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St. Louis city leaders investigate tow lot after series of I-Team reports

From missing cars to missing money, the I-Team has been uncovering serious issues at the city tow lot for months. Now a group of Aldermen is taking notice

ST. LOUIS —
St. Louis city leaders are taking action after an ongoing investigation by the Five On Your Side I-Team.

For months the I-Team has been uncovering inconsistent and unfair practices at the city tow lot.

"After seeing your story, it's an even bigger mess than we thought," said Joe Vaccaro, Ward 23 Alderman. Vaccaro is one of several aldermen on the Streets, Traffic & Refuse Committee, which has taken on the task of investigating operations at the tow lot.

"I think it's kind of been a failure on the part of the Board of Aldermen all these years that we haven't put in more strict procedures," said Alderwoman Sharon Tyus of Ward One.

Long list of problems at city tow lot

The I-Team found several instances where victims of crime were charged hundreds of dollars to retrieve their vehicles. According to city ordinance, they should be able to get their vehicles back without charge under certain conditions.

"I feel like they could have helped, especially knowing that I didn't have the title," said Jasmine Hollins, who says her title and registration were in her car when it was stolen in January. Despite providing proof of ownership and getting the dealership who sold her the car to advocate on her behalf, Hollins said tow lot staff scheduled her car to be auctioned off.

"I was at the point of giving up. I didn't think I was able to get my car back. I felt like the city made it impossible," said Hollins. "I had to pay $950 to get my car back."

We also found several instances where vehicles were auctioned off after tow lot employees failed to notify the correct owners.

"I'm a single mom of three boys, and that was the only vehicle I had," said Louise Schneider, who had her 2008 Pontiac auctioned off after she reported it stolen in 2019.

Tow lot employees notified a previous owner that the vehicle was slated for auction if it wasn't picked up in 30 days. Schneider says by the time she found out her car was at city tow, she owed hundreds of dollars in storage fees she could not afford.

"I had the original title signed over to us by the used car lot," said Larry Lacavich, who had his stolen Ford F-250 auctioned off at the tow lot after he couldn't produce his registration. " I just kept putting it off."

City "stealing" cars

"It seems to me we're stealing a lot of cars. And I use the word stealing because if we're not giving people every possible chance to get their car back, we're stealing that car," said Alderman Vaccaro.

Many of these issues appear to stem from the fact that the tow lot does not have a policy book. At least not a conventional one.

"There is not an official manual. We do have about 40 signs up on the wall with our rules on them," Kent Flake, Commissioner of Streets, told us in February.

"That's one of the things I'm very concerned about. That worried me. After the first or second investigation, you should have a procedure," said Alderwoman Tyus.

A department familiar with controversy 

In February, the I-Team confirmed the circuit attorney's office has an active criminal investigation into the tow lot.

In 2008, St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa resigned after investigators found his daughter and other police officers were driving impounded vehicles.

In civil court, a former tow lot employee turned whistleblower is suing the city.
Former dispatcher Angelica Woods claims tow lot employees kept vehicles from public auction and doctored the paperwork to remove crucial information- like the buyer's identity.

"One of the tow truck drivers came up and said, if it's a car out there, you like to have your family member to come up, we'll give it to you at a cheaper price," said Woods.

All of these issues came up in a recent audit done by the city comptroller's office.

"We want the citizens of St. Louis to have a fair way to retrieve their cars," said Alderwoman Tyus.

Plans for the tow lot

The Aldermen are planning a tour of the tow lot. The I-Team has requested to attend.

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