Kansas City's towing industry is a wreck.

One Tow Over the Line 

Kansas City's towing industry is a wreck.

Joe Booth ignored his shoes, grabbed his pants and shirt, and hurried his wife, Norma, into the hallway. Flames were climbing outside his window that Friday morning at the Las Vegas MGM Grand, built in 1973 as the world's largest resort hotel. "They were small flames," Joe remembers. "I didn't think we were going to be gone long. I could come back for my shoes."

Joe Booth had trained himself to respond to emergencies. That's why he was in Las Vegas 20 years ago -- to attend a convention of tow-truck drivers. The year before, Booth had established Kansas City, Missouri, as the cradle of America's towing industry when he helped form the Towing and Recovery Association of America (TRAA) to improve and promote awareness of the profession. Booth prided himself on making split-second decisions at accident scenes because, ego notwithstanding, he was very good at it. People around Kansas City knew that whether they needed someone to dismantle a five-car pileup or just haul a clunker to the salvage yard, they should call Booth's Tow Service: 444-4496.

"Sometimes you don't know what to do," Booth says, looking back at his first moments of hesitation at the hotel. Not taking his shoes indicated that mighty Joe Booth was human: Glass shards sliced his feet like tiny razors after Booth and another man smashed a chair through a fifth-floor picture window, enabling the Booths to jump eight feet onto the casino's burning terrace roof, which was starting to collapse from the heat. They found an outside fire escape blocked with corrugated metal, but Booth fought to pry it open so the couple could scurry to safety. The inferno killed 87 people and injured more than 500.

Joe had been reluctant to go to Las Vegas because he sensed something bad might happen. "I don't feel right about this trip," he kept telling Norma. They discussed taking separate flights for the sake of their two youngest boys, just in case one of the planes went down. But Booth needed to make the trip because the Towing and Recovery Association of America needed him. The towing industry needed him. The convention was his job, his duty, his life. After the fire, Joe and Norma returned to Kansas City and received a hero's welcome at the airport.

"People were saying I was a hero for getting home, but I was glad to get home," Joe says. "I thanked the Lord for letting me come home. I'm a believer that when the good Lord wants to take you, he will. I don't stay out of cars and I don't stay out of this and I don't stay out of that. I don't do anything I don't want to do."

Eight months after the MGM Grand fire, Joe Booth faced another hotel disaster. On July 17, 1981, a four-story-high walkway collapsed during a tea dance at the Hyatt Regency. Booth's Tow Service was there to clear wreckage after one of the city's most horrible accidents, one that killed 114 people.

"We were called down to move some of those steel beams off those young people. You didn't say, 'How much am I going to get paid?' You sent your equipment in, and said, 'What do you need?' I sent all my trucks down there to work. For zero."Whether Joe Booth will be able to clear the wreckage of the Kansas City, Missouri, tow industry -- not for zero but for $20,000 -- is another question.

In the year 2000, the big business of towing cars in Kansas City could use some real assistance -- the place is the scene of avoidable collisions between city officials, politicians, lawyers, judges, police, tow operators, and motorists. For quite some time, Kansas City has been idling through this pathetic ride home, looking for an exit.

If people think it's a good idea to call for help, they should think again. The help in this town works only to jack you around.

Trust no one.

Robert "Pete" Coleman found that out the hard way in May, when someone rear-ended his metallic-blue '89 Plymouth Voyager along I-29 as he drove home to Parkville.

"Another Plymouth Voyager hit me and I went shooting forward," Coleman says. "When I was hit, the front reclining seat ratcheted down and I was looking up at the ceiling. I was scared and I thought I was going to die."

Coleman survived the crash, only to regret a sudden encounter with a stranger trying to make a killing.

"Immediately a guy in a tow truck pulled over," Coleman says. "He obviously saw the accident and he was on us like flypaper."

The tow-truck driver identified himself as working for Corey's Tow of Kansas City. Before the police, fire department, and ambulance arrived, the driver had "negotiated" a deal for his services with the two unsuspecting motorists. "He said, 'If you guys want to have your cars towed to the body repair shop, your insurance will take care of you.'"

An ambulance took the 59-year-old Coleman, afflicted with a history of heart trouble, to a hospital. He was treated and released. Coleman says he and his wife, Gerry, went to check on his van at Jack Miller Body Works in North Kansas City, where he had instructed Corey's Tow to take it. Although Coleman's van had sustained $2,900 worth of damage to the tailgate and rear bumper brackets, it was the tow bill that caught Coleman's attention: $421 for a 3 1/2-mile haul.

