What is going on with Portland’s towing and Zombie RV mess?
Let’s look at some numbers and ask: Is PBOT lying? Is one of the biggest towing contractors in Oregon simply a criminal syndicate? Is there a resolution in the near future for the Zombie RVs?
A bit of history on Towing in P-Town
I’m going to focus on Retriever Towing and their sister company Speed’s Towing - both have the same owner Gary Coe - and both companies combined is almost certainly Oregon’s largest towing company, been in business since 1975 and 1958 respectively. You’ll see how Gary Coe runs a criminal organization that has dominated our city.
Let’s first understand that criminal towing as a business has used the same simple trick: you find owners of parking lots that often have low-income vehicles, the property owner agrees to allow you to steal other people's property through towing, and the parking lot owner gets a kickback for every vehicle towed. Retriever makes the money on the car owner's fees paid to get a car out of impound, and if the person can't pay the impounded fees, the cars are sold and Retriever keeps the money. Retriever doesn’t charge to sign up for their “towing services.” Kickbacks from towing companies to the parking lot owners creates a perverse incentive where the lot owner will not do a good job with signage and warnings. Oregon eventually banned kickbacks to property owners because of the bad incentive it creates - only about 1/3rd of States have this prohibition. Have no doubt though, stealing people’s property through towing is super lucrative, in Portland alone in 2009 there was 10,864 vehicles towed to impound. My car was towed that year, by Retriever. I had to pay $450 to retrieve it, and of course they refused to take debt/credit/checks, and only accepted cash – and if you don’t pay by midnight your first day storage fee is $150, and retriever had no guarantee that they’d provide timely response, the driver didn’t show up to “help me” retrieve my car until 11:45pm, and of course the shitback tow truck driver was unwilling to talk with me until after midnight. Why was my car towed? I parked in guest specific parking of an apartment complex, which was marked as being “guest parking”, but other signage on the property (which I didn't see) said all parking spots required a parking pass. In 2009 the minimum tow was $161, so this is not a chump-change business.
Oregon is infested by Retriever, they have contracts all over the Willamette Valley. Not all of their business is “patrol towing”, they also have contracts for things like road side assistance, for example in 1996 the Portland Business Journal published that Speeds Towing got 30,000 calls from AAA members in Oregon (Speeds Towing lost their contract with AAA that year). There’s other types of municipal contracts as well, which I’ll talk about later.
Vehicle towing is still a big business, there was some 7,630 PBOT-logged private towing impounds in FY 19-20 pg 23 here). There was an additional 15,257 contract tows. Numbers weren’t tracked by PBOT in 20-21 for some reason.
Every modern regulations in Oregon towing really got started in 2007, when the local governments were authorized to pass their own towing restrictions and the Oregon Attorney General was directed to start taking complaints about towing companies. There was immediately calls to deeply regulate the towing industry across the entire state and ban “patrol towing” like what Retriever does. These were not outsider demands from socialist radicals, instead people liked famed journalist Rick Attig cited the specific reasons in an editorial published by The Oregonian:
A tow truck driver recently hooked up the car of a victim of domestic violence who had run, bleeding, into an apartment for help. Even after police informed the tow truck driver of the circumstances, he still towed the victim's car.
In another case, the owner of a Portland towing company now faces felony charges for running a towing scam in which he took vehicles, legally parked or not, and demanded high return fees.
In yet another recent example, a tow-truck driver angry about getting an earlier police citation hooked up a marked Gresham police car, one of three that had responded to a domestic violence call, and tried to haul it away. He was stopped only after police laid down a spike strip and blocked his tow truck with another police car.
Just pause for a moment and think about that last situation: towing a police officer’s car. These are people who believe they’re above the law – or more specific, out side of the law, or what we might call Outlaws.
Oregonians’s editorial board member Rick Attig accurately described the situation as, “Wild West-style-towing, the extortion-style customer service and other abuses are occurring.” Wild West & Outlaws – get it? Shit was fucked.
Having a few cases of towing mistakes is dismissible as a mistake. But let’s be clear: some of this was straight up theft.
A paraplegic who uses a wheelchair, had his car towed in April 2008 by a company with an expired towing contract – they had no lawful right to take his vehicle, or any vehicle from that lot. Federico Aquino, a man with chronic pain and walks with a cane, his minivan was stolen on Christmas by a tow truck, even though he was in full compliance with where he parked and how. Stories like this outraged the public 15 years ago.
