More violence in Philly tow war

Jose LaTorre Sr. walks among the cars torched at his auto-body shop; he thinks they were burned by a rival shop owner.
Jose LaTorre Sr. walks among the cars torched at his auto-body shop; he thinks they were burned by a rival shop owner.
Posted: July 22, 2010

JOSE LaTORRE SR., owner of J & Son's Auto Body, claims he hasn't heard from his son and namesake, who allegedly shot a rival tow-truck operator over a job in Hunting Park on Monday.

But the owner of Mystical Complete Auto Service, whose driver was the victim, claims Jose LaTorre Jr. called him yesterday morning, after Mystical's business was riddled with bullets and after 13 cars in J & Son's lot were torched.

"He said it's affecting him, us and his father, and he never meant for any of this to happen," John Campbell said of his alleged conversation with LaTorre Jr.

Now, the owners are blaming one another for the damages and claiming that the other sabotaged his own business to cover his tracks.

In the industry known as "wreck-chasing," which is ruled by intimidation and violence, even insiders are surprised by the weapons being wielded in the latest battle of a longstanding war.

One reformed wreck-chaser, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said that shootings and arsons are rare and that most fights between wreck-chasers are settled with fists.

But a new breed of chaser is upping the ante, he said, and turning what was always a violent business into a potentially deadly one.

"Many of these guys are drug dealers getting out of jail that had money saved up," he said. "How they controlled their corners is how they control their district."

Police said that about 1:15 a.m. yesterday, 13 of the cars at J & Son's, on 2nd Street near Erie Avenue, were set afire with gasoline. Police said that about 15 minutes later, they responded to Mystical, two miles away on Ashdale Street near Front, where six shots were fired at the business.

LaTorre Sr. said the cars that were "burned to the ground" in his lot belonged to customers. He said he has video showing two people pouring gas on them.

He said he believes the fires were set by Mystical employees in retaliation for Monday's shooting.

"When the fire started, all the competition that we got [came] over here, every other tow-truck company came over and helped us," he said. "The only company that didn't was Mystical because they did it."

Campbell, who runs a 24-hour operation, said he and his wife were in their business office when he heard several thumps. He didn't realize they were gunshots until he went outside and saw bullet holes in his building. He said one of the bullets missed his wife by only 8 to 10 feet.

LaTorre Sr. claims that Campbell shot up his own business to make it appear as if he had nothing to do with the arson.

Meanwhile, Campbell said he's heard from some wreck-chasers that LaTorre Sr.'s employees were seen Tuesday moving all the cars that would eventually be burned together into one area of the lot.

He said he's also heard a new theory from some chasers that perhaps a third party is responsible for both incidents.

"Because we're feuding, they're trying to get rid of both of us so they can claim the territory," Campbell said chasers told him.

Campbell said he was once friends with LaTorre Jr., the man accused of shooting one of his employees at an accident scene in Hunting Park because the Mystical employee allegedly tried to swoop in on a job LaTorre Jr. had claimed. Campbell said he got a phone call from LaTorre Jr. late yesterday morning.

He said LaTorre Jr. didn't admit anything but "did apologize, though, and said he didn't mean for any of this to happen."

"I told him I don't think it will ever be the way it was before," Campbell said.

For his part, LaTorre Sr. said he has not heard from his son. "I wish he could turn himself in so this could be over," he said, "but it's not going to be over anyway."

The Mystical driver survived the shooting and has since been released from the hospital.

Yesterday, LaTorre Sr. remained open for business and denied that the feud had escalated into a war.

"All of my family is working now. We ain't going to war, we ain't got no time," he said. "We got bills to pay."

Campbell said that although he had tow-truck drivers pursuing illegally parked vehicles, he'd pulled all his other guys off the street "for safety" and "not to ensue any further problems."

"The bottom line is that not only is Jose [LaTorre Jr.] going to spend a lot of time in jail, but now the reputation of two reputable companies are destroyed," he said.

But reformed wreck-chasers and auto-shop owners, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity - because, as one source, said "They'd burn my place down if they knew I gave them up" - say the business is anything but reputable.

They say the 10-to-25 percent commission some body shops pay - in cash - to wreck-chasers incites them to use unsavory methods to score a job.

One reformed chaser claims it takes him a week doing honest towing and repossession to make what he made in one day as a chaser, a job he gave up in 2004. Wreck-chasers listen to police-radio scanners and try to be the first at a scene to stake their claim. They are usually not employees of just one auto-body shop, said the man, now in his 30s.

"You could have five or six different shops in your pocket," he said. "It's whoever is paying the most this week."

A 57-year-old former wreck-chaser, who worked in the business in the 1970s and '80s, said that he's been chased, that his windows have been smashed in and that he's been surrounded by a posse of angry wreck-chasers armed with baseball bats.

"There was no scruples back then and nothing has changed today," he said. "Except that today, the guys are more thuggish. It's a rougher bunch."

A former Philadelphia police officer who now runs a South Philly automotive business estimated that 80 percent of the wreck-chasers have criminal records and illegally carry weapons.

"Most of these guys I know have been in prison many times for gun violations," he said. "Basically, they carry a gun because if they have to shoot it out with another tow-truck driver, they will."

Councilman James Kenney said he's not surprised at the level of "violence and thuggery" that infiltrates the towing business.

He said he plans to introduce legislation in September to require tow-truck companies on a rotational list to be dispatched at the same time as police and that it would require operators to have a specific site to store cars.

"A lot of the problems come with guys who aren't affiliated to a body shop," he said. But reformed wreck-chasers and legitimate auto-body specialists are skeptical about real change. "It's a bad practice, and it's been in the city forever," one specialist said. "You and I aren't going to change it."

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