot, or from the Denny's or Saska’s lot in Pacific Beach, or the Red Onion lot in Mission Beach, let's just concede it’s the American Way. What’s of interest here is the business of towing, which has changed radically in San Diego within the last five years. The 1.3 million registered automobiles in the county provide plenty of pasturage for the robust towing industry. People in the business say there has been an explosion of small, independent towers, like Two Bit Tow and the half a dozen low-priced companies that have split off from that outfit. But at the same time, a few large companies, such as Western, have been growing like ticks plugged into an artery. The dynamics are tangled, but whatever is happening has a lot to do with a fundamental change instituted by the City of San Diego in 1987.

Every year the San Diego Police Department orders about 50,000 cars towed. These are called police impounds and run the gamut from stolen-car recoveries to the removal of junkers abandoned on the streets. These are different from private impounds, such as the towing of cars illegally parked at the shopping center lot. The city sells a yearly license (for $100) to tow companies that want to do private impounds, but the fees that may be charged by tow companies are the same for both private impounds and police impounds.

Until the late 1980s, the police department divided the city into 16 tow districts. The highest qualified bidder in each district won the three-year contract for police impounds in that area. Some towers paid as much as $30,000 for the contract. When a cop needed a tow, the company in that district was called, and the tower hauled the car to his lot. Then in the early 1980s, San Diego tow company operators found themselves inundated with junk cars they could not sell. Salvage companies would no longer take them because the one un-salvageable material from old cars, “fluff" — the shredded remnants of seats, headliners, dashboards, and other plastic and fabric — was made illegal to bury in landfills. Since the salvage companies wouldn't take junkers, the tow company storage yards filled up, and as a result, the streets of San Diego filled up with abandoned cars. Several tow companies refused police calls to pick up these cars. Something had to be done.

The city convened a task force to study the problem in 1986. Bob Bradley, owner of Bradley’s Towing Service, was on the task force, as was Jessica Wineteer, whose husband Dale owned A to Z Towing. The task force was given numerous ideas for solving the fluff problem, but over time, the federal government solved it by easing restrictions on its disposal. Meanwhile, Bob Bradley suggested to the task force that the tow district system be changed completely so the police department would deal with just one company, not 16.

The police loved the idea, since the old system had created administrative headaches. But in September of 1987, when the city put out a request for proposals on using a single entity to do all the police impounds, only one company responded: the San Diego Police Tow Operators. This partnership, made up of six tow companies, got the contract. Two of its members were Bob Bradley and Dale Wineteer.

Many of the tow company owners who lost their city contracts immediately charged that Bradley and Wineteer had some sort of insider information that led to their winning the contract. The owners claim that by the time the city sent out the RFR they had only a month to meet the October 1 deadline, not enough time to put together a whole new one-company police impound plan. Bob Bradley himself says, “I spent full time on this thing for three months,” referring to the San Diego Police Tow Operator's winning proposal.

In addition, many of the owners were against the one-company idea in principle. “After 20 years of competing against each other, 20 tow companies are supposed to put their arms around each other and become partners?” asks Mike Moore, who used to have a tow district contract. “I believe that anybody with the proper equipment and insurance ought to have a chance to do police impounds.’'

The city council, after receiving complaints about the tow contract going to a group that might have insider information, delayed the start of the contract until March of 1988. In the interim, a council committee was set up to investigate the charges and found them groundless. During the council meeting at which the results of this investigation were presented, ”[Ed] Struiksma was on the phone the whole time. The mayor was up and down, eating, joking. I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Mike Moore. In the end, San Diego Police Tow Operators was awarded a five-year contract. “We had tried to get five-year contracts but were told the city only contracts for three years,” says Moore. “Now, all of a sudden, they give this group a five-year contract.’' Moore says that when he lost the police tow contract, his business immediately reversed itself, from making $100,000 a year to losing $100,000 a year. He claims the consortium of companies that got the contract is generating $15 million a year.

Bob Bradley grabs a calculator and punches a few buttons. He chuckles, shakes his head. “Nowhere near that much,” he says. “I wish it was true.” Bradley and Wineteer argue that even though they were part of that task force, they didn't have a leg up on the competition in winning the city’s contract. “We just saw it coming and acted faster,” says Wineteer.

