Joe Lewis ducked our cameras outside the Quincy Police Department. He’s the owner-operator of All Over Towing in Weymouth and he’s accused of towing cars, police say, he had no right to take.
Quincy detectives launched a criminal investigation after the NBC 10 Boston Investigators started asking questions. We wanted to know why Lewis was still towing cars when the state revoked his license nearly a month ago.
“He’s basically just a private citizen taking cars that he’s not authorized to take," Quincy Police Chief Paul Keenan told us. "If they’re charging over what the state allows the tow company to charge, and essentially holding the car against the person’s will, it could be considered extortion.”
This week police charged Lewis with larceny of a motor vehicle and tell NBC 10 Boston, as their investigation continues, more charges could follow.
Lewis tows from lots all over the South Shore. Some businesses say he has permission to tow from their lots — others say he doesn’t.
Drivers who got towed when he had no legal authority to tow them are angry. Jonathan Ying of Quincy did not mince words.
“Piece of ---- scumbag,” he said.
Mary Fallon of Weymouth said, after shelling out more than $240 for the tow, “I think that’ s criminal. That’s a lot of money — a lot of money.”
Ron Affsa, who paid $200 to get his jeep back after he insists he was legally parked, said, “I think it’s horrible. I think it’s terrible and this guy should be stopped.”
Lewis lost his license June 14 for unresolved consumer complaints, among other issues. But according to police logs, he has continued to tow cars from private lots along the South Shore.
Lewis did not return our calls or emails, but when we reached him at his Weymouth home, he insisted he’d done nothing wrong.
We asked if he was stealing cars. “No. Absolutely not," Lewis said. "It’s just doing our job.”
To understand how we got to this point, we need to go back several months, when we first started getting complaints from viewers. Seven people have also lodged complaints with the state’s towing oversight division, the Attorney General’s Office and the Better Business Bureau.
The complaints run the gamut: that Lewis made drivers wait hours — in one case, a full day — to get their cars back, that he was rude and refused to properly identify himself and that his tactics were too aggressive.
John O’Connell of Weymouth says he was in the bathroom of the Dunkin' on Washington Street in Braintree when Lewis came in to ask about cars in the lot. He says he showed Lewis his time-stamped coffee to prove he was a legitimate customer at the time of the tow, but Lewis refused to release his car until he paid him $200 cash.
A spokeswoman for Dunkin' told us the franchise had used Lewis in the past for specific tows, but never gave him permission to cruise their lot and remove dozens of cars on his own.
“These actions by the towing company are independent of Dunkin’s staff. Dunkin’ looks to give its customers the best experience and is disheartened to hear that customers’ cars were wrongfully towed,” they said in a statement.
We asked Lewis if he was sure he had permission to tow from all the lots he was towing from. “Absolutely,” he said. “No question.”
But it’s a similar story at the out-of-business Lowe’s across from the Quincy Adams MBTA station. The retailer wouldn’t return our calls but emailed Quincy police saying back in January, a contractor did hire Lewis to tow a couple of cars out of their way, “but stated clearly, he could only tow the two cars in question.”
According to police, Lewis kept coming back anyway and, with his sticker smoothed over the old tow company’s number, he towed a total of 85 cars off private property.
Mary Fallon, who was towed, showed us the charges on her receipt. They included a $97 dollar administrative fee. And though she shouldn’t have parked in the Lowe’s lot, the state says the administrative fee is inappropriate.
State law says the maximum companies can charge for a standard involuntary or tresspass tow is $108 and $35 a day in storage — if the vehicles are kept in a state-approved lot. The state requires that cars be protected in a locked lot with at least a 6-foot fence and proper lighting.
Lewis’ lot is not lit at night and the state says he is also often charging a “gate fee,” which regulators say is appropriate in some types of tows but not tows like this, where the car has not been in an accident or involved in a police incident.
A South Shore man, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, shared cellphone video of his interaction with Lewis. Lewis had towed his pick-up truck, with commercial plates, from a local apartment building.
On the video you can hear Lewis raise the price of the tow to $300. When they man questions why it’s so much, Lewis said, “Buddy, commercial plates is $300.” The man asks him where he’s getting that price and Lewis answers, “State law say you can charge whatever you want for a commercial plate.”
State regulators tell us that’s not true, that the maximum for that kind of tow is $108, plus $35 a day in storage, and additional charges are not appropriate.
Said Deirdre Cummings with MassPIRG, a consumer advocacy organization, “There needs to be an enforcement of the rules, and if the rules aren’t adequate they need to be addressed.”
Cummings said businesses should have the right to use tow companies to enforce their parking rules, but the stories show how vulnerable drivers can be. She said their recourse is also a challenge unless the state steps in or they take a tow company to small claims court.
In 2015, the state suspended Lewis’ license for similar unresolved complaints but fresh complaints have been stacking up. In the last two years, All Over Towing has received more complaints to the transportation oversight division of the Department of Public Utilities than all of the tow companies in Braintree, Quincy and Weymouth combined. The DPU in May did order Lewis to refund several drivers for the inappropriate fees, but only discovered Lewis hadn’t filed his legally required annual tow reports — detailing the number of vehicles he’s towed and how much he charged — when the NBC10 Boston Investigators asked for copies.
“Someone’s falling down on the job,” Cummings said. “That should just not happen. It looks like the DPU could do a far better job at protecting consumers.”
Lewis is due in Quincy District Court July 19.