No excuse was needed if you just target vulnerable people and say “You screwed up, now you gotta fork over $300 or we're selling your car in 5 days. And we'll add $200 per day until you pay.”
And so with this problem impacting 10,000+ people in City of Portland alone, Sen. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro, took up the cause – per Statemen’s Journal:
The Legislature first cracked down on the practice in 2009, passing a law that requires tow truck operators to take a photo of the vehicle showing it parked in violation before towing. They can only monitor lots, or sit in wait for violators, if the hours during which monitoring occurs are clearly posted in the lot. And they must release a vehicle before towing if the owner is present, charging only the hook-up fee.
In 2013 it tweaked the law again, allowing cities and counties to regulate towing if they chose. Portland, Gresham and Tualatin regulate tows from private lots.
But the law has no teeth, Riley said.
“I’ve been hearing from cities and from individuals that the predatory nature of towing is still occurring,” Riley said. “Even when the law is broken, there’s not much that can be done about it.”
The Oregon Department of Justice has received 539 complaints about towing since 2008.
Attempted legal reforms have tried to un-fuck this situation. In 2017 Oregon Legislature updated ORS 98.854, which requires a towing company to get permission before towing when the vehicle is on a private lot. So if you park illegally at an apartment, Retriever needs to capture photograph the evidence, give it to the apartment manager, and they have to sign off on the towing. Under the new law they can’t tow you for simple violations, like backing into the parking space. …But problems have continued.
Newer bills as recently as 2021 died in Oregon Legislature that would have helped out the situation in several ways. For example, SB 466 from the 2021 session authorized a $12 tax on new RVs in Oregon to create a fund to ensure towing is paid for – this would be SUPER useful for Zombie RVs. What happened to that bill? Jack fucking shit - died in committee. Along with that bill was SB 472, which would have established state-wide towing standards board. This also died in committee. Regret not, the 2021 legislative cycle had major priorities that included striking racist language from our constitution (again), urged reparations for black folks, designated the month of April "Arab-American Heritage Month", established Indigenous Peoples’ Day, ended “gay panic” and “trans panic” legal defense (wtf?), gave $5 million to colleges to help them teach college kids how to qualify for food stamps – and so much other very, very important work.
Designing a state-wide board to pass towing regulations would be a great step. Many of the people who run these tow companies are criminals. Just to highlight a few other fascinating characters I found in the light research for this article:
Remember that dumbass who tried to tow a cop car? Yeah, he actually got sentenced to a year in jail. This dipshit is named Steven Gerald Syverson, he showed up to his court case a half-hour late, forgot to turn off his cellphone, and explained “It was just a prank bro.” Not joking, that was his criminal defense. The judge said, “It's just about the stupidest, unnecessary criminal act that I've ever encountered in the eight years I've been sitting on this bench.” Steven Syverson isn’t exactly squeaky clean prior to this, as the Oregonian noted that in 1994 he was convicted of two instances of possessing or using stolen cars. According to Oregon court records, four women have filed for restraining orders against Syverson, a father of two. Prosecutor Aaron Knott said Syverson has an attitude problem: When a police officer pulled him over for speed racing, he embarked on "a profanity laden rant" for 20 minutes. But hey everyone, don’t worry – this time around Oregon’s Court system did it’s job and this man IS TOTALLY REHABILITATED – and since April 16th, 2021 he’s been a small business owner of…. A TO Z TOWING LLC …..which is great - who doesn't want a stalker with anger issues providing road side assistance?
I tried doing research into companies that are willing to recycle zombie RVs – literally the only result I could find on Google was a company called M&M Towing, based out of Woodburn, and owned by Micky Henson. In 2014 Mickey Henson was acquitted of charges of raping his employee – but what came out in court is that he bribed this woman with $5,000 to keep quiet and “what we found is that the defendant himself uses methamphetamine.” I tried looking up Micky Henson’s recent criminal activity, but his son (of the same name) has more than a few incidents of meth dealing and firearms possession (he’s a FaceOfMeth candidate) and it’s hard to distinguish between father from son in some records.
Cynicism put aside, not all the towing companies are tweakers. Some are totally legit, no criminal records (that I can find at least), but I think this type of business can easily attract illegal behavior and predatory practices.
OK - Back to Gary Coe, he’s such a criminal shit bird that he ran for office as a Republican trying to unseat Mark Hass in Beaverton, which prompted an I, Anonymous in the Portland Mercury: “Fuck You Gary Coe.” And if you still don't have a reason to dislike him: he's a Trump donor to boot!
