Detroit towing fight ties up crime victims’ cars
More than 1,000 vehicles that were impounded by police as evidence in homicides, carjackings and other crimes have been sitting in a southwest Detroit lot for months — some for years — racking up huge storage fees as city attorneys wrangle with the site’s owner over what to do about them.
City attorneys have claimed in court filings that Detroit companies Gene’s Towing and The Realty Company are “holding (the) evidence vehicles hostage.” Lawyers for the two firms responded in court that the city – which until last year leased the lot to store the impounds – saddled the property owner with the vehicles without having records for many of them.
Prosecutors and city attorneys insist criminal cases have not been jeopardized because of the dormant evidence vehicles. But while the cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs sit unattended in the Dix Avenue lot — some since 2012 — crime victims’ suffering has been exacerbated.
“I went months without a ride,” said Natalya Wallace of Detroit, a 28-year-old mother of three whose 2016 Ford Escape was impounded in August after her fiance, Kelvin Martin, was shot in the back of the head while sitting in the SUV, in what police said was a case of mistaken identity.
“I was pregnant, and when Kelvin was shot, the bullet went in his head and came out through his right jaw, and his mouth was wired shut,” Wallace said. “Neither one of us could make it to the doctor’s because they took our car, and we didn’t have enough money for bus fare because we couldn’t get to work without a ride.”
Although Wallace got her SUV back in November as part of a settlement between the city and lot owner to release up to 25 of the impounded vehicles to their owners, hundreds more remain in limbo.
The dispute over the impounded vehicles is one of several tentacles in the ongoing battle between the city and towing titan Gasper Fiore. The city insists Fiore, who pleaded guilty last year to federal bribery charges, owns the land where the vehicles are stored, although the property is registered to The Realty Company, whose listed agent is Fiore’s ex-wife Joan Fiore. The couple divorced in 2013.
From 2001 until last year, Gene’s Towing oversaw impounded evidence vehicles brought to the lot, where police evidence technicians would process them.
City officials allege Gasper Fiore also owns Gene’s Towing, although Paul Ott is listed as the owner. Ott swore in an affidavit last year that Fiore has never had an interest in the company.
Attorneys for Gene’s and the city declined to comment about the ongoing dispute, although each side has charged in court filings that the other is responsible for the vehicles.
The lot is next to Gene’s headquarters at 7770 Dix.
Since October, the city has been battling Gene’s and The Realty Company in court over what to do with the vehicles. City attorneys in October filed a lawsuit in Wayne County Circuit Court on behalf of “Jane Doe” to “obtain relief for crime victims who are being taken advantage of by Defendants’ unscrupulous conduct,” the suit said.
“There are hundreds of owners of vehicles, who are victims of violent crimes, including murder, who, through no fault of their own, have had their vehicles used by the Detroit Police Department as evidence and as part of a police investigation,” city attorneys wrote in the suit. “These people are being victimized again by Gene’s Towing, which is holding their evidence vehicles hostage until they pay a ransom or shake-down price for the return of their vehicles.”
Gene’s attorney Lionel Bashore countered in a November response to the city’s lawsuit: “The Detroit Police Department chose to leave over 1,000 evidence vehicles on land surrounding 7800 Dix without any police presence or supervision and without any directions as to how it wished to dispose of said vehicles ... the evidentiary value of these unsupervised vehicles is certainly called into question.”
Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Maria Miller said she’s not aware of any evidence problems that have arisen because of the issues with the impounded vehicles. Detroit Deputy Corporation Counsel Charles Raimi also told The Detroit News in a statement that keeping the vehicles in the lot has not jeopardized any criminal cases.
After Gasper Fiore was indicted in May 2017 in a Macomb County bribery scheme, Detroit officials suspended his companies from doing business with the city. The city also terminated Gene’s vendor supplier account, preventing the firm from getting paid for services already rendered, Gene’s attorneys said in a court filing.
Gene’s officials have complained they’re being unfairly punished because of the city’s dispute with Gasper Fiore, who they insist is not affiliated with the company.