This will continue to be an argument within the local towing industry, but what’s clear is that the police tow contract makes five companies — A to Z Metro, Bradley's, Mission Garage, J.C. Towing, and Rancho South Bay Towing (Wineteer bought out one of the original six partners) — very profitable, and the loss of the police tow business has severely hurt the other companies.

But all this movement seems to have created an opening for many small companies to slip into the business. Doug Woodward, owner of Two Bit Tow, says his business has rapidly expanded in the last few years. “It’s because the tow companies are treating people so poorly, especially the police impounds. It leaves everyone with a bad taste in their mouths, and the next time they need a tow, they call us.”

The city's decision to change to a single tow contractor might not have been good for the local citizenry, but it definitely helped streamline the police bureaucracy. The city has saved money because the police now make a single phone call to the consortium’s dispatch office when a tow is needed, and private enterprise takes over from there.

Every year the consortium turns in requests for fee increases. In 1990, says Bob Bradley, "we justified an increase of ten percent, but they only gave us six percent.” The police department granted a towing-fee increase last July, raising it from $57 to $60. When asked why this police tow rate is so much higher than non-impound tow rates, Cindy Sergott, the code enforcement officer who handles tow truck operations for the police department, replied, “We polled other cities and found that San Diego’s rates are generally lower. The impound tow rate is higher than regular tow rates because we require the truck to be there in 30 minutes, and the companies have to carry $1 million in single liability insurance. Plus, they have to store the vehicles on land that’s expensive. We require certain types of equipment, and the cost of everything is going up,”

This sounds suspiciously like a tow company operator talking. In reality, none of the tow companies’ storage yards are in high-rent districts. J.C. Towing’s facility on Faivre Street in Chula Vista “looks like the set of Stalag 17,” according to one towing victim. A to Z’s yards at I-15 and Imperial Avenue, at the southeastern end of the San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium parking lot, and beneath the KSON radio transmitter beside I-5 occupy property of limited value. And when asked what legal authority gives tow truck drivers the right to break into people’s cars before they’re towed, Sergott replied, “That question’s never come up. I’ll have to check with the tow truck association to find out.” A city official has to check with the industry being regulated to find out the legality of using slim jims to enter people’s cars?

Sergott never did come up with an answer, but Sgt. Ed Paradise, supervisor of the police licensing unit, says, “I’m not aware of anything in the law that specifically authorizes it, but I don't see why it would be illegal.... If I confiscate evidence from a crook, it's in my possession and I'm responsible for it. From a civil perspective, if a car is illegally parked, and if signs are posted, and the tow company has a right to move the car, it is the property of the tow company. If they use a slim jim to open the car, they’re responsible for any damage, and there’s no crime that I know of that they're committing.”

The system of notifying a person that his car has been impounded seems to lean in the tow company's favor as well. According to the state vehicle code, notification that a car has been impounded “shall be mailed or personally delivered to the registered owners within 48 hours” by the police department. But it's common for people to complain, in public and private, that the police never contacted them after their car was impounded; and those who do receive notices from the police often don't get them until a week or more after the car’s recovery. And since the tow company charges $12 a day for storage, this oversight can be expensive for the vehicle owner and profitable for the tow company.

As one example of this mysterious breakdown in the notification process, consider the case of John Dibelka. Early on the morning of Monday, January 7, Dibelka called the police to report that his 1967 Dodge Dart had been stolen from in front of his home in Burlingame. He was impressed with the officer who responded, Ronna Franson, who came out to make a written report. Dibelka says the officer reassured him that he’d be contacted as soon as the car was recovered, and she took down phone numbers where he could be reached during the day and at night.

Although his car was recovered in San Ysidro early the next day, January 8, Dibelka says he was never contacted by the police. Instead, since he felt sure of what officer Franson had told him about being notified when the car turned up, he waited until the end of the week but heard nothing. Then, figuring his car was gone for good, on January 11 Dibelka borrowed $1000 to purchase another car. Three days later, he called the police department to inquire about his stolen car and was told it had been impounded the day after it was stolen and was in the storage lot of J.C. Towing in Chula Vista.

