Beware of South Beach Tow Companies
Illustration by Peter O'Toole
The man's eyes are wide with fury as he pounds the hood of the Tremont Towing truck that's hauling his gun-metal Lexus from the plaza at 15th Street and Alton Road in South Beach. The truck stops, and driver Robert Ashenoff Jr. slowly climbs out. He dwarfs the angry Lexus owner, a slim man with dreadlocks, by at least six inches and 80 pounds.
"This is a mistake, man," the guy with dreadlocks says.
"I'm a repo man, and I don't make mistakes, man," Ashenoff replies. "You know your car is getting repoed."
Beware of South Beach Tow Companies
Without another word, the Lexus owner plants a foot on the truck's front grill and does a backflip, followed by a couple of cartwheels and another backflip. Ashenoff tries to back away, but the man throws a couple of ninja roundhouse kicks that slam him right in the face. Ashenoff falls to the ground. "Do you feel like a puta?" the dreadlocked man spits.
But he doesn't notice Ashenoff's passenger, a husky woman named Bernice. She sneaks up behind him with a tire iron, then lays him out with a vicious blow to the head. Then she lifts Ashenoff off the ground. "I don't do karate," she huffs. "I do
The confrontation is absurd, hilarious, and totally unbelievable. It's also par for the course for South Beach Tow, a faux reality show that draws thousands of viewers every Wednesday night on truTV. For three seasons, cable audiences have been eating up the badly staged reenactments of day-to-day business at Tremont, one of the two companies that have monopolized towing on South Beach for decades.
But for the thousands of residents and tourists whose rides are actually hooked every month by Tremont and its competitor, Beach Towing, the truth is far worse than Hollywood's scripted version. The fact is, towing on Miami Beach is an unparalleled city-sanctioned racket even in a town of slimy scams. It's a decades-long, politically sanctioned operation to hold people's cars for ransom for hundreds of dollars. In the first six months of 2013, both companies reported $1.2 million in revenues just from cars towed off public property. That's close to 5,000 cars towed between January and June.
New Times has pored through a year's worth of complaints filed with the Miami Beach Parking Department,
Many of the towing tactics are so outrageous, in fact, that the brawls on South Beach Tow pale compared to the real incidents involving irate car owners. They may not use karate, but car owners routinely scale walls, try to run over tow truck drivers, and attack employees to get back their rides, all while eating up valuable police time with hundreds of 911 calls.
Rafael Andrade, a Miami Beach attorney representing Beach and Tremont, says his clients would not comment on specific allegations reported in this story. "The towing companies exercise caution and diligence before a vehicle is removed and spend considerable resources to investigate all claims and allegations against them," Andrade says. "Most are determined to be without support. When a mistake is made, it is corrected."
Andrade adds: "Bottom line, vehicles are towed due to criminal or civil violations of the law, and the towing industry simply provides a necessary, albeit at times unpopular, public service to the city and private businesses within the city."
"Everybody on Miami Beach knows the horror stories," says James Barak, whose minivan was snatched from his own driveway in March. "Beach Towing and Tremont have a monopoly."
Based on our research, New Times has come up with the biggest complaints about Beach Towing and Tremont. Beware — or end up in the tow lot yourself.
Under Florida law, tow companies cannot snatch a car willy-nilly. Instead, whoever owns or rents the property where a vehicle is illegally parked must call to order a tow. Yet Beach and Tremont routinely flaunt this pesky regulation by deploying lot watchers, usually homeless people, to call their dispatchers on easy prey, according to several victims. This notorious practice is so prevalent on Alton Road that businesses have resorted to posting signs warning their customers: "Beware the tow trucks."
Miami Beach lifestyle blogger Rachel Mestre experienced the tactic earlier this year. On January 10, she parked her Ford SUV in front of the 7-Eleven on 14th Street and Alton Road. Mestre went inside the Liquor Store, which is separated from 7-Eleven by a shared wall, then spent five minutes looking over the wine selection before settling on a Pinot Grigio. The 41-year-old writer then paid the cashier, walked out, and looked around in confusion. Her SUV was gone.