Carjacking poor people is basically his business.
Killing his business is coming real soon though. He's currently facing criminal charges by the Oregon Department of Justice. I did a bit of a dancing jig when I saw that headline – I don’t know what the prosecutors plan to do in terms of punitive damages, but Gary Coe should be in prison. That's completely certain in my mind. Remember those laws passed in 2017 about having to get permission before towing? Retriever towing has never complied. The text of the criminal complaint is fascinating:
In 2021, a parking facility owner gave a consumer permission to park her car in the facility. When the consumer returned to the lot, her car was gone. Retriever towed her car without first obtaining signed authorization for the tow from the owner of the parking facility. As a result of the unlawful tow, the consumer’s father was forced to pay approximately $360 to Retriever to release her vehicle. Even after learning that the consumer had permission to park in the facility, Retriever agreed to refund only half of the towing fees paid.
Most consumers who had vehicles unlawfully towed by Retriever have not received refunds. Consumers who could not afford to pay Retriever’s towing fees lost their vehicles at auction, even though Retriever did not have authority under the statute to tow the vehicle.
Over the last 20 years, approximately one quarter of all towing complaints received by the [Oregon Department of Justice] concern Retriever. Since January 1, 2018, the Department has received approximately 261 complaints concerning Retriever.
Retriever, through counsel, stated that it would change its policies and stop performing tows without first obtaining signed authorization from the owner of the parking facility or its agent. …. These representations were false. Retriever did not change its practices
In other words, Retriever Towing lied to the Department of Justice. You can presume that 100% of the patrol-towing impounds Retriever has done in Portland since 2018 was done unlawfully. If you were towed by Retriever Towing since 2018 (and it wasn’t for unpaid parking tickets) you should contact the Oregon Attorney General ASAP. If you know someone that was towed, tell them to contact the Attorney General's office. https://justice.oregon.gov/consumercomplaints/
How many people in Portland have had their cars towed and extorted by this fucking bastard? Over a hundred thousand people for sure – he’s been in business doing this for 40 years.
The criminal syndicate of Gary Coe’s empire doesn’t end there. Do you ever wonder what happens to a Zombie RV? Great, I’ll tell you about it in just a minute – but what Gary Coe does with a Zombie RV is give them to a man named John Maher to dispose of them illegally. And what was Mr. Maher’s plans? To "recycle" the RV's by dropping them off the at new meth camps, so they can be towed all over again! It’s like if your business is to make glass windows, and business gets slow, you just go out and smash some windows. It’s a simple racket, you know? In Mr. Maher’s words, “I'm not a moron.” And he claims that Gary Coe’s two companies weren’t asking any questions about what this man planned to do with the RVs, it's one of those situations where "he didn't know nuth'n."
Gary Coe’s companies was actively contributing to it to the Zombie RV problem.
As of right now, unless City Council acts, Gary Coe's companies are still the major contractor for the City of Portland. You should forward this to your favorite city council members. They won't take any action to fire this fuck unless there's some public or DOJ pressure.
What has the City of Portland done about this insane Zombie RV problem?
Well the City of Portland has it’s self a bit of a conundrum. The epidemic started in 2016, and right away it was clear that the existing City of Portland Code on towing had some problems: post warnings, waits 10 days, more warnings, etc, and there’s all sorts of bureaucracy about it – particularly this whole 4th Amendment thing. But no problem, we figured out a perfect loophole: ORS 133.033 Peace Officer Community Caretaking Functions. Through some sleight of hand any cop can declare “Hey that’s a safety risk!” and get a vehicle towed basically immediately, with the flimsiest of reasons being sufficient to get a RV towed. The entire policy is outlined here, and it includes a shitload of options in front of the City and Cops to move a Zombie RV. I'm not a huge fan of this, to be clear, this policy is so broad that it’s very likely unconstitutional, but hey we need effective & quick in an emergency.
But towing a Zombie RV doesn’t necessarily solve the problem. They can move it, but where do they move it to? Just dump the tweakers and their zombie RVs in some shit neighborhood full of bad voters, that’s what the City of Portland did. This is unapologetically fucking over people just as horrifically as those red port-a-potties of doom. But I don’t have any sympathy: if these things show up in your neighborhood and you don’t change how you vote, you deserve it – after a while of being bullied, it’s your own fault if you don’t stand up to the bully.