When he went down to recover it, Dibelka found that the tow company wanted ”$180 to ransom my car.” This included the $60 towing fee, $84 in storage charges, and a $35 lien fee. Dibelka fell into conversation with the people in front of him in line, whose van had also been stolen in San Diego, ’ ’And they said the police also told them they’d be notified when their van was recovered, but they never heard from the police either."

Dibelka says "it’s real obvious" why the tow company wouldn’t inform a person that his car has been impounded. "But there's no justification for the police not informing you. It cost me a lot of money because I took the police officer at her word. If I’d known they weren’t going to call, I’d have checked with them twice a day to save all this money. I’d rather not think there's collusion between the police and the tow companies, but I look at all this and think, ‘What's wrong with this picture?' ’’ Dibelka says that he knows of three other people, in addition to the one he met at J.C. Towing, who were not notified by the police after their cars were recovered.

Once he paid the $180 (in cash), Dibelka says a tow yard employee hot wired his car in order to drive it to the gate. But when the man got out of the car, he pulled the wires apart so the car’s engine died. Dibelka had no way to start the car, since the ignition switch had been destroyed during the theft. "So there are three guys standing there, their tow truck idling, waiting to tow me home," he reports. Dibelka turned to one and asked, "How much do you charge to show me how to hot wire my own car?" The driver replied, "We don’t charge nothing. Just tip me." Dibelka gave him $5, and after the wires were twisted, he drove out of the tow yard.

When he thinks back on it now, he says the whole episode has been disillusioning. "I’m from a law-enforcement family. I had a lot of respect for the police before this. But my tax dollars are paying the police department to contract with shysters who screw me? It’s wrong." Dibelka wrote an angry letter to Police Chief Bob Burgreen detailing his experience and demanding answers to several questions about the episode.

Capping it all off, and demonstrating how disorganized the whole system seems to be, four days after Dibelka retrieved his car, he received an official notice in the mail from the DMV. It informed him that if his car wasn't reclaimed from the tow yard, it would be sold at a lien sale. The $35 he paid the tow company under the heading of "lien" went to Ritter Lien Sales, a firm that profits by researching the registered owners of towed cars. "So my $35 got me this piece of paper,' ’ Dibelka says, disgustedly.

Checking Dibelka’s file, Cindy Sergott in police licensing says that on January 8 the department mailed him the notice that his car had been recovered. Dibelka says he never received it. He wonders why the police couldn’t have simply called either of the phone numbers the police officer so diligently took down.

(Last week, a few days after the Reader inquired about the case, the police department contacted Dibelka. He's been told that the city’s risk management department will reimburse him for the storage fees and possibly the lien fee.)

Talk to anyone who’s had a car towed, either by order of the police or by a private property owner who wants his parking lot cleared, and you’re likely to hear them say there’s something fishy about the process. "It may be legal, but is it ethical?" asks one man who had recently gone to the city operations center downtown to pay the $40 "negligent-driver fee" the city has been exacting from certain owners of towed vehicles since last July. If your car is towed because it has been parked on the street too long, has expired license plates, is parked along the east end of A Street, downtown, after 4:00 p.m., or any number of other reasons that require police department time, the city charges $40 to recover its own expenses before you can reclaim your car at the tow yard. (This is another crucial bit of information that the tow companies don't often volunteer over the phone. Many people appear at the tow yard to claim their cars only to be told that first they'll have to go downtown and pay the $40 fee, perhaps incurring another day’s storage costs.)

Between July and December of 1990, 10,307 people paid this negligent-driver fee, which amounts to about $412,000 for the city's general fund. One tow industry insider calls this fee "an undeclared tax," since police department expenses are ostensibly paid for by local taxes. Say you neglect to read the signs on A Street that warn against using the parking meters there between 4:00 and 6:00 p.m. Not only are you already paying the meter maid to do her job, you have to pay another $40 because she took five minutes to write a ticket and have you towed. Plus, you have to pay the $17 ticket for illegally parking there in the first place. And if you want to get your car right away, you’ll have to pay towing charges plus the extra $28 gate fee, because five o’clock will have passed. A Street is one of many areas in which the city and the tow companies work to trap the inattentive motorist.