Coleman says Corey's couldn't give him any logical explanation for the charges. The itemized breakdown mirrored the type of "creative" billing consistent with "wreck-chasing" (a.k.a. "wreck-running" and "call-jumping") -- the practice of tow operators who eavesdrop on police scanners and hunt for accident victims.

Wreck-chasers -- ambulance-chasers with the hookup -- rally to the scene and pressure motorists into accepting their business, usually before police arrive. The payoff: jacked-up towing and storage fees for such phantom services as "waiting time." Customers might be able to drive away, but the tow drivers give them bogus prognoses about their cars' condition. Or tell them that insurance covers all. Fees for routine calls, based on a sample of billing receipts collected by the city, range anywhere from $300 to well above $700.

Critics say wreck-chasers make accident scenes more dangerous by crowding roadways, fighting among themselves, and interfering with police and paramedics. A wreck-chaser isn't afraid to stick a business card into the hand of someone strapped to a gurney. And a runner can work alone or for larger tow operators who play a numbers game, using unlisted phone numbers and addresses and switching company names to keep customers guessing about the whereabouts of their cars -- and then tacking on higher storage charges.

Coleman was mortified by the $421 bill from Corey's: towing fee, $111; rollover or extraction fee, $100; flatbed tow truck charge, $100; waiting time, $75; and cleanup charge, $35.

"He played us like a violin and had it down pat," Coleman says. "I think Kansas City is leaving the situation open. The city could have done something about this. That's why I live outside of Kansas City."

Coleman says the repairman at the body shop told him the alternative was to have his van hauled to the city tow lot. Coleman's chances for more amenable service, however, would have been just as poor there. Kansas City runs the Heaven's Gate of vehicle impounding.Kansas City's tow lot, controlled by the city's Neighborhood and Community Services Department, screams stench. In the spring of 1996, to make way for the Hilton Flamingo Casino, the city moved its lot from the banks of the Missouri River to 3800 Raytown Road. It costs the city $150,000 a year to rent the spot, and the operation has become a logistical and administrative nightmare.

The lot's electronic security gate and camera surveillance system haven't worked in months, and lot workers say 24-hour security guards hired from the Uni-Guard Security Company of Kansas City randomly miss their shifts, giving thieves a free pass to steal cars and equipment. The lot's "Do Not Enter" sign deters stragglers as well as if it read "C'mon In and Don't Leave Empty-Handed!"

Gary Summerskill, a tow-lot crew chief, gets the chills just thinking about what could happen on his shifts at night.

"They drive in and we chase them out," Summerskill says of intruders. "I was driving around the lot the other Tuesday night and I see something out of the corner of my eye, possibly a cat. I go down two rows to cut in and I see two black boys creepin', all hunched over. They see me and I see them, but I'm no hero. I called the cops. I think the guard was there, but they climbed over the fence. About two or three weeks ago, a guy came in and stole a car, drove right out. I could get fired for saying this, but we're a towing company. Do you think the neighborhoods department knows anything about towing?"

A new triple-wide trailer, built on the lot six months ago to replace a smaller office trailer, went without electricity until recently because the city's own Neighborhood and Community Services Department couldn't obtain the proper city building permits. Motorists hoping to reclaim vehicles usually went to the big, empty trailer first, giving them momentary panic attacks about whether anyone was there to help them.

The new office finally opened last week, but the lot's current location -- which accommodates 15,000 cars -- bulges at the fences with unclaimed cars. To make things even worse, lot operators sometimes hold auctions on days when the Royals or Chiefs are playing, when there's no place to park nearby. And inefficient record-keeping and communication between police and lot operators create a backlog of illegally parked and abandoned cars on city streets.

City councilwoman Teresa Loar, who wants towing reform, says the city's "too afraid" to address the issue. "The city does this business very poorly, and we are losing money when we could be making a lot of money for the city. It's the biggest mess I've ever seen in my life. Something is terribly wrong and the city is just as responsible as anyone doing the gouging."

Two years ago, overwhelmed with complaints and lawsuits from car owners and tow operators, Kansas City officials began plotting reform strategies. Right from the start, however, the city's leadership resembled a three-headed chicken with its heads cut off. Last summer, the city demonstrated its own confusion by completing a trio of studies covering tow-related issues and possible improvements.

