Senior marine affairs student Charlie Brooks was enjoying a cup of tea at Bagelz in the Kingston Emporium last month, joking about the seemingly rampant towing there when he noticed through the window a tow truck about to hook his car. Approximately 15 minutes earlier, his girlfriend Jillon McGreal had driven his car up to the Emporium for lunch at Simply Thai, then to meet Brooks. Neither had left the small plaza, but in just minutes his vehicle had been targeted.
Brooks immediately ran outside to confront the Mesa Tow Truck Company driver who, according to him, turned out to be a really nice guy and was able to release his car, but other patrons of the Emporium havent been as lucky.
Andrea Paiva, an assistant research professor at the University of Rhode Island’s Cancer Prevention Research Center also regularly eats lunch at the Emporium. On Feb. 10, she parked along the wall between Bagelz and the Citizens Bank ATM nearby and walked in for lunch. When she came out less than 20 minutes later, she thought her car had been stolen.
“I appreciate why they tow people from there,” she said. “Those are businesses and you don’t want [the spaces] taken up all the time.” But Paiva couldn’t imagine why she would have been towed while inside one of those businesses.
Paiva was given the phone number of J&D’s West Kingston Service, who handles all the towing at the Emporium and spoke to the company’s owner, Jon LaChappelle who told her that the person who had reported her car saw her walk in the opposite direction toward campus, adding a matching description of her clothing. According to Paiva, neither her alibi nor corroboration from employees at Bagelz who saw her had any effect on LaChappelle’s judgement, and Paiva left with her car but $117 poorer.
The “spotter” that Paiva talked to, who LaChappelle takes calls from, often patrols the Emporium in search of vehicles that have been left by students, faculty, staff or visitors that leave the Emporium and head to campus, violating the signs posted around the parking lots. The warnings explicitly state that the parking is for Emporium customers only and that leaving the Emporium at any time voids a person’s “customer status.”
LaChappelle stressed that anyone leaving the property at any time is liable to be towed. “I don’t make the rules,” he said.
But whether intentional or not, customers like Brooks and Paiva who remain in the Emporium are often targeted for towing within minutes of stepping out of their car and entering one of the businesses, and any kind of proof that they remained in the Emporium often goes unconsidered.
For example, Emily Phelps, a sophomore English student and employee of Bagelz, recently finished an eight hour shift only to find her car had been towed. When she brought a letter from her boss and a timecard showing when she had worked to J&D’s office, Phelps said she was called a liar by LaChappelle, that Bagelz vouches for anyone and that her timecard was forged. “It’s an ongoing problem,” Phelps said, adding that customers or employees have been towed “a couple times a week,” recently. “I think they’re bullies … they don’t care whether they’re right or wrong in most of these cases.”
Rhode Island and many other states outlaw a practice called “patrol towing,” which refers to towing companies placing spotters on someone else’s property – usually through some agreement with the owner – and being given carte blanche to tow anyone they deem to be trespassing. According to Rhode Island state law, “A certificated tower shall remove vehicles from private property at the direction of the owner or person in control thereof only upon receiving the direction in writing” – a document specifying exactly which car.
After talking to LaChappelle, in an effort to dispute the spotter’s claims, Paiva called Marley Properties, who owns the Emporium. The representative she reached, who she said referred to the complainant as a spotter, explicitly stated, according to Paiva, that the spotter works for J&D’s Towing and that J&D’s are the only ones she could take up her concerns with, before angrily hanging up.
According to LaChappelle, the spotter, who he preferred to refer to as a “monitor,” is an employee of New England Security and Detective Agency – a firm contracted by Marley Properties to oversee vehicles parked on their property, and a business also owned by Jon LaChappelle. “[NESDA], me, J&D’s – it’s all the same,” LaChappelle said.
The Cigar obtained a copy of the contract between Marley and J&D’s giving J&D’s “permission and authority … to remove vehicles, as needed, that are parked illegally” in the Emporium.
“People can own two different businesses and they can do business with each other,” LaChappelle said, adding insistently that his lawyers have assured him of the legality of his operation. “I’ve been in business for 42 years. If I wasn’t doing something right, I wouldn’t be here.”
“The monitor goes by the rules that Marley sets up, not I,” LaChappelle said in response to the possibility of a conflict of interest related to his businesses both determining which cars are towed and profiting off them.
LaChappelle contests claims like Paiva and Phelps’s with the spotter’s statements. If it truly comes down to “[the spotter’s] word against mine,” as Paiva said, LaChappelle said he directs people to “dispute it and take it to small claims court.” However, he stressed that the vast majority of tows he sees end fairly and amicably with the vehicle owner seeing their wrong.
Marley Properties’ owner Brett Marley could not be reached for comment during the course of the Cigar’s investigation.
A spokesman for the Rhode Island Division of Public Utilities and Carriers, a division of the state’s government responsible for towing operators – said that there are approximately 12 complaints that have been lodged with them specifically regarding towing in the Kingston Emporium, all from within the previous few months. While he couldn’t comment on the specifics of those individual complaints, he said they are looked at by investigators from within the division before they either are or are not acted upon and they are disposed of either way within a few months.
Both local police agencies and URI Vice President for Student Affairs Thomas Dougan recommend students direct their complaints to the DPUC. Dougan acknowledges that he has heard issues voiced by faculty and students who have had cars towed, presented receipts to J&D’s and had them ignored. However, “There’s not a lot the university can do,” he said. “It’s not university property and it’s not university patrolled.” But according to Dougan, complaints made to URI do make their way to J&D’s. “Keep the receipts and file a complaint with the Public Utilities Commission,” Dougan recommends.
But in the mean time, “I haven’t gone up there,” Paiva said, referring to the Emporium in the month since she’s been towed. “I can’t afford $120 for lunch.”