The city inspector general last month wrote a letter to Mayor Mike Duggan alleging Gasper Fiore is the silent owner of Gene’s and other towing firms. Acting on the inspector general’s recommendation, the city barred three companies, including Gene’s, from the police towing rotation, and banned three other firms from bidding on future contracts.
Bashore wrote in the November court filing that the police department in July prevented Gene’s from doing business with Detroit, leaving the company holding the bag for $33,960 it paid to other towers who had transported vehicles to the lot next door. Gene’s charged a $35 administrative fee for each vehicle brought to the lot by other police-authorized towers.
Bashore also said the city owes an unspecified amount for unpaid bills and lease payments. The police department for 17 years had leased a building on the property that housed evidence technicians, the Headquarters Surveillance Unit, Carjacking Unit, and Commercial Auto Theft Unit. The Realty Co. in September evicted the city for not paying the lease or utility bills for nine months.
One point of contention in the current court battle is how much the city should pay to get the evidence vehicles back and either return them to their owners, auction them off or scrap them.
City officials said in court filings they’ve had an arrangement with Gene’s for years regarding storage fees for vehicles impounded as evidence: Gene’s charged the city a flat $160 fee, instead of the $15 per day it usually charges to store vehicles impounded for non-evidentiary reasons, such as parking, drug or prostitution violations.
“If the victims are charged for the use of their vehicles as evidence in criminal investigations and trials, victims will be less likely to cooperate with police, and then crime will increase in the City of Detroit,” city attorneys wrote.
Detroit Police Lt. Michael Parish, who oversees the city’s towing operations, told The News last year that Gene’s Towing in September suddenly stopped honoring the arrangement, under which storage fees were waived for crime victims.
“We heard from citizens who said Gene’s was no longer honoring the fee waivers,” he said. “Some victims were saying they owed more than $2,000. This was a problem.”
Gene’s attorneys insisted in court filings there never was any such written agreement, and that through the years the company has charged some owners of evidence vehicles the $15 per day rate.
Depending how the case is settled, Detroit taxpayers could either be on the hook for about $160,000 if the flat fee is paid, or, if the city is billed for the daily storage rates, more than $3 million.
In November, the city and Gene’s entered an agreement for the company to release up to 25 evidence vehicles to crime victims who were most affected by not having transportation. The city put $20,000 in escrow, “to be released only upon order of the Court or stipulation of the parties,” the agreement said.
According to Gene’s attorneys, police officials told the company in 2013 they’d lost track of the impounded vehicles.
“The Detroit Police Department determined that its interior controls were lacking regarding the evidence vehicles, as some of the vehicles in question had remained on hold for over two years, greatly diminishing the value of the vehicles to the last known owner,” Bashore wrote.
“In response, representatives of the Detroit Police Department ensured Gene’s Towing that it would implement a system, to ensure that evidentiary vehicles, once processed, would be disposed of in a timely manner,” Bashore wrote. “Unfortunately, this did not occur.”
One of the vehicles still on the lot, a 1998 Volkswagen Jetta, has a license plate registered to Lansing resident Joseph Warren, who said he sold the car for $900 in April 2015.
“I made the guy sign a waiver because the car wasn’t in good shape, although it still ran,” he said. “I have no idea how it ended up in the police impound lot, unless the guy never changed the plates after he bought it.”
After The News informed Warren a car with a plate registered to him was parked in the police impound lot, he said he called the police department for answers.
“They told me they didn’t have any record of the car,” he said. “So I don’t know what’s going on.”
Gene’s Towing and the adjacent evidence lot and garage on Dix Avenue in southwest Detroit have long been controversial.
In 2002 and 2005 reports, former city auditor Joe Harris found the city never entered into a written management agreement with Gene’s Towing for the evidence lot and other property.
Harris also found former Detroit police Deputy Chief John Clark, who worked for Gasper Fiore after he retired, agreed to lease the property in 2001 for 10 years at $4 million. The lease overstated the lot’s size by almost 9,000 square feet, costing taxpayers an extra $65,000 per year than if the actual footage was used, the audits found.
After the lease expired in 2011, the city renegotiated the lease for $10,000 a month plus utilities.