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Urban Cowboys

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Titans clash and drivers face jail time when towtruck renegades butt heads with local government

MICHAEL GATES STANDS 6-foot-2 and weighs 240 pounds. He could be an intimidating man if he wanted to be. But the former body shop owner and selfdescribed motorhead is too busy working— six 10-hour days a week—to foster an image. Quiet and dutiful, the 47- year-old Gates concentrates on his father’s health and his weekly shotgun trip to Las Vegas with his girlfriend. He has a cherry 1985 Porsche 944 that hauls ass, and he normally makes the run from North County to Vegas at 120 miles per hour. Like most Americans, Gates is irremediably in love with his car.

Americans are so in love with their cars, there are no longer enough parking spots to go around. With illegally parked vehicles, accidents and myriad other cartransport needs, tow-truck drivers are constantly busy. Their days are spent on the move, driving from one pick-up and drop-off to another; a typical shift sees eight to 12 calls. Western Towing, the company Gates drives for (one of scores in San Diego County), has more than 75 wreckers, and its drivers are on the move around the clock.

More than anything, it’s that moneyhungry mindset that trumps ethics and foments the contention and unbridled derision that surround the towing industry—and year after year sends its employees to the top of the list of people we love to hate.

Late on the sunny afternoon of April 5, bouncing down the I-5 freeway in a giant International flatbed, Gates breaks the monotony of the wind/engine-drone roar and waxes philosophical.

“Craziest thing I ever saw,” he says. “One night a few years back, here on the I-5, a Mustang came bouncing along the center wall and ran perfectly up the rear end of a Ford Ranchero, straight up inside it. When I got there, I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I looked in and thought it was a Ranchero but there was two engine blocks. The driver of the Mustang climbed out the windows and was just standing there like nothing happened— probably drunk.

“The engine was on fire, and I didn’t know if anybody was in the Ranchero.

There was no space in there for a person, zero; it was just humanly impossible— but I wasn’t sure. If there was, and I used that CO2 extinguisher, it woulda suffocated ’em. I figured it was either that or let ’em burn to death—woulda been like a crematorium. So I used the extinguisher. But it didn’t put the fire out. I left when the firefighters got on scene and never did find out if there was anybody in there.”

Gates goes quiet, allowing the gruesome image to marinate in all of its unsavory implications. It’s my fourth day posing as a trainee—an aspiring driver— at Western Towing, to get an inside look at a company that’s logged 13 times the median number of complaints with the Better Business Bureau, and this kind of heavy action isn’t part of the scenario I’d envisioned. A few moments later, after a pedagogical pause, Gates delivers the moral of the saga.

“The thing to remember,” he says above the din, “is that woulda been a good way to get paid double for a single tow.”

The kicker is that Gates was serious —the lesson of his tale was double pay. And the story is illustrative for two reasons: It touches on a similarity between tow-truck drivers and policemen—two professions you hate to see when you don’t need them but thank the heavens for when you do—and it underscores the opportunistic, almost predatory na- ture of an industry that changes out hard labor for quick-and-dirty, high-priced jobs. Gates, as is the case with many tow-truck drivers, works on straight commission. The more jobs he can get to and the more lucrative they are, the more he’s going to bring home at the end of the day.

And more than anything, it’s that money-hungry mindset that trumps ethics and foments the contention and unbridled derision that surround the towing industry—and year after year sends its employees to the top of the list of people we love to hate. But a recent string of towing-related felony indictments by the San Diego district attorney’s office is a sign that something more than simple greed is afoot. Rarely are an industry’s front-line workers threatened with the years of jail time that nine San Diego tow-truck drivers are facing (in what Deputy District Attorney Tricia Pummill says is merely the first round of cases that will be filed).

Even narrowing down the number of tow-truck companies in San Diego is a frustrating task. The Department of Motor Vehicles in Sacramento believes the California Highway Patrol is in charge of licensing. The CHP, meanwhile, insists it only does background checks on potential towing company owners. It directs curious parties back to the Motor Carrier Permit section of the DMV, which has information on all towing companies in the state—but no comprehensive list.

John Tillison, the owner of San Diego’s now-defunct West Coast Towing, claims there are more than 450 towing companies in the county (many of them mom-and-pop, one-truck operations). The Better Business Bureau lists only the companies with complaints against them, and its tally is 66. Of those companies, 56 have five complaints or fewer; Western Towing has logged 55.

All of which begged the question: Why has a seemingly innocuous and apparently unregulated industry suddenly become such a fat target for local law enforcement? And how did Western Tow- ing avoid catching a single indictment with such an egregious track record?

 

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