The case of the missing Fiero

Thurman Williams loves his car. It’s a red 1988 Pontiac Fiero, a mid-engine, fiberglass body collector’s car he bought while in college six years ago to replace a prized 1968 Ford Mustang. Fewer than 3,600 Fieros like it exist. Williams, a well-dressed, articulate, soft-spoken man who works for a national nonprofit neighborhood revitalization organization, doesn’t believe in buying cars that depreciate. “I think it’s a waste of money,” he says.

To him, however, the Fiero is more than an investment. Last year a guy offered to buy the Fiero for $6,000 — at least $2,500 more than it’s worth on the open market. But Williams wouldn’t sell. The guy was going to chop it up and turn it into a Ferrari, and Williams couldn’t let that happen to his car. “It’s a good old American automobile,” says Williams.

Williams loves his car so much that he doesn’t like to drive it, keeping the mileage low and the car in good condition. So when he left his Mission, Kan., apartment on a rainy night in January to go out with some friends, Williams chose to drive his other car, a 1989 Crown Victoria, and leave his Fiero safe and secure in The Falls apartments parking lot.

But he returned home later that night to find nothing but a dry spot on the otherwise rain-soaked pavement where he had last parked his cherished car. It had been stolen — or so he thought.

He called the police and filed a report on his missing car. The next day, the police department told Williams they had found his car. It hadn’t been stolen, just towed to Heritage Tow in Overland Park at the request of The Falls apartment complex. Williams was furious. He headed to the manager’s office for an explanation.

As it turns out, nine days earlier, on Dec. 30, Mission codes enforcement officer P.J. Richardson had noticed that Williams’ vehicle didn’t have a current registration sticker on its license plate, a clear violation of City of Mission Code 8-403, which prohibits vehicles that have missing, expired, or invalid license plates or are mechanically inoperable from being within the Mission city limits. And because the Fiero was on the apartment complex’s property, the complex faced a possible fine for the vehicular nuisance.

The problem is, Williams’ car was registered in the state of Kansas. But in an odd turn of events that, Williams claims, began with the theft of the registration sticker, the Fiero got towed and has been sitting in the storage lot of Heritage Tow racking up a daily storage fee of $20. And now Williams is in danger of losing his beloved Fiero forever.

His vehicle wasn’t the only one deemed a vehicular nuisance in The Falls’ parking lot. During his sweep of the lot that day, Richardson noted a total of 14 cars that violated the code. It was the first time the 700-resident complex had been patrolled for nuisance vehicles.

Code enforcement officer Steve Miller explains that although the code is not new, the city has recently increased its enforcement effort. “It was enforced in the past only in extreme cases,” he says, “like if someone buys a real junker and drops it in the yard, and we say, ‘Get that thing out of here.’ We’d really crack down after complaints from citizens who say, ‘This old car has been sitting here for four years and we want it gone.'”

The city, however, recently hired a new codes enforcement officer and decided to step up its effort. The Falls patrol was part of the first citywide sweep regarding the vehicular nuisance code, and since that effort began, the city has identified more than 100 nuisance vehicles, the majority of which either had expired plates or flat tires. Only occasionally has the city found what Miller calls “an old junker.” If those in violation of the code fail to remove their vehicles or make them operable as defined by the city, they are then ticketed and must go before a judge, who may order a fine.

After the sweep of The Falls, the city ran the offending vehicles’ license plate information through the Kansas Division of Motor Vehicles registration database to obtain the owners’ contact information. But for reasons that have yet to be fully explained, when the officer ran Williams’ plate, a personalized plate that read “COYOTE,” it didn’t come up. The officer failed to record the Fiero’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), which also could have been used to find the owner.

On Jan. 3, the notices pertaining to each vehicle were delivered to the complex’s management, with owner information on all but four vehicles, including Williams’. The next day, the complex staff put notices on the vehicles whose owners were not identified and began contacting those who did come up in the registration search to let them know their vehicles would be towed.