The cashier pointed to a lanky man in a white T-shirt and red basketball shorts sprinting across the street. "He loiters in the parking lot, contacting the tow truck drivers to come get their next victim," Mestre claims. "When I called Tremont, a supervisor told me he didn't care if I had receipts from the Liquor Store. I had to pay $211 to get my car back."
Mestre isn't alone. Six months later, Davie-based air conditioner and refrigerator repairman Jay Martin's white work van was towed from the lot at 1504 Alton Road. On June 5, Martin showed up at the Smoothie King there to fix the freezer. A few hours later, Martin told the manager he was going down the street to set up his equipment to fix an AC unit at another business. "When he returned, the van had been taken away by Beach Towing," says Jonathan Kantor, his attorney. "He had to pay $311 to get it back. Jay's got a business to run. He didn't have time to argue or fight with anybody."
Three weeks later, Martin made time to go after Beach Towing in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, claiming the company and the property owner, BB Plaza Ltd., conspired "in a scheme to collect money by towing lawfully parked vehicles."
BB Plaza's attorney, Allan Reiss, told Kantor in an email July 16 that Martin and Smoothie King were to blame. "The premises are clearly marked with multiple signs including those attached stating 'Customer Parking While in Stores
But Kantor and Martin dispute Reiss' assertion. "Beach Towing has an agent beyond the control of BB Plaza who unlawfully called for the tow," Kantor claims. "Jay is really pissed off. He can't take getting screwed over like this."
(Officials for Beach and Tremont
Private Lots Disguised as City Lots
A parking lot on 17th Street and Lenox Avenue looks exactly like scores of other, city-run lots nearby.
Local journalist Kris Conesa (a former New Times staffer) learned that lesson the hard way in late March. Conesa parked his black Mercedes-Benz CLK 350 in Mirmelli's lot on a Saturday during Miami Music Week and, like many
Miami resident Susana Santoro says the same thing happened to her on April 13. "I noticed a huge 'Self Parking — Open to the Public' sign," Santoro groused in a complaint to Miami Beach Mayor Matti Bower. "
She claims other signs Mirmelli has posted warning people they may get towed are written with letters too small to read from a car. "This sign should be in large caps, not the one that says it is open to the public," she says. "The parking
That Lenox lot isn't the only Mirmelli property to generate complaints. A month after Santoro's ordeal, on May 11, Adam Mendizabal parked in a Mirmelli lot at 1689 West Ave. Mendizabal says the machine would allow him to purchase only up to one hour even though he intended to stay longer. "I assumed that the lot did not charge after 10 p.m.," Mendizabal says in a complaint. "I returned at 11:30 p.m. to find my car towed. I went to Tremont and they informed me it would cost $241... which is an insane amount."
He called Mirmelli, whose cell number is listed on the lot's signs, to explain that the meter had malfunctioned. "He said his machine was working fine and that I made a mistake," Mendizabal recalls. "This is most likely by design to catch unsuspecting tourists like
There's good reason to believe that Mirmelli and Tremont may have a mutually beneficial relationship. The lot owner was the company's treasurer from December 8, 2011, to March 8, 2012. That same day, his mother, Dierdre Mirmelli, incorporated Tremont Towing Investment LLC, an entity that has invested in a new tow yard. Dierdre Mirmelli and Tremont are even represented by the same SoBe lawyer, Mark Alhadeff.
But Mirmelli denies that he's profiting from Tremont's tows. "I know a lot of people are pissed off," he told New Times in May. "But I'm not in the business of making a buck from towing cars... People simply don't read the signs I've put up."
He says his mother, a 65-year-old retired schoolteacher, invested only in a development project at 1747 Bay Road that would include a new Tremont lot. "She has no involvement in the day-to-day operations of Tremont," Mirmelli says.
He also refutes the claim that he purposely bought the same meter used by the city so it would confuse parkers, noting that he purchased his in 2011, a year before the Miami Beach Parking Department began using the same machine, and calling it "a terrible coincidence."