Is Kansas City's towing situation such a mess that it takes three overlapping reports to wreck-tify it?

Bob Mohart, director of the department that oversees the tow lot's operation, defends the city's approach.

"I'm tired of criticisms from outsiders," Mohart says. "Part of the problem is that we've got three departments involved in the morass." He is referring to his own Neighborhood and Community Services Department, the city's Finance Department, and the police. "Now everybody is saying, 'Why haven't you got it fixed?' It's a convoluted mess, and we're working as fast as we can."

In October 1998, the city council adopted a resolution to investigate wreck-chasing and determine whether Kansas City should turn over operation of its tow lot to a private company. Eight months later, the Committee for Safe and Efficient Towing produced its report, recommending a consolidation of all tow-related functions and the adoption of a law to end wreck-chasing.

Two months after that, in August, City Auditor Mark Funkhouser issued a second report -- this one containing a detailed explanation of operating expenses involved with the lot.

Funkhouser's study showed how fraud, theft, and altered auction records might have cost the city $118,000 between July 1997 and January 1998. During another three-month period, a finance department employee falsified auction records for her boyfriend, resulting in a loss of revenue totaling around $12,000 (the employee no longer works for the department). The report also says that during a seven-month period ending in January 1998, 141 cars might have been picked up from the auction without being paid for and 175 to 200 missing cars were neither claimed nor auctioned. Owners who complained that they'd never been notified when their cars were about to be sold cost the city nearly $47,500 in settlement claims from the start of 1997 through May of last year.

Funkhouser's report offers an eight-point plan of attack, including relocation of the lot to a city-owned facility (to save rent money) and closer scrutiny of auction revenues and police-approved waivers of tow fees. He also recommends that the police department start paying storage fees on evidence cars that exceed time limits for holding.

If the city's track record in the tow business looks disgraceful at this point, the circumstances surrounding the release of report number three -- this one approved by the city council -- may have complicated matters even more. It was Joe Booth's turn to try to salvage things.

Gary Summerskill, the Kansas City tow lot worker and former towing company operator, says he trusts Joe Booth about as far as he can throw a truck.

Summerskill -- and plenty of Kansas City tow operators -- says Joe constructed his nationally regarded towing company with a few unethical practices of his own. And by the way, Summerskill says, he himself is who inspired a greenhorn Joe Booth to purchase his first tow truck in 1960, thus putting Joe on the path to towing immortality.

"I towed a car in to him at his station at 75th and Wyandotte, and he thought the bill was too high," Summerskill says. "Before the end of the week, he bought one too."

And Joe Booth kept buying more and more tow trucks, until he proved himself worthy of the highest honor known to the men and women who haul ass to save your ass. Booth is in the Hall of Fame ... of towing cars.

Eat your bloody heart out, Pete Rose.

Booth, 59, was inducted into the International Towing and Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum on Jan. 16, 1998, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He officially became the hall's 171st honoree, joining an eight-member class that included towing greats from as far away as France (Jean Jacques Julien) and England (Michael J. Boniface). Joe was cited for his "passion for the industry" and his numerous contributions: He had consulted law enforcement and insurance agencies and raised funds for the Towing and Recovery Association of America; he had a hand in creating the national 911 emergency system; and in the '70s, Booth's Tow Service had been the largest of its kind the country.

Joe Booth was the youngest of the four children of George and Nellie Booth, who lived in working-class Waldo. When Joe was 8, his older stepbrother, Navy man Bob Hendrickson, nearly died from injuries suffered in a fatal car crash after a wild night of drinking in San Diego. Booth says it was the first time he saw his mother cry. She and his father couldn't afford plane fare to California, but within hours, Joe had gathered some of his friends and they'd canvassed the neighborhood, collecting more than $200 for the tickets.

"I've been in disasters all my life. I've been able to cope with them and handle them," Joe says.

His parents returned the favor in 1960. They mortgaged their home at 301 W. 81st Terrace so that Booth, an accomplished race-car builder, could finance his first service station, near 75th and Wyandotte streets. He called it Joe Booth's DX.

Then he opened a second station two blocks away and paid $3,000 for his first tow truck. Booth says he got into towing by accident: His gas station kept getting calls for a tow operator. "I thought if the phone rings 15 times day for tow trucks I better have me a tow truck," he says.

In the beginning, Booth charged $3.50 per tow.

