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'People pretty much made up rules as they went': St. Louis city tow lot employee files whistleblower lawsuit

The lawsuit comes after an extensive I-Team investigation into claims tow lot employees kept vehicles from auction and sold vehicles to friends or family

ST. LOUIS — Missing cars and forged documents. Those are just some of the claims in a recently filed whistleblower lawsuit against the St. Louis city tow lot.

The lawsuit comes after an extensive I-Team investigation into claims tow lot employees kept vehicles from auction, sold vehicles to friends or family and doctored the paperwork to hide their tracks.

Angelica Woods worked as a dispatcher for the St. Louis city tow lot for nearly a year. Woods spoke with the I-Team in January about issues at the tow lot but initially asked us to conceal her identity. She was afraid of losing her job. The day after our first report aired in February, Woods was terminated. 

"What I've been through, I didn't deserve to lose my job," said Woods. "People pretty much made up rules as they went."

Woods says she witnessed serious issues at the tow lot, including employees setting aside cars for friends and family and pocketing the money.

"[Employees] know how to go in there and change the numbers and the name," said Woods. "If the driver knows that [the vehicle] has keys to it and it's not in bad condition or anything like that, they give it to the highest bidder. 

"I just tried to do the right thing. When I observe the wrongdoing going on, I reported it."

"This is a woman who had worked for the city for 23 years. She has three kids," said Lynette Petruska, an attorney representing Woods. "Two of them are special needs kids. This is not somebody you should be firing."

Petruska said the tow lot has been shrouded in public scandal on and off for at least a decade.

"[Woods] is not the first person who's brought us allegations. All issues of fraud, waste and abuse. It is my understanding that there is an ongoing criminal investigation as well," said Petruska.

A recent audit by the city comptroller appears to confirm many of Woods' claims.

It found that vehicles missing from auction and vehicles slated to be crushed were leaving the lot without the city seeing a dime.

"All the cars go through the process. They're not vanishing. They're not going to friends. There's a trail where they all go," said Todd Waelterman, former director of operations for the city. Waelterman told us in March that he felt the audit was one-sided.

"[Auditors] spent 13 weeks gathering this and putting together their original audit and they spent less than a couple days reviewing the management responses and posting it. I don't think they care to get any answers," said Waelterman.

Woods is seeking lost wages and attorney's fees.

She wants to get back to work and wouldn't mind working in a different city department.

"I lost my insurance, my retirement," said Woods. "I don't deserve to go through what I'm going through now. This is the hardship not only on me, but my children as well."

"What the city is really doing here is they're sending a message loud and clear. We've got this whistleblower protection on paper, but don't do the right thing and don't blow the whistle because if you blow the whistle, you're going to pay, not the people that are doing wrong," Petruska said.

The I-Team reached out to Mayor Tishaura Jones' office. The city does not comment on pending litigation.

The I-Team is hoping to sit down with Jones and discuss the ongoing investigation into the city tow lot.

If you've had a questionable experience with the St. Louis city tow lot, email investigative reporter PJ Randhawa at PRandhawa@ksdk.com.

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