Williams, who says he never saw a notice on his car, even when he went to get something out of his seldom-driven Fiero the day it was towed, argues that the apartment complex didn’t do enough to notify the owners. If he had known, he says, he would have shown them his registration, which proves his car is current through November 2000. “If I’m gone on a business trip and I’m, like, a day late on my rent, they’re able to find me just fine,” he says.

But apartment manager Brooke Henderson-Vittitow explains, “We have 700 people who live here, and for me to contact 700 people to find out whose vehicle it was, it’s impossible. There’s just no way for me to do it…. I don’t know what all 700 people drive. To be quite honest, every time I’ve seen Mr. Williams, he’s had a bicycle.”

Henderson-Vittitow, like many people who have dealt with Williams in the past couple of months, describes him as “a really nice guy” and adds, “I don’t want an upset tenant, but at the same time I have to follow the laws like everyone else does.”

Part of Williams’ frustration stems from what he sees as unfair treatment toward apartment residents. “If I were a homeowner,” he says, “the citation would come to me, and I would know that someone had taken the registration sticker from my car, and I would then be able to go to court or to the city clerk and shown them my registration and the ticket would be taken care of. But since I live in an apartment, it never came to me.”

Venting his frustration at what he calls “a stupid law,” Williams says, “There could be a car next to yours that has taillights missing, fenders missing, a flat tire, or whatever, but if the sticker is in place, it’s not abandoned. They see it as a hazard to public health. That part of it I agree with, and there are two or three cars in the lot that were abandoned and were being vandalized. They were an eyesore, but my car wasn’t one of them…. But there’s no way to contest the charges, because it doesn’t go to the owner of the vehicle, it goes to the apartment complex. That’s what I think needs to be changed. It should go to the permanent address.”

Unfortunately, the city’s failure to locate the car’s registration made it difficult for any information to get to Williams’ permanent address, which is in Topeka. DMV officials can’t explain why Williams’ car didn’t show up in the registration search. The system is updated with new information from each of the state’s 104 counties nightly, so Williams’ Nov. 30 renewal would have been added to the system a month before the search was conducted. State officials say the vehicle might not show up if the officer conducting the search had mistyped the plate number; however, a personalized plate, such as COYOTE, is harder to mistype than one with a regular letter-and-number combination.

It’s also possible the person conducting the search did not know which county the vehicle was registered in (the county wasn’t listed on the vehicular nuisance notice) and assumed it was Johnson County. Because Williams’ permanent address is in Topeka, his Fiero has Shawnee County plates. Adding to the confusion, there are no fewer than 40 variations of “coyote” registered in Kansas. The state allows two vehicles in each county to have the same personalized plate — one for a truck and one for a car — making it possible for there to be 208 license plates with the same number. There are, in fact, two such plates in Shawnee County, one belonging to a truck and the other to Williams’ Fiero.

In any case, The Falls apartments called Heritage Tow to remove Williams’ car, along with the other 13 originally cited, from the lot on Jan. 8.

After Williams discovered his car had been towed to Heritage rather than stolen, he went to pick it up on Monday, Jan. 10. Expecting the bill to be less than $50, he was surprised to discover it was $102.50 — $55 for the towing, $2.50 a mile for three miles, and $20 a day for storage. Heritage accepts only cash and Williams was short on cash. It was after the holidays, and Williams, who said he needed to pay more than $1,000 in businesses expenses before he could get cash for the towing company, decided to wait and come back after his next paycheck.

Calling the charge “ridiculous” for such a short tow, Williams adds that “If I’d had the money, I would have paid it and just would have been very upset. And I would have had the car back.” But it didn’t work out that way. The daily charges really started adding up.

When Williams came back more than two weeks later on Jan. 28, the bill was $462. Again, he didn’t have enough cash to pay it. It was a Friday, and Heritage agreed to stop the storage charges if Williams would agree to come back on Monday and pay the $462. But Williams didn’t come back. “I couldn’t get the money,” he said.