Coincidence or not, the city took notice after a slew of irate calls and forced Mirmelli to install new signs at his Lenox lot. "We had a rash of folks coming in [to complain]," Miami Beach Parking Director Saul Frances says. But Frances claims there's not much else he can do. "It's a free-enterprise issue," he says.
Tow Truck Drivers Accused of Stealing Cars
Sometimes, drivers for Beach and Tremont hook cars that are never returned to their owners. Drivers for both companies have been accused of sneaking into condo buildings, trolling for cars with out-of-town owners, and then rolling off with the wheels.
Consider the case of Fu Tian, a Los Angeles businessman who sued Beach Towing in June for allegedly jacking his 2006 Mercedes GL 450 from the Grand Condominium.
Tian says that on September 30, 2011, surveillance video captured a heavyset African-American man behind the wheel of a Tremont truck entering Grand's garage around a quarter to one in the morning. A hefty Hispanic male was in the passenger seat. A few minutes later, the cameras caught the same truck exiting the garage towing a 1998 blue Porsche Carrera 911, according to a City of Miami Police report.
Then, at 1:07 a.m., the Tremont truck returned and took away a 1998 white BMW Z3. An hour later, the truck came back once more, hitching Tian's burgundy Benz. It wasn't until 14 days later that the condominium's security manager realized the truck had removed all three luxury rides without authorization.
Miami detectives confirmed that no one from the condo had called Tremont and that the driver indeed worked for Tremont. A manager told the cops that the driver, whose name is not listed in the documents, had been flagged down by the Hispanic male, who claimed to be a repo man seeking help to "secure the vehicles."
To date, no one has been arrested, and the cars have not been recovered. Tian has sued the Grand Condominium and its valet parking contractor for negligence, as well as Tremont for negligent hiring and retention.
It's not the first time either tow company has been sued over similar allegations.
In 2002, Agustus Sanchez took Tremont to court over claims the company auctioned his Harley-Davidson motorcycle while he was trying to retrieve it. Though Sanchez spoke directly with Tremont's then-owner, Edwin "Tony" Gonzalez, about paying the required impound and storage fees, the bike was sold at public auction December 11, 2001, for about $20,000. Tremont settled with Sanchez in 2005 for $65,000, the Harley's estimated value.
A year later, part-time Miami Beach resident Tal
Tian's lawyer, Andreas Kelly, expects a similar outcome in his case. "A tow truck company that employs dishonest people can do a lot of damage," Kelly says. "I have never seen a tow truck company that does something this blatant."
Through their lobbyist, Andrade, Beach and Tremont officials declined to comment on the lawsuits.
Wasting Miami Beach Police Time
Miami Beach officers must know the Beach and Tremont tow yards like their own
In July, blogger Bill Cooke reported on his Random Pixels site that police fielded 768 calls from Beach and Tremont's tow yards in the previous year. "Many of the calls are for disturbances that cover everything from a customer arguing loudly to a fistfight," Cooke says. "In those cases, police dispatchers are required to dispatch two units for officer safety. Multiply that by 768 times, year in and year out, and you start to see the tremendous drain on resources these two companies create annually."
And who pays for it? "The taxpayer," Cooke notes. "Definitely not the towing companies."
New Times analyzed 81 incident reports filed between June 2012 and June of this year. The documents show that Beach and Tremont call the cops for everything from petty vandalism to people taking off in their cars without paying.
For instance, Tremont rang the boys in blue on June 16, 2012, when a man named Ramzi Zaghloug sneaked through the iron gate into their yard around 5:30 p.m. Tremont employee Victor Juarbe watched the bald, 34-year-old Jordan native get into his red 2012 BMW 328i and drive off the lot. Instantly, Juarbe called the MBPD, reporting Zaghloug owed a $210 tow fee. The cops spotted him entering a condo on Ocean Drive. When an officer approached, Zaghloug said, "They towed my car wrong, and I went and got it back." The cop took him back to Tremont, where Zaghloug was charged with felony theft — of his own car.
Two months later, Beach Towing manager Jorge Rodriguez called
On October 22, Rodriguez again called the cops. This time, he snitched on 24-year-old Sandra
In March and April, Tremont employees twice called
"The victim believes that a black female [Ware]... might have committed the offense," the April 3 incident report states. "She was the last person seen around the damaged Dodge."
