Arrest warrants have been issued for the owners of several wrecker companies in Mobile in what are likely the latest criminal charges brought as part of the Mobile Police Department’s controversial probe of the local towing industry and its own employees.
According to the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office, a total of 24 warrants have been signed against the owners of four local towing companies: Chad Fountain of A+ Towing, Danny Williams of Southport Towning, Wilbert Casher of Chaser’s Wrecker Service and Alan Luther of Hero’s Towing and Recovery.
All of the warrants are for insurance fraud, though the severity of each varies.
The warrants were signed late last week, and along with other active warrants, are listed on the MCSO website. However, records kept by Mobile County Metro Jail indicated none of the four targets of these warrants had turned themselves in as of 4:30 p.m. Tuesday afternoon.
The information currently available does not say which agency issued the warrants, though it is no secret the Mobile Police Department has been conducting a lengthy investigation into the practices of local towing companies and has brought similar charges against another company last year.
Issues started when MPD began reviewing a city ordinance that sets the rules towing companies have to follow when they respond to calls at MPD’s behest. On private calls, the companies can charge what they want, but when called to a wreck by MPD, they have to abide by prices set in the city ordinance.
In the summer of 2019, MPD suspended five companies — including some that appear to be the subject of criminal investigations now — for charging motorists more than what is allowed in the ordinance or adding charges for services like wenching, which the ordinance does not allow motorists to be billed for.
Lagniappe has also reported on the criminal case brought against SOS Towing owner Gary Smith Jr. and his father last fall for similar allegations of “insurance fraud.” Their arrest led to all of the trucks SOS owns being seized by MPD, which nearly forced the family-owned businesses to close its doors. Eventually, a judge ordered the trucks returned while the criminal case is pending.
The case against the Smiths is also rooted in the same towing ordinance — one that city officials have acknowledged is “ancient” and “confusing” and is currently in the process of being rewritten by MPD officials and the Mobile City Council’s subcommittee on public safety.
According to prosecutors, the Smiths are accused of violating state insurance fraud laws because they charged motorists for services in violation of a city ordinance that were ultimately paid for through a third-party insurance company. Previous court testimony has indicated that the insurance companies did not report nor suspect fraud and that the charge of insurance fraud originated with MPD’s investigation.
Two local judges have questioned the strength of the case and the primary prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Clay Rossi, has previously said he’s unaware of any case being brought in Alabama’s state court system over alleged violations of a municipal ordinance that has built-in penalties for those violations.
No details are available about that basis of the warrants against Fountain, Williams, Casher and Luther might be, though the insurance fraud allegations suggest they may face a case similar to the Smiths’.
As has been reported, though, the MPD itself had trouble adhering to the ordinance as it’s currently written. Last year, the department announced an extensive internal investigation into its impound unit after it was discovered employees had been failing to follow price restrictions set in a city ordinance that governs vehicles that are towed by or on behalf of MPD.
At the time, MPD Chief Lawrence Battiste confirmed the impound had been overcharging motorists for years and was in the process of reimbursing thousands of dollars. A request for an updated total of those reimbursements is pending, but it was projected to exceed $60,000 in 2019.
In the months since, MPD’s internal investigation has led to multiple leadership changes, resignations, retirements and terminations within its impound unit, which is the only standalone impound unit operated by any municipal police force in the state of Alabama.
Last week, two former MPD impound employees — Sgt. Mark Hearn and Officer Alex Westry — were arrested on charges of theft and using their positions for personal gain. Westry was terminated earlier this month while Hearn resigned in the middle of an internal investigation in February.
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