A towing company operated by a former Prichard mayoral candidate is accused of holding a Mobile Police officer and his pregnant fiancée against their will in 2015 after the officer’s car was improperly towed and he refused to sign a document releasing the company from any legal liability.
That’s one of the more explosive allegations made against three towing companies in Mobile County that state prosecutors say have violated Alabama’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
In a civil complaint filed in June, the Mobile County District Attorney’s office claims Michael and Heather Sellers, through their businesses Anytime Towing, Anytime Towing and Recovery and Rapid Towing, have been at the center of a “a predatory towing ring” for years.
“At first blush these towing companies might be mistaken for reputable small businesses,” Assistant District Attorney Clay Rossi wrote in the complaint. “However, they are actually a blight on the community and a black eye to other local towing services.”
According to Rossi, the Sellers’ businesses used a number of “unsavory practices” like overcharging customers for storage and towing vehicles from parking lots without cause or permission from the owners. He suggests their conduct became more “brazen” over time.
Of the five victims named in the complaint, MPD Officer Julian Nettles stands out. The experience he and his fiancée had with Anytime Towing has already led to a first-degree theft charge against Michael Sellers — one of two criminal cases his businesses are involved in.
According to the complaint, Nettles was working as a courtesy officer at an apartment in Mobile when Anytime Towing removed his car despite not having a contract with the complex to enforce parking rules and despite it being legally parked at the time.
According to the complaint, Nettles went to retrieve the car the next day but was met with resistance when he refused to sign a document releasing Anytime Towing from any legal liability. He argued Anytime had “illegally taken possession of his vehicle” in the first place because it didn’t have the authority to tow cars from the apartment complex where he was working.
After adding some of his own terms, Nettles signed the document and thought he would be able to leave with his truck. According to the complaint, that proved not to be the case.
“[Nettles] discovered the gate had been locked intentionally to prevent him from leaving,” the complaint reads. “[An employee] approached Nettles and stated that he could not leave their property until Nettles signed a vehicle/property release without attempting any modifications.”
Police were called to the scene, and though Nettles was eventually allowed to get his car back at no charge, it took several days and Sellers was eventually arrested for first-degree theft.
The document that caused those problems is one Rossi said should be familiar to Sellers’ customers.
The complaint suggests “hundreds more customers” were likely made to sign the same agreement and, like Nettles, signed it in the presence of “armed company personnel.”
So far, there has been no response to the civil complaint made against the Sellers’ businesses.
However, the criminal trial against Michael Sellers is scheduled for late September.
It’s not the only criminal charge Sellers has faced locally, though. Logs from Mobile Metro Jail indicate Sellers has previous arrests for assault, forgery, harassment, burglary and credit card fraud dating back to 1995. He also ran an unsuccessful mayoral race in Prichard in 2016.
According to MPD, Anytime Towing was added to its list of rotating wrecker services sometime in 2015, but removed in May 2017. There was no explanation as to why.
Though they aren’t explicitly connected, the civil actions against Sellers and his towing businesses come at a time when police in Mobile have escalated an ongoing criminal investigation into other businesses accused of using some of the same “deceptive practices.”
As Lagniappe reported, MPD investigators recently began an extensive look into a number of local businesses after a proposal to amend the municipal codes the towing companies MPD calls on to clear accident scenes uncovered evidence of potential widespread “price gouging.”
According to Assistant Chief Roy Hodge, that investigation moved to the next level last week as police executed search warrants at 20 locations throughout the city owned by five towing companies that have since been temporarily suspended from MPD’s rotating list of wreckers.
Those five companies included SOS Towing and Recovery, Southport Towing, Cashers Towing, A Plus Towing and Heroes Towing. All five have been temporarily suspended from receiving any on-call work from MPD for 30 days while the investigation continues.
“This first came to light when some information given to us by an individual that was in the towing industry provided documents to us that he believed suggested some towing companies are overcharging,” Hodge said. “We investigated and determined those suspicions were valid.”
That said, Hodge did note that none of the businesses impacted by last week’s raids have been formally charged with any crime. He also noted information seized from those properties could confirm or disprove the MPD’s assertions of overcharging and the use of unnecessary fees.
The mantra of innocent until proven guilty has also been a go-to response from the towing industry locally. While the few businesses targeted by the MPD and the DA’s current legal actions are only a small percentage of those in the area, the South Alabama Towing & Recovery Association (SATRA) has criticized MPD’s public discussion of the case as “careless.”
“We would like to remind all media outlets, as well as the general public, that these baseless accusations have yet to be proven as truth. Likewise, we would also wish to relay, at this time, that the prosecution of such allegations in the media are both careless and unlawful,” SATRA President Crystal M. Smith said. “Additionally, we would urge the citizens of Mobile to take caution in what they believe and wait for evidence to be presented before convicting these companies as those within the [MPD] have been so willing to do.”
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