As usual, no arrests have been made in that
Staking Out Private Parking Lots
If you're pulling into a South Beach lot and you spot a tow truck idling in a nearby alley or slowly circling the block, beware. Tow companies look for victims who walk across the street or to a business next door. Instead of waiting for their homeless lot watchers to call in a tow, the trucks sometimes poach poorly labeled spots themselves.
During Art Basel week last year, Daniel Baumgard, chief executive of Coral Gables-based Investment Management Associates Inc., bought a few items at the Walgreens on 67th Street and Collins Avenue. He walked across the street to get a cup of coffee.
When he returned to the Walgreens lot half an hour later, his Mercedes-Benz CL550 was gone. Baumgard quickly noticed that Beach Towing had two people in the lot. "One person was in the lot and the other on the corner," Baumgard recalled in a December 10 email to city commissioners. "If someone went across the street, they radioed ahead, and the tow truck came."
Baumgard saw three tow trucks "going 'round and 'round" towing cars from the Walgreens lot. "I personally watched three cars being towed in five minutes," he wrote. "This was a well-greased operation."
Baumgard paid $287. In his email to city leaders, he vowed never to spend another dime in Miami Beach. "You spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to attract people from all over the world... yet you ruin their experience by allowing a bunch of thugs to tow cars on a whim," Baumgard wrote.
City Commissioner Jerry Libbin demanded City Manager Kathy Brooks investigate, writing, "This is outrageous!" Yet the parking department sided with Beach Towing.
A month later, Beach Towing found another mark. Ruben Dario Vazquez navigated his 2008 Scion into the empty lot at 6774 Collins Ave. on a Wednesday night. The 56-year-old AT&T technician was taking his two adult sons for dinner at Norman's Tavern. As he pulled into the lot, Vazquez spotted a Beach Towing truck idling behind a dumpster. He paid it no mind as he parked in front of a vacant pizza joint. "Everything was closed except Norman's," he says.
While they ate, Beach Towing took the Scion. Vazquez later paid $311 to get it back. "I told them, 'You hide behind a dumpster, waiting to stick your hands in people's pockets and steal their
When he learned that the law requires a property owner to call the tow company, he
In court, a Beach manager could not provide the name of the person who called, Vazquez claims. On April 2, the mediator ordered Beach to pay Vazquez $250.
"Everyone in Miami Beach is in on the scam, from the politicians to the bureaucrats to the property owners," Vazquez says. "Everyone makes a bundle off towing."
Taking Advantage of Residents' Mishaps
Miami Beach residents already jump through Cirque du Soleil-worthy hoops to get parking passes and decals to ensure their rides aren't jacked by Beach or Tremont. But the companies still use loopholes to swipe residents' vehicles.
Consider what happened to James Barak when he parked his Ford Windstar in front of his house at 4174 Alton Road, blocking his own driveway in the process. The disabled 43-year-old, who owns a used-car dealership, was unloading groceries from his minivan, which is specially equipped with railings for handicapped access. Barak also had his handicapped placard hanging from the mirror. "I put everything in the house," he recalls. "I come out a couple of minutes later and my Windstar is gone."
Barak immediately knew he had been towed. "They claim they got a call from my neighbor," Barak says of Beach Towing. "Total BS. They pay kids on bicycles 50 bucks to call them when they see a car illegally parked."
When he went to the Miami Beach Police station to complain, an officer informed him he broke the law by blocking his own driveway. "I could have sued them for the tow, but it costs more to get a lawyer," he says.
Instead, Barak paid about $300 to get his minivan back. "I showed them my handicapped placard and told them they should be ashamed of themselves," Barak grouses. "They just laughed and told me that they've heard worse hard-luck stories than mine."
Complaints to the city show several other victims like Barak. On September 27, 2012, Nicolle Ugarriza parked her rental car outside her home, the Helen Mar Condo building. She was driving a rental because her own car was in the shop, using daily placards to park in her space. When she was late putting a new tag up one morning, the rental was towed.