Now the bill is more than $1,700. And if Williams doesn’t get the car out soon, the towing company, under state law, is allowed to sell it to recoup the unpaid charges. They can’t sell it until it’s been left unclaimed for more than 90 days. At this publication date, the car has been there 82 days.

It is that aspect that troubles Williams, who says he feels like he’s getting, as he describes it, “scammed.” He notes that when he first went to get his car at Heritage, “they were very interested in it,” and he argues that $20 is too much to charge for storage.

But an informal survey of some local towing companies showed that Heritage Tow’s $20-a-day fee is comparable to, if not even cheaper than, local rates. An anonymous phone request for a quote from Heritage received the same rates that Williams is being charged. The rates are even preprinted on the company’s receipts.

Besides, says Heritage Tow owner Ferrell (who will not give out his last name because “I don’t need irate car owners looking me up in the phone book and coming to see me in the middle of the night”), the car has been more trouble than it’s worth. In fact, he says, he’ll be lucky if selling the vehicle generates the funds to cover the hook-up, towing, and storage fees incurred as well as the cost of putting the Fiero up for sale. Kansas tow companies must go through a long process to ensure that car owners are adequately notified of their vehicles’ status before they go up for sale. The paperwork begins with a title search, which obtains the owner’s name and identifies any lien holders on the vehicle. The title search can be performed no fewer than 45 days after the vehicle is towed, and no more than 60. After the title search, which may take up to 10 days, the company sends owners and lien holders certified letters alerting them to the situation. The company also must run an ad in the paper for three consecutive weeks announcing the auction, as well as hire an auctioneer.

Williams has exhausted many avenues in trying to get his car back and avoid paying fees he says he doesn’t deserve. The amount of work he has put into getting his car back became clear in calls to The Falls apartment complex, the city codes office, and the tow company, where just the mention of “a gentleman whose car had been towed from his apartment complex” was met with weary sighs or knowing chuckles. Williams also has called the television news media (including KCTV Channel 5 consumer watchdog Stan Cramer), two lawyers, various government officials, a credit bureau, and the real estate agency that owns the apartment complex. And still there is nothing he can do beyond paying the now-astronomical storage bill.

As a result of Williams’ experience, the Mission codes enforcement department has acquired stickers that serve as unofficial tow notices that explain why the vehicle may be subject to towing and provide a city phone number the owner can call. Miller emphasizes that it is still the property owner’s responsibility to tow the vehicle, but, he says, “at least (the owner) could contact us and we would be able to tell them they need to contact their apartment complex.”

For Thurman Williams, however, the sticker comes too late. “This is the thing that when there isn’t responsibility for actions, abuses generally will occur,” he says. “Legally, the apartment complex has no responsibility, because according to the lease they don’t have to inform you. It just says that cars without stickers will be towed. The codes people have no responsibility for it because they didn’t have it towed. And the tow company has no responsibility because they were called in to come and get it. What that leads to is the victim of a crime being victimized twice by the system. There’s a saying that good laws enable people to be good and treat one another well, and this isn’t what is happening here.”

And while many involved with the case say they sympathize with Williams, some still think he’s to blame and is taking his victim role too far. If, they say, he had just paid the bill early on, he would have his car.

“Instead of coming and paying his $100 bill and taking his car and licensing it,” says Ferrell, still under the impression that the car was not registered, “he wants to be a hard guy and calls Stan Cramer and lawyers and newspapers and whatever. Meanwhile, the days are rolling by.”

Williams maintains, however, that regardless of whether he could afford to get the car from the tow company, “It’s outrageous for someone to be victimized twice for the same crime. If I were mugged and someone stole my possessions and knocked me out cold, I would expect that I wouldn’t be ticketed for vagrancy or loitering.”

Contact Michelle Rubin at 816-218-6784 or michelle.rubin@pitch.com.

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