Philadelphia towing war leads to shootings, fire

City has been trying to rein in turf wars as "wreck-chaser" trucks race to be first to scenes of traffic accidents

Topics: R.I.P., Crime,

A tow truck driver is shot, allegedly by a rival, at an accident scene. Two days later, properties linked to both companies are torched or riddled by gunfire.

A towing turf war has broken out in Philadelphia.

“I’ve never seen problems where it erupted into this kind of violence,” Philadelphia police spokesman Frank Vanore said.

Philadelphia has tried in recent years to rein in pushy tow truck drivers who start aggressively competing for business the second an accident comes across the police radio. “Wreck-chasers” race to accident scenes to sign up drivers with papers that sometimes commit them to expensive repairs, said a city councilman who has pushed legislation to make the towing process more orderly.

“Whoever’s fingerprints are on that car first normally gets the ability to claim the wreck,” said Councilman Frank Rizzo. “And that’s probably what caused this dispute.”

On Monday, a towing company worker in a Cadillac Escalade arrived on the scene of a crash in North Philadelphia. Despite not having a tow truck, he tried to claim a damaged Dodge Neon. That didn’t sit well with the tow truck driver who arrived next. An argument ensued.

The Escalade driver, Jose LaTorre Jr., of J & Sons Autobody then shot the Mystical Towing driver in the thigh, police said.

“LaTorre told him he couldn’t talk to his customer,” Mystical owner John Campbell said of the employee who was shot. “He told him (LaTorre), ‘Well, I don’t see no tow truck there.’”

The worker is out of the hospital, and police on Wednesday issued a warrant for LaTorre. The suspect’s father, Jose LaTorre Sr., did not return several messages left Wednesday at the family business.

At about 1:15 a.m. Wednesday, someone used gasoline to torch 13 vehicles on J & Sons’ lot, police said. Fifteen minutes later, someone fired six shots at Mystical Towing as Campbell and his wife were inside covering the overnight shift. No one was hurt.

“One of the three shots that went into the office hit a wall eight to 10 feet from her,” Campbell said.

Campbell denies any knowledge of the suspected arson at his rival’s lot. He also doesn’t blame J & Sons for the gunfire.

“I honestly believe … that this was another tow company doing it to get both of us to continue going back and forth,” said Campbell, who operates about eight vehicles. “It’s too much of a coincidence (that) both things happened at the same time.”

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Campbell, 35, said he has talked by phone to LaTorre Jr. and encouraged him to surrender so they can put the feud behind them.

“None of this is good for business,” he said.

Rizzo believes there’s an easy fix to the problems: having towing companies take turns picking up crashed vehicles.

The city enacted a system a few years ago that instructs police to rotate towing jobs among a list of companies when disabled drivers have not yet made arrangements. But the tow companies get around the system by monitoring police scanners and beating officers to the scene, Rizzo said.

“Wreck-chasers are scooping most of the jobs off the street,” he said. “I’m tired of people being victimized by these unscrupulous tow-truck operators.”

Towing is a high-volume, low-profit business, and the police rotation system yields only a handful of jobs, Campbell said.

Rotations or low-bid contracts have worked well on expressways and bridges in the Philadelphia-area that are now overseen by state police or other agencies, he said. Rizzo also wants accident calls to be issued over police laptops, not on radio channels accessible to the public.

“Philadelphia is making it sound like rotational towing is like landing on the moon. This is done all over the United States of America,” Rizzo said.

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