Disturbing allegations being directed at local towing business

CLEVELAND – After talking to upset citizens, The Investigator, Tom Meyer, decided to investigate disturbing allegations made against the towing business in Greater Cleveland.

The State Highway Patrol and Action News are investigating cracks in a system that allows tow companies to jack up your car, tow it and never return it to its rightful owner.

What happened to Dan Chaplin could easily happen to you.

"This was not an innocent mistake," Chaplin said.

Chaplin's Ford pickup truck was parked illegally in a lot next to a local Hollywood Video. K & M Towing towed it away, and by law, they should have reported it to police right away. That didn't happen, Chaplin said.

"It was hardly honest," Chaplin said. "They held the car four days before they reported it to Cleveland Police."

Then, when Chaplin's daughter called about the truck, K & M told her that they didn't have it when, in fact, they did.

"I learned from the insurance company that K & M Towing had the car all the time," Chaplin said.

Incredibly, he didn't know that information until six months after his truck was towed. He said he believes that K & M tried to keep his car. The company had filed what's called an Unclaimed Motor Vehicle Affidavit with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to seemingly try to obtain the title to Chaplin's truck.

The Investigator went to K & M to find out why the affidavit said that the company towed the vehicle nearly two weeks before it actually did.

"I don't know how that happened," Robert Madden, owner of K & M Towing, said. "I did not fill that out."

"I think these guys are in the business of spreading out planks in the floor to let things slip through the cracks," Chaplin said.

K & M denied any wrongdoing, saying that there was nothing to gain by holding onto Chaplin's truck.

"I don't play any games with anyone," Madden said.

Dave Kniola, of the Cuyahoga County Title Bureau, told The Investigator that unclaimed affidavits could only be filed for cars that have a value of $2,500 or less.

Chaplin said that his truck was worth much more than $2,500. K & M, however, used some fuzzy math to get the on-paper value below that figure. They charged nearly $2,000 in towing and storage fees and claimed that the vehicle needed $4,800 in repairs.

"That's absolutely false," Chaplin said.

So, why was K & M's repair estimate so high? The owner wasn't sure, but said that the estimate is based on their inspection.

"We take a physical look at it because people want to blame us for the damages," Madden said.

Action News discovered that the state never checks to see if towed vehicles need repairs. The state of Ohio simply takes the word of the towing company.

Even a spokesman from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles said that there should be some spot-checking on towed vehicles.

Thousands of unclaimed affidavits are filed every year in Cuyahoga County, most by a second company called G&M Towing.

G&M employee Gloria Carroll has been driving a Honda Accord that her employer obtained through the use of an unclaimed affidavit. She notarized the affidavit for G&M using the name "G. Beth Dengg". They listed the cost of repairs at $14,000 and the car's value at minus-$ 57.

An automotive professional who saw the vehicle shortly after G&M towed it called the numbers ridiculous.

"It was in very good shape," the auto pro said. "It was a nice, nice car."

Carroll declined to comment only to tell an Action News crew to leave when they went seeking comment from her to explain the situation.

The Investigator went to see former G&M manager Kevin Sullivan, who signed the unclaimed affidavit, but he didn't want to talk either.

Sullivan, a convicted felon, now tows cars for another company. Action News found out that he's not the only convict in the business either. The city of Cleveland issued 81 tow licenses in 2002, and of those, 34 individuals or 42 percent are criminals convicted of rape, assault, theft and other serious crimes.