Tal Priel had wanted to own a classic American automobile since he was a teenager. In June 1999, the then-44-year-old New Yorker fulfilled his dream by traveling to Lexington, Kentucky, and purchasing a 1975 gold two-door Buick LeSabre custom convertible for $3000 from its original owner. He spent another $5000 adding improvements such as a $1000 computerized ignition and a new front end. "It took me years to find that car," Priel says. "It was love at first sight."
In early 2001, Priel moved part-time to Miami Beach and transported his classic ride here. When he returned to New York that spring and summer, he paid to have the LeSabre stored in a private parking garage in South Beach. Three years later, on March 1, 2004, Priel says he began paying Standard Parking Systems $100 per month to house the car at 555 Washington Ave.
That was the last time Priel saw his motorized baby.
Twenty-nine days later, unbeknownst to Priel, Beach Towing Service hauled his LeSabre from its designated parking space. Assuming his car was where he had left it, he says he continued to pay Standard the monthly fee. When he returned to South Beach seven months later, Priel learned Beach Towing had sold the car to employee Alberto Castellanos for $1,481.72.
"I was devastated," Priel recalls.
This past August, Priel sued Beach Towing and Standard Parking in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, claiming the parking garage operator allowed the tow company to commit civil theft of his Buick. He is seeking $36,450 in damages.
Beach Towing and Standard Parking denied Priel's allegations in court. Beach Towing's owner Mark Festa did not return phone calls seeking comment. Festa's lawyer and former Miami Beach Mayor Harold Rosen declined to comment in detail, as did Standard Parking's Miami Beach manager Frank Pintado. "But as far as I am concerned," Pintado says, "we were dealing with an abandoned car."
Priel's experience may sound familiar to others who have crossed paths with Beach Towing. The drill goes like this: Your car is missing. You see the Beach sign on a wall or metal pole in the lot. You call the phone number, and if your car is at the company's storage lot at 1349 Dade Blvd., you find out how much it will cost to retrieve it likely at least $95 plus a $25 daily storage fee.
All of this is done with the blessing of the City of Miami Beach, which collects $25 for each car the company tows from public property. Under city code, Beach Towing and its friendly competitor, Tremont Towing, are the only two firms allowed to impound illegally parked vehicles on Miami Beach. In 2003 and 2004, the city collected $367,000 from its towing contract with Beach and Tremont. The city commission recently renewed its deal with the two firms for three years.
Although Beach and Tremont are separate companies, their owners have close business ties. Beach top man Festa and Tremont proprietor Edwin "Junior" Gonzalez are partners in six active Florida corporations, all based in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and all represented by Rosen's law firm. Festa and Gonzalez also both use the services of Hollywood-based Rainbow Title & Lien to sell unclaimed vehicles left in their tow yards.
The hassle of being towed by either Beach or Tremont has sometimes led to shouting matches and even violence between irate customers and tow company employees over the years. In 2004 the Miami Beach Police Department fielded 958 calls for assistance at the lots belonging to the two towing enterprises.
Beach Towing has also been the target of litigation. Last May, 43-year-old Nasseer Idrissi won $975,000 in a civil court verdict against the company. A jury believed Idrissi's story that on February 21, 2003, three Beach employees beat him up when he was attempting to retrieve his car from the company's lot. On August 2, 2005, Beach paid U-Haul Co. of Fort Lauderdale a $1339 settlement for improperly impounding a van. And Beach shelled out $1300 to Elliot Silver after the British man said his Mercedes Benz was damaged while it was being towed.
Moreover Priel is not the first person to claim that a tow company has wrongly sold a vehicle. In 2002 Agustus Sanchez sued Tremont, claiming the company auctioned his Harley-Davidson motorcycle while he was trying to retrieve it.
Though Sanchez spoke directly with Tremont owner Gonzalez about paying the required impound and storage fees, the bike was sold at a public auction December 11, 2001, for about $20,000. Last year Tremont settled with Sanchez for $65,000, the Harley's estimated value.
Priel claims he didn't learn his LeSabre had been towed and was racking up storage fees until six months after impoundment. "I went to the garage to pick up my car and it wasn't there," Priel recollects. "The parking company told me to call Beach Towing because they would probably know what happened to my car."
Priel went to the Beach lot, where he says he was told the LeSabre had been sold to an employee. "There was nothing left to say," Priel remarks.
Under state law, a tow company can place a lien on a vehicle that has been impounded for more than seven days. The firm must inform the owner by certified mail that the car will be auctioned if it is not claimed within 35 to 50 days. (The period depends on the car's age.)
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According to Priel's attorney David Hagen, Beach Towing sent three certified letters to Priel's New York address, but with the wrong zip code. Priel contends that as a result, he never received the letters. "I believe they did it intentionally," Hagen attests.
Beach Towing attorney Rosen says his client did not receive a response from Priel, so the tow company instructed Rainbow Title & Lien to put the LeSabre up for public auction. No one showed up for the auction, so Beach Towing purchased the Buick and resold it to Alberto Castellanos on May 13, 2004. At the time, Castellanos who declined comment was a truck driver for the towing firm. He has since left the company.
Priel said he asked a Beach employee if Castellanos would sell it back to him. "The guy told me that Castellanos was not interested," Priel says. "And I was just standing there looking at my car."