The City also came to terms that you can't just leave the Zombie RV’s alone either, cause they tend to burn down, which is a new and exciting development from the tweaker community. Willyweak quoted PF&R in January 2021: "Spokesman Lt. Rich Tyler says there were 29 houselessness-related RV fires last year—more than double the 13 in 2020, up from three in 2019." Or, best of all, when the tweaker set their own Zombie RV on fire in some sort of protest. There's so much untapped creative energy in this class of people - they're the new Creative Class of portland urbanites.
Bigger question – does the city even know the scope of the Zombie RV problem?
How many RVs are on the street? In 2017, Thacher Schmid wrote in Willamette Week:
Portland has never before seen so many recreational vehicles parked on its streets. City officials estimate as many as 500 motor homes and camper vans are currently being used as dwellings while parked along curbs and sidewalks. That's 10 times the number the city estimated just two years ago.
In the first six months of 2017, city officials received 4,133 reports of derelict RVs on Portland streets—more than they received all last year.
(note: this is how we know the epidemic of the Zombie RVs definitively started in 2016 – and as I’ve said over and over again, this entire crisis is the result of Charlie Hales and his 2015 “housing state of emergency.”)
How many Zombie RVs are on the streets now? To find out, you have to go deep into the dark caverns of PBOT annual budgets, and in their 2022-2023 report (pg 304) you find:
Number of abandoned auto complaints received: FY 19-20 = 25,352 | FY 20-21 = 19,856 | FY 21-22 (YTD) = 16,161
Number of abandoned vehicles towed: FY 19-20 = 1,962 | FY 20-21 = 2,608 | FY 21-22 (YTD) = 1,892
Number of derelict RVs reported: FY 19-20 = 3,380 | FY 20-21 = 2,835 | FY 21-22 (YTD) = 2,045
Number of RVs towed: FY 19-20 = 50 | FY 20-21 = 217 | FY 21-22 (YTD) = 156
Look at these numbers carefully - they’re going down.
How? Does that make sense to anyone?
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I think there’s some ripe shitfuckery going on with PBOT’s numbers.
Ok, let's assume PBOT is accurately reporting numbers, then MAYBE….maybe -- just maybe we hit peak Zombie RV already and things are getting better. PBOT is saying we hit the peak crisis in 2017. That sure doesn't seem right though. Also remember that number from the Fire Department about the number of fires basically doubling?
And if we look at the Point In Time Count, homelessness increased 30.2% between 2019 and 2022. So are we supposed to pretend Zombie RVs weren’t increasing as well?
Another plausible explanation is that reporting from citizens is going down. I sure as shit wouldn't call City of Portland to report a Zombie RV, no I'd solve that problem myself.
I could be completely wrong and misunderstanding these numbers from PBOT, but on the other hand I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is just making up numbers that fit a political narrative, and fraudulently representing numbers to the public is a rich and cherished historical tradition in this town.
If you spend your time looking through the financial documents of PBOT, you’ll find some insights into the programs and their costs:
Derelict RV and Abandoned Auto program: This program addresses the issue of broken‐down recreational vehicles on city streets used by people experiencing homelessness. This program works to identify, remove, and dismantle these vehicles to support neighborhood livability and promote public safety. PBOT works with people experiencing homelessness, local neighbors, the Portland Police Bureau, vehicle owners, and tow companies to remove these vehicles from City right‐of‐ way, and either dismantle them or repair them to functional use. ($1,100,000)
It's a million bucks to run this program, which isn't bad. By juxtaposition, PBOT Transportation Justice Partnership Program was sponsored by Commissioner Rubio and Hardesty to pay grifters $50,000 to host some webinars. PBOT has never hurt for money, for example we maintain the Street Car at a cost of $17 million dollars, and a bus service would provide more reliable service at a fraction of that cost - that shit show is a vanity project from Homer Williams and Sam Adams. I'm really not sure if the $1.1 million being spent on this program is the right amount of money, or if we need more, because I'm not convinced it's a money issue.
Can the City of Portland do anything about the Zombie RV crisis?
This might be politically unpopular to note (for anyone who reads my dribble) – but by all indicators the City is really trying. The Mayor has done 4 emergency declarations about homelessness. I don't even know (or bother to count) what the Governor has offered. The cops have pretty much free reign to do what they feel is necessary as it relates to Zombie RVs. Government appears to be trying. Is some layers of government fucking this up? Yeah, probably – but that’s NOT the problem - short of calling out of the National Guard and having the 41st Infantry haul out the Zombie RVs – I don’t think the Government actually has the ability to handle this problem.
