13 INVESTIGATES: Tow truck troubles - WVTM-TV: News, Weather, and Sports for Birmingham, AL

13 INVESTIGATES: Tow truck troubles

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LINCOLN, AL - Like hundreds of other Alabama drivers, Jane Patterson abandoned her car during last week's snow storm.

After spinning out on Highway 77 in Lincoln, she says she parked her car on the side of the road.

Then she hiked a mile to the nearest hotel with her grandchildren. 

When she returned two days later, her Chrysler convertible was gone.

She quickly found out it had been towed and she would have to pay to get it back.

“I owed $185 essentially to pick up my car.  I wanted to cry.  I didn't know what to do,” Patterson said.

Why was Patterson's car hauled off when she insists it was not parked in the road?

We drove around Lincoln looking for answers.

Our first stop was John's Wrecker Service, the company which towed Patterson's car.

The owner claimed Patterson's car was in the middle of the road, but referred me to City Hall for more details.

So we sat down with Mayor Bud Kitchin.

He argued Patterson's vehicle was on the edge of the road, putting it at risk from being side-swiped by other sliding cars.

“I had another officer look at it to make sure i had a second opinion, backup of that.  They felt it was a public safety issue, so we towed that.  We only towed two vehicles on highway 77 during the entire two day event,” Mayor Kitchin pointed out.

Ultimately the wrecker service discounted Patterson's fee, and she paid $125 to free her convertible.   

Jimmy Cleckler forked over the same amount to get his truck back thirty minutes west in Leeds.

His pickup was one of 37 vehicles the city hauled off.

At Monday's City Council meeting, Cleckler's frustration overflowed.

“Do you know that only answer to that?  The only answer to it is your resignation,” Cleckler shouted at Leeds' mayor.

Leeds Mayor David Miller defended the city's decision to tow cars at the owner's expense.

He pointed out the consequence of leaving vehicles in the middle of the road was unacceptable.

“I don't consider that we made a bad decision to have the cars towed. Ultimately the alternative was to leave hundreds of people stranded in sub-freezing weather, rather to clear the road and take them to shelters,” Mayor Miller responded.

Fortunately for drivers like Cleckler, the city voted to reimburse all 37 of them.

In fact, there are snow-towing tales all over the region.

The State ordered wreckers to tow 238 vehicles off state highways and interstates.

Governor Robert Bentley announced anyone towed under the State's direction would not pay a dime.

Finally, there were the unique towing reports from Hoover and Pelham.

Action Towing and Recovery towed 35 vehicles in both cities without any official authority, a no-no according to Pelham Police.

“If you're the owner and you want it towed, and you get with the towing company and have it towed.  And the second way is if it's ordered by a law enforcement agency.  Towing companies on their own can't get out here and make those decisions and tow vehicles without one of those two authorizations,” Lieutenant Davy Lott explained.

When we asked him if that was against the law, he replied, “It is certainly not the right thing to do.”

So why did they do it?

We reached out to owner Jeff Dean for an explanation and he agreed to talk with us on camera.

We asked him if the company was trying to make money of the winter weather gridlock.

He responded, “It was not a money-making factor.  It was a factor of getting traffic back flowing where people could make it to their families and get out of the roadway so there are not more people out there walking up and down the roads trying to get somewhere warm.”

Dean refunded all 28 motorists he had charged a towing fee, which is a total of $5,250.

Back in Lincoln, Patterson's insurance did reimburse her $50 of her towing bill, but she still feels towing her vehicle was unnecessary.

“I think it was a car that they saw, that since they had to pick up this one anyway that was in the middle of the road, I think it was opportunistic, I'll just say,” Patterson concluded.

Lincoln's mayor said there has been no decision to reimburse the handful of drivers like Jane Patterson, whose abandoned vehicles the City towed.

The total cost of towing the 37 vehicles in Leeds could exceed $6,000.

Leeds Mayor David Miller says the State DOT has agreed to reimburse the City.

We checked with the DOT.

They say an exact reimbursement amount is still being ironed out.
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