It’s after 9:00 on Tuesday night, January 22, and a group of cabbies sit in their cars on one edge of the shopping center lot across from the Sports Arena. In a few minutes, the "Disney on Ice" show will let out, and the cab drivers are ready to start ferrying people over to the Western Towing storage yard. They swap stories about guys carrying bags of groceries out of Ralphs only to find their cars towed. One driver says, "I want to see this stopped. It may be legal, but it's immoral. Western gets $90 for towing a car the same distance that I get $2.80 for. I don’t even like these people in my cab; they’re so pissed off, it’s unpleasant." The cabbies laugh about the cop who recently wrote jaywalking tickets as people streamed across the street from the arena, trying to stop tow truck drivers from jimmying open their car doors.

At 9:30 the ice show is over, and families begin crossing the street looking for their cars. The tow trucks have arrived simultaneously. One man hustles up to his car just as a driver pops the passenger-side door lock with a slim jim. “Hey, that’s my car!" the young man yells from a distance. Before he can reach it, the driver rushes to lift the front wheels off the ground. This is the oldest trick in the tow truck driver's grimy book; once the wheels are lifted, the car is in their possession, and they can legally charge a $20 “drop fee” to lower the wheels back to the ground. The man arrives and, incredulous, can only repeat, “That’s my car.” The driver doesn’t look at him but calls over his shoulder, “Well, it’ll cost you $100.” Another man arrives, apparently the young man’s father. He has a small child with him. “You haven’t moved it yet!” the older man barks. “Yes, I have,” replies the tow truck driver, coolly. They stand nose to nose. “Have you moved it?” “Yes, I have.” “Have you moved it?” “Yes, I have.”

Finally, the driver says he'll release the car for $20 cash. "You fucking slimeball!” the older man yells, still holding the small child's hand. “You’re gonna put that $20 in your pocket!” The driver denies this, but according to tow industry insiders, the drivers often pocket the drop fee. The two men argue

some more, the $20 is eventually handed over, and a very ugly confrontation ends.

Nearby, James Harrington runs after his car as a tow truck hauls it away. He disappears, chasing it into the night. His wife Marian is left standing beneath a light pole with her two young granddaughters. She doesn’t know what has happened to her husband, and the girls are starting to get restless. “I don’t want to u-p-s-e-t them,” she remarks. “If you see my husband at the office, tell him we’ll wait here.” She pulls her sweater closer around her shoulders and looks around the dark, empty pavement.

At the Western yard, the scene is a little different from what it was two nights before, after the Paul Simon concert. Only a handful of cars have been towed, and their owners all have children with them. Many of the kids carry Mickey Mouse balloons and boxes of candy as they wait outside the mobile home for their fathers to finish arguing with Western’s owner, Steven Hendrickson. James Harrington, who had jumped into the truck that towed his car, has talked Hendrickson into releasing it without charge. “I was standing right there when they towed it,” he explains. “The driver was a real jerk. He wouldn’t listen.” Harrington says he won’t shop at Target or Ralphs again. "What possible harm is there in parking in that lot at night? It was practically empty.”

Inside the office, Robert Insunza is having less luck. Insunza had dropped off his wife and young daughter for the ice show, then went shopping for French doors at Home Depot. He says he did leave the lot for a short time but argues that since he was a customer, his late-model Jeep Cherokee should not have been towed. Eventually, he gets a ride home from a friend who was also towed, and they come back after midnight to retrieve their cars. Insunza vows to continue fighting the tow charges with Mission Management. “If they want, I can raise a big enough stink,” he promises.

A young boy waiting for his father to finish arguing with Hendrickson remarks, "I thought this was a free country. How come parking's not free?” Just then, a cab pulls up and drops off a couple with two small children. As the man bounds into the office, his wife stands outside in the cold. She seems wistful. “This wouldn't happen in my country,” she says. She's from the Netherlands. “Ah, America, America,” she sighs as her two children look up at her. “It's for the rich and the business people.”

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