It’s just wayyyy beyond the scope of what they can handle, especially if they try to do this legitimately. I mean this in so many different ways. Practically speaking. Logistically speaking. Legally speaking. They can’t do it under this current framework, and even if they bend more rules it seems pretty unlikely.
And that’s not even tackling the ideological and economic problems – we don’t have a model to deal with tweakers who live in RVs, these people need to be incarcerated in long term care facilities until they’re ready to take care of themselves. And this is a fucking terrible and unconstitutional idea. But here we are, and I don't think there's another option.
...but I'm always the optimist - suppose Teddy Wheeler is reading this article, what does the City need to do to move this forward?
I got a 3-step program and no one in politics is going to like it.
First fire Retriever Towing, they can’t be trusted with any more city contracts, especially when we found out they’re responsible for dumping zombie RVs on to the streets and they’re facing criminal charges across the board. The Mayor would need to make a big deal about firing this long-time disgraced vendor, get on the nightly news and create some moral righteousness. Then, you have to explain how it now leaves the City in such a vulnerable position…yada yada yada… and now a new state of emergency has to be declared, because the city can't stop doing vehicle impounding.
This creates and solves the second problem: PBOT and Port of Portland have some fenced properties around. We need to mass confiscate these Zombie RV’s as much as possible and just tow them into an emergency declared zone. Some of these zones will need to be city designated sites with living facilities, for the folks occupy their RV. There’s probably needs to be at least two different zones: First zone prohibits drug use and has rules (maybe ask Ibrahim Mubarak to run a new charity), and a 2nd zone which is just a dumping ground for people who want to live lawlessly. I’d bet $1 that within weeks most of the lawless people would move on.
Third problem: I don’t believe there’s an actual auto recycler with a legit auto-wrecking license willing to deal with the environmentalist red tape – and if you do find one they’re probably in organized crime and lying. The City has some budgetary numbers suggesting $1,500 is enough to get a Zombie RV disposed of – I didn't dig into that number at all, but is this recycling cost actually audited? Or, are the Zombie RV’s being shipped up to Seattle or Eugene and turned into drug dens? Because that’s a real market that needs to be shut down. Thankfully, and sort of ironically, there is One Man In This City who can do this: Jordan fucking Schnitzer. I feel like Jordan is basically batman when it comes to these homeless issues. You see, Jordan Schnitzer has a company called Schnitzer Steel Industries – they’re a big metal recycler, and they have a subsidiary company called Pick-N-Pull which is fully capable of handling all of the autowrecking needs. Of course this would cause Deborah Kauforey’s asshole to explode. Somehow the King of Portland needs to sneak a proposal to Jordan Schnitzer past the entire DPO, that we'll give him the greenlight to legally (through emergency order) or extrajudicially (through wink-wink) to start crushing these RVs, and waive/ignore all that environmental hazard cleanup shit....well, the Schnitzer family can sue the City in 10 years for the damages because we "forced him" or something.
And for reference, Schnitzer’s pick and pull facility in Portland is near Foster Rd & Highway 205. We'd probably want the Zombie RV repository somewhere near there.
So that’s it,
Y’all are welcome
TL;DR: This is how you solve the Zombie RV problem and get rid of one of our most notorious mafias that has fucked over half the city.
Another recommendation…. Which really goes against my grain - but we need to ask what to do long term about this towing fiasco? Obviously we need to radically clean up our contractors for PPB and PBOT when it comes to towing companies – but what comes next? IMHO, our city could just provide this service first hand, and the City ought to offer this service to residents with a reasonable fee. Back of the napkin math says 25,000 tows per year that PBOT contracts out. That averages out to 68 per day, so let’s suppose 150 tows on a busy day. I feel like 10 tow trucks could probably handle that. 8 trucks on duty during the busy shift, one dispatcher. Maybe during the night shift you got 2 drivers and they’re dispatched by BOEC. Maybe 1 heavy duty recovery vehicle for those special needs. I just really don’t like the idea of a private organization stealing private property and extorting citizens, where as with the government we can get some transparency, audits, resolutions. It’s one of those things where it needs to be run by the government because the opportunity for abuse is just way too tempting as anyone can target the most vulnerable and defenseless people. We’re 15 years into trying to regulate the towing companies – we’re closer, but are we anywhere near close to finish? I’m not proposing a total public monopoly on tow trucks, we’ll certainly still need private towers for things like road side assistance. And private businesses contracting out to private towers can continue to be increasingly regulated. I dunno, it’s probably a bad idea and getting rid of Retriever might fix some things quickly.
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Keep up the good work!