"I have to take time out of my busy day to go buy new tags," she wrote to the city. "Was it not enough to just give me a ticket? Did they really need to tow my rental car?"
A month later, on October 26, Matthew Saini left his car in a residential parking spot close to his apartment near Meridian Avenue and Fourth Street. He rode his motorcycle to his second shift at the Fontainebleau Hotel, where he works as an events manager. When he returned in the early morning, Saini saw that MPBD had set up a DUI checkpoint right in front of his building. When he got closer, he realized his car was missing. "I called 911," he says. "The operator told me that a police officer called Beach Towing."
While he was at work, the city had put up temporary no-parking signs. "I am asking that someone from the city look into this situation and offer an apology," he says. Good luck with that.
This March 16, lawyer Gilbert K. Squires parked at a meter near the Nash Hotel and went to his Bikram yoga class. Three hours later, he returned to find his car towed. Squires claims he spoke to a desk manager at the Nash Hotel who told him a valet company operator had put up a no-parking sign while he was gone and called for a tow. "The sign was not there in the morning when I parked," says Squires, who had to pay $280 in towing fees and a parking ticket. "This kind of improper activity should not be tolerated."
Valuables Missing From Towed Vehicles
Go to either Beach or Tremont's tow yards and you'll see big signs warning that management is not responsible for valuables left inside vehicles. Those signs are there for good reason.
According to Miami Beach Police, there have been 15 reported thefts at the two lots between June 2012 and this June. On September 15, for instance, a Delray Beach resident reported that someone from Tremont stole her wallet from her car. But Miami Beach Police told her that since she didn't witness the theft, there was nothing they could do. "It really sucks," she tells New Times. "On top of paying $311 for towing my car, I had to go get a new license and cancel my credit cards."
Nine days later, 42-year-old Miami resident Alejandro Gonzalez accused Tremont employees of stealing $400 from the glove compartment of his car. Again, no witnesses. No case.
On October 6, 23-year-old Randy Fernandez, following his release from jail on a DUI charge, went to Tremont to pick up his car. He called police after discovering that his car had been ransacked and that someone had stolen his iPad and iPhone. "I'm pretty sure it was someone who works for the tow company," Fernandez tells New Times. "Of course, they denied touching anything."
On February 21, 30-year-old
Beach Towing has faced its own klepto accusations. On March 31, 23-year-old Mario
Through their lobbyist, Andrade, Beach and Tremont officials declined to comment.
Political Connections Grease the Wheels
Talk to anyone who's been whacked by any of these schemes and they'll ask the same question: How the heck do Tremont and Beach Towing get away with it?
The answer is easy: political power. By spending thousands on lobbyists and getting the backing of key city commissioners, the two companies have ensured another long stretch of virtual monopoly.
"There's no doubt they have strong political connections," says City Commissioner Ed Tobin, who last year was on the losing side of a vote that allowed the two companies to increase their towing fees. "They have been doing it that way for years."
To understand the power, you'll need some history. Founded in 1977 and 1984 respectively, Beach Towing and Tremont have been the only tow firms in the city Carl G. Fisher built since
That's translated into a cash cow for Mark Festa, Beach Towing's owner, and Russell Galbut and Keith Menin — owners of the Shelbourne and Mondrian Hotels and dozens of other properties — who bought Tremont in 2011 from Edwin "Tony" Gonzalez.
Although the companies don't provide revenue figures, they each tow roughly 450 cars per week, according to a former high-ranking city official. At $205 ( the Miami Beach resident rate) or $241 (the tourist rate), that means they rake in $92,250 to $108,450 every seven days. That doesn't include the additional mileage and administrative charges tacked on to each bill.
How do they translate that profit into political power?
City law bars Beach and Tremont from raising cash for candidates. But there is nothing stopping them from donating money to candidates outside of Miami Beach. So when Commissioner Jonah Wolfson's wife, Andrea, successfully ran for county circuit judge last year, she received $2,500 in bundled contributions from Beach Towing; Festa, a storage company Festa owns; and two employees. Tremont and 35 companies with the same address as Galbut's company, Crescent Heights, each gave Andrea's campaign $500, for a total of $17,500.
