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For 19 years, James W. Gee Jr., owner of Youngin’s Towing, pushed the boundaries of his profession. He towed on flimsy—some say false—pretexts, he charged steep fees before he let cars go, and he bullied car owners who didn’t like his terms (“Junkyard Dogs,” 2/9). Even though the police would often watch him make a scene, he just went on cursing and shouting as though they couldn’t touch him. They never did.
Two weeks ago, Gee stopped getting away with it. The city’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) served him with a notice that revokes the company’s license. He must appeal the notice by Friday, May 11, or risk arrest by keeping his trucks on the road.
Gee may regret messing with Kenilworth resident LeRoy Atkins. Youngin’s towed Atkins’ car from the lot of his apartment building, held the car for a few hours before reporting the tow to the city, and overcharged him by $20 when he came to pick it up. The 65-year-old custodian was a little irritated. “I think you [are] a big rip-off,” he recalls telling Gee. Just for that, Gee held on to the car longer. The police helped Atkins retrieve it.
In past years, Atkins’ story would have ended there. But he used to be a union representative, so he knew to call the DCRA. He ended up talking to inspector Clement Stokes.
Stokes took pictures of where Atkins had parked. He took pictures of the ticket. Then he called up Gee, endured his curses, and told him to give back the extra $20. Atkins heard later that Gee was fined $2,000 for violations in this case.
Since at least January, Stokes has been talking to people who complained about Youngin’s. DCRA honchos won’t let him talk to a reporter because the investigation is ongoing, but his intentions are clear from the people he has interviewed. “He said he’s working on it, trying to shut ’em down,” Atkins says. “He said I’m the sixth person that he’s working on.”
Stokes also stood up for Washington Highlands resident Valerie Mitchell Sigwalt. Youngin’s legally towed Sigwalt’s mother’s car. After paying to pick it up, the family found that the seat belt had been yanked through the steering wheel. The base of the belt had cracked. Sigwalt’s mother complained at the desk, asking for the owner, but Gee didn’t identify himself. He just sat there eating a sandwich.
“Finally, Mr. Gee gets up and tells her she is a liar,” Sigwalt says. “Then the complaints turned to my husband.…The man went insane, practically frothing at the mouth.”
Sigwalt says that Gee told her husband, who is white, “No cracker can tell me how to conduct my business.” Then he told them to get their car off his lot, or he’d tow it again.
Then Stokes got on the case. He found out that Gee had refused to accept credit cards, though all towing companies in the District must take both paper and plastic. He also learned that Gee’s driver hadn’t provided a copy of the District of Columbia Owner’s Bill of Rights for Towed Vehicles, the document that tells owners they have a say in what happens to their cars.
He told Sigwalt that Gee was getting fined another $2,000 for these violations.
In the late ’80s, when Youngin’s went into business, the District’s towing regulations were weak. If a car was towed, the owner had no easy way to find it, so wreckers could make loads off storing vehicles and not notifying anyone until huge fees started piling up.
“There were some very reputable, very law-abiding, very efficient towing companies in D.C.,” says Larry Mirel, a former D.C. insurance commissioner. “There were also some that were little more than thieves.”
Youngin’s grabbed a big enough share of the towing market that another former D.C. official said the company was “50 percent” of the reason the District rewrote its towing laws in 2001. The new laws meant that all tows went into a citywide database. While the change made it harder to overcharge, Gee allegedly still found ways to abuse his customers.
Cops have investigated Gee for a few years, according to a police official familiar with the inquiry, but they haven’t come up with proof of anything more than terrible customer service and aggressive secrecy. Another cop, Sgt. Tim Cortwright of the Washington Area Vehicle Enforcement Auto Theft Task Force, found Gee unwilling to let officers make a routine check. “He was quite humble after I put my foot down a little bit,” Cortwright says. “At first, he was a jerk.”
Gee does have a criminal record: He was found guilty of unlawful entry and simple assault in 1978, disorderly conduct in 1983, and receiving stolen goods in 1985. One man sought a restraining order against Gee and his employees in 2005. “They threatened my life because I sue Youngin’s,” El-Hadim Faris wrote in a court filing. His motion was denied.
The same year, another man claimed in a D.C. Superior Court lawsuit that a Youngin’s driver assaulted him. The driver was trying to take Geary Simon’s car without a ticket, so Simon bent down and tried to pull the chain from under the car. The driver grabbed him and forced him to the curb, fracturing Simon’s ring finger. He took Simon down twice, and a female companion called 911 before the police arrived and broke it up. (Simon’s case was eventually settled.)
Some people wouldn’t mind a few fractures for the chance to knock Gee a good one. Kelly Rhodes was helping his father-in-law get his car back when the owner mentioned an “in-and-out fee.” Rhodes says he told his father-in-law, “Let’s just pay these guys because these guys are crooks.” That did it: Gee’s temper was lit, and he foamed in both of their faces. “I wanted to get physical, and he wanted to get physical, I’m sure, but looking past it, because nothing good’s gonna come of it,” Rhodes says.
Gee hasn’t returned numerous calls for comment. A man who answered Gee’s cell phone said Gee was out of town. His last comments to Washington City Paper were in response to a previous story: “You didn’t meet no devil,” he said on the phone. “You’re trying to make it look like we are here to rip off the public.…You cannot do that to a business, my man.”