Credit: Illustration by Emily Flake

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The Brightwood Park thugs didn’t respect St. Lawrence Smith’s car any more than they respected him. They’d sit on the Mercedes and eat chicken wings, staring the 43-year-old auto exporter down when he came out of the house.
So after those thugs stuck a gun to Smith’s head, robbed and pistol-whipped him, it was no surprise that he lost the car as well. But the maroon 420 SEL wasn’t carried off by the street toughs. It disappeared instead at the chain end of what is perhaps the city’s most zealous towing company.

After the beating, Smith was treated for a concussion. He slept in a motel on New York Avenue, then a friend let him stay over for a few weeks. Her condo didn’t have enough parking, so he got permission to leave his car at the motel’s parking lot. When he came to retrieve the car about a month later, it was gone.

“I went out there—What the hell? Where’s my car, man?” he says.

He learned that Youngin’s Towing and Automotive had towed it as an abandoned car. Over the phone, Smith confronted the company’s owner, James W. Gee Jr., who initially said the car wasn’t there. Despite the pain in his head and Gee’s angry manner, Smith showed up at the Youngin’s lot on Montana Avenue NE, along with two cops.

Gee, according to Smith, emerged with several rough-looking men. “What the hell you bring police onto my property for?” he said. Then Gee admitted that the Mercedes had been on the lot. “I took the motor. I took the transmission. It’s my property,” he said, according to Smith.

As some car owners and automotive professionals tell it, that’s not the only property that’s become Gee’s. They say the 19-year-old wrecking business devours cars on flimsy pretexts, according to written complaints. They say that the rates for storage or auto work are exorbitant. They say that if Youngin’s gets your car, you might never see it again. In the past three years, 11 people have complained to the Better Business Bureau, and two have sued. Now that his Mercedes is in pieces, Smith promises to file his own lawsuit this month.

“Demo,” a car dealer who declined to give his last name, tells his own tale of Youngin’s woe while hanging out at an Advance Auto Parts store in Takoma Park . “They tow my car, and when we check with the police, there was no record of the [vehicle identification] number,” Demo says. “On Montana Avenue, I saw my car on site.…The guy said, ‘Give me $1,200. You can get your car.’ ”

Towing companies can’t just scavenge the roads. Whether responding to accidents or enforcing street signs, they act on the city’s authority. That means car owners have certain rights, as long as they’re there for the tow. You can request an estimate of charges, say whether your car will be towed in or out of the District, and ask that a tow be stopped. Once your car is towed, you have the right to inspect it.

These points are laid out in the District of Columbia Owner’s Bill of Rights for Towed Vehicles. The last sentence states, “a towing business must agree…to be courteous and show respect to citizens.”

Many of the complaints about Youngin’s are complaints about Gee. His critics describe him as having a mean temper, a foul mouth, and a violent streak. He’s picked up more than two dozen criminal charges over the years, according to D.C. Superior Court records. He was found guilty of unlawful entry and simple assault in 1978, disorderly conduct in 1983, and receiving stolen goods in 1985.

“I can’t say anything about him because I work with him,” says one driver for a competing company. “He is unlike anyone else. He does whatever he wants.”

Yashieka Anglin saw Gee get angry. She had paid Gee $220 to recover her car, which turned up after a theft with the ignition ripped out. A driver from another company was there at an arranged time to tow her car off the Youngin’s lot. But when he pulled up, Gee got in his face, saying the lot was closed. “I was saying, oh Lord, they’re about to fight,” Anglin says. “I put my hand on [Gee’s] shoulder. He turned around and looked like he was gonna hit me.”

“A lot of people are afraid of this guy,” says Robert Jacobs, who sued Gee. Youngin’s towed Jacobs’ van from a spot downtown. The ticket said the van had been in an emergency no parking zone. Jacobs says no such zone existed, and the city ruled the ticket defective.

But Jacobs still couldn’t get his van. He showed up at Youngin’s twice with a lawsuit in hand, he says, and both times Gee tossed the papers out the door. Talking on the phone outside D.C. Superior Court, Gee locked eyes with Jacobs and fired the cheap shot. “He said, ‘Motherfucker ain’t got enough money to sue me. Got to have money to sue me,’ ” says Jacobs, who had his court costs waived and wrote his complaint by hand. “I said [to myself], ‘I ain’t got a dime, but I’m gonna fuck with you.’ ”

After more than two weeks, a court order forced Gee to release the van. If not for the order, Youngin’s would have charged Jacobs almost $700. When he arrived to pick up the van, it wouldn’t start. He called another tow truck.

Gee has his defenders. D.C. police Inspector Kevin Anderson recalls from his days on the street that while the people at Youngin’s may have been aggressive, they were always eager to help out cops. “They were a good friend to the police,” he says. “I never had a problem with Youngin’s.”

And Mike Daley of competitor Platinum Towing says Gee is no different from any other business owner: Customers will complain, whether he makes a clean profit or not. “From my point of view, he’s been…good in my eyes,” Daley says. “I just do towing. I don’t ask questions.”

In a small office beside rows of ruined cars, Gee defends himself against the hordes of angry customers. “They start calling us motherfuckers. ‘Motherfucker, you towed my car,’ ” Gee says, explaining that he intimidates people only after they threaten him. “I do over 300 to 500 tows a week. You cannot please everybody.

“There are two sides to every story,” he says. “Their side and my side and the truth.”

He asks his receptionist, Valencia Jones, for her opinion on the deportment of Youngin’s customers. “They are nasty,” Jones agrees. “They come in real mean and nasty; they don’t come in like normal people, like, ‘You got my car.’ ”

Waving a roll of $100 bills for emphasis, Gee claims he told Smith he could pick up his Mercedes, but Smith never came. He claims that Jacobs was lying about getting towed from a meter spot, and he says that he never tows without a valid ticket. He opens boxes of old tickets, just to prove it. “We just don’t go around taking people’s cars,” he says.

His enemies have one thing in common: “No whites. All black,” says Gee, as he unrolls the bills and lays them in stacks. “They don’t know how to conduct business.” Asked if he means only black car owners give him trouble, Gee, who’s black himself, insists: “All African-American.”