Perhaps not coincidentally, when both companies lobbied hard for a rate increase, their biggest champion on the dais was Jonah Wolfson. During the June 6 commission meeting, then-City Manager Jorge Gonzalez tried to get commissioners to require the tow companies to provide the city with background checks on all employees and to install GPS devices. "Here's your chance to get your accountability measures," Gonzalez said.
Wolfson balked. In fact, one former high-ranking city official who asked not to be named says Gonzalez's opposition to the tow rate hike is the real reason Wolfson started a move to fire him — a movement that ended with Gonzalez's resignation in June.
"Jorge was never in favor of giving them an increase," the source says. "He was standing in the way of Beach and Tremont making an additional million dollars a year."
Six months later, with Gonzalez out of the way, Wolfson again led the charge to raise tow rates. "This is not a tax," Wolfson proclaimed. "This is something people get charged if they leave their car in the wrong place."
Wolfson vehemently denies doing favors for Beach and Tremont even though both firms supported his wife's judicial campaign. "Because we're talking about the tow companies, you want to make it salacious," he says. "My response to asking me if political contributions had something to do with my vote is, 'Go fuck yourself.'"
Of course, Wolfson is just one Miami Beach pol backing Beach and Tremont. Commissioners Deede Weithorn, Jorge Exposito, and Michael Gongora, who is now a candidate for mayor, voted with Wolfson to give the two companies their rate hike at the November 2012 meeting. "People are doing something bad," Gongora said. "This is essentially punishment for people parking in residential zones and parking where they shouldn't park."
The only way to remove the grip Beach and Tremont have on towing in the city is to open up business to firms from across the causeways, Wolfson continues. And that is not ever happening. At least not on his watch.
He says: "If you send people who are here on vacation off the Beach, you end up with a situation where they are traveling to dangerous neighborhoods like Opa-Locka and Liberty City where they'll get their heads shot off."
Gongora is certainly not going to take them on either. He describes Beach and Tremont as "horrible, necessary evils." Phillip Levine, another mayoral candidate, says towing is a "necessary public service in our city."
Even Tobin — who is not up for reelection and voted against the tow rate hike — concedes the city to Beach and Tremont. "I don't know that it would be any better without a monopoly," he says. "I think it would be worse if any tow truck could come in here to pick up cars."
The only candidate taking a stand is entertainer Steve Berke, who lost in his bid to beat incumbent Mayor Matti Herrera Bower two years ago.
Berke says that as mayor, he would instruct the city manager and city attorney to require Beach Towing and Tremont to pay their drivers a flat hourly rate with no incentives for the number of vehicles towed or have the city completely take over towing operations in Miami Beach, which would kill the duopoly.
"These companies are supposed to be performing a public service," Berke says. "It is a shameful, disgusting state of affairs and an embarrassment to our city."
Tow companies' response from Rafael E. Andrade, Esq.
Below is my only "on the record" response to all of the questions presented. It is respectfully requested that my statement be included in its entirety and without any edits. Based
"The towing industry in the City of Miami Beach provides necessary and essential services that promote the health, safety and welfare of the community by removing vehicles that pose a hazard to traffic and pedestrians, vehicles involved in police investigations, and vehicles that illegally park in areas that require residential parking permits. On-street parking in the City is insufficient and residents actually pay a fee for a permit that allows them to park in designated areas. To not enforce illegal parking in these areas would be unfair and adversely affect our residents' quality of life. Similarly, towing is necessary for the orderly operation of private businesses. Those that illegally park and interfere with the use of someone else's property have no right to that space. The towing companies exercise caution and diligence before a vehicle is removed and spend considerable resources to investigate all claims and allegations against them. Most are determined to be without support. When a mistake is made, it is corrected. In November 2012 the City Commission adjusted the towing rates for the first time since 2004 based on CPI. That process was thoroughly debated at countless public meetings and was completely transparent. Bottom line, vehicles are towed due to criminal or civil violations of the law, and the towing industry simply provides a necessary, albeit at times unpopular, public service to the City and private businesses within the City."