And he met Norma 33 years ago when her car broke down one night near his station. Booth loaned Norma his car, repaired hers, and drove it to her place the next night.

"I worked hard 24 hours a day and seven days a week. I went home for one hour a day to meet my family, but I was always running my tow operation, always running the streets. I had to hustle for everything I got. It cost me $12,000 every morning to open my eyes. But people saw all those big trucks I had and they thought I was a multimillionaire. All my money was tied up into the trucks. I had to fight for everything I got."

Sometimes he lost. In 1972 Booth, a registered Democrat at the time, won a General Assembly primary election for state representative in Kansas City's District No. 31. His political career might have taken off at that point, but Booth never made it to the general election. He was pulled off the November ballot for violating residency requirements after the Jackson County Republican Committee filed a lawsuit, says Ray James, current Director of Elections for the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners. (Interestingly, James was the Republican choice in District No. 31 that same year and would have competed against his old high school classmate.) Booth's removal from the race enabled James to hold on to his seat for a fourth straight term. Booth says he was robbed. "I won, but they said I lived two blocks out of the district," he says. "I bought another house and they said I was living out of the district. That was the only way they could beat me."

But Booth was a natural-born charmer, and his political instincts carried over to his work. Joe Booth Jr. says his father never met a stranger. "I remember going riding with him in his tow trucks. If we saw somebody waiting on the side of the road, we'd help them, get gas for them, change a tire. Somebody might say we just wanted money, but we were providing a service when they broke down. But that's the reason I didn't get into it. It's too much of a fight. Nobody wants to work together in this town and everybody is sue-happy. It's long hours and who's stealing from who. That's not my bag of tea."

Booth's Towing retained numerous private contracts with auto dealerships, garages, body shops, and insurance companies in an operation that managed satellite offices in St. Louis, Wichita, Springfield, Omaha, and Denver. Booth often flew by private plane to check up on things. He was no redneck grease monkey in dirty overalls.

Instead, he commanded a staff of 86 employees and required his drivers to wear clean uniforms.

"I don't go to work smellin', and I'm not braggin', I just don't do it," he says. "When I went to the office, I always had on a suit and tie. On Fridays, when everybody else was casual, I was dressed up. If my drivers didn't come to work in their uniforms, they didn't work. I took care of my accounts, and my accounts respected my company. If my drivers didn't do it my way, they didn't work for me. I don't believe in business casual and I don't believe in voice mail, either. If you call me, you are going to talk to me."

He used a fleet of more than 60 trucks painted red and yellow, exemplifying his primal business philosophy: "I like them because they are aggressive colors," he says. "You can see them from a distance."

Booth was notorious for chastising competitors who had unsavory business practices that threatened the towing industry and cheated motorists. He especially disliked the wreck-chasers.

"Wreck-chasing is not the free enterprise system," Booth says. "It's unscrupulous tow operators using a system that lets them gouge people. It's fraud." Booth began pushing for local reform aimed at Kansas City's wreck-chasers in the early '80s, but competitors worried that he would fortify his stranglehold on the market and abuse his political connections to gain ownership of the city's impound lot. He attracted enemies like John Rocker would in a campaign for mayor of New York City.

Booth held Kansas City's towing contract for three decades. He says the deal was not particularly lucrative -- the city tows an average of 15,000 cars a year, but Booth's best years saw him haul 75,000 vehicles for much higher rates.

"The city contract was a pimple on the butt of an elephant," Joe says. "I used it strictly for advertising. Whenever there was a wreck on TV, you saw my trucks."

But, Booth says, failing health forced him out of business. He suffered from severe blood clotting in his lungs and lower extremities. In 1989 Joe almost died from sudden complications of his illness; he spent 40 days at Baptist Medical Center in guarded condition.

Booth says he sold his company's equipment and holdings to other operators in 1989. Over the next 10 years, Booth says, he settled into consulting businesses and selling insurance to tow operators for the Cretcher Lynch Co. of Kansas City, conveniently located in the office right above Booth's. For all intents, the King of Towing was no more in Kansas City.

"He was in terrible health," recalls former Kansas City Royals player Pete LaCock, who worked briefly with Booth in the late '80s (they called their venture Royal Towing). "I thought he was dead."

But a year ago, Joe Booth resurfaced in public after Loar, whom he'd known for a long time -- her late father, a trucking-company safety supervisor, had worked with Booth for years -- asked him to consider developing a plan of attack for towing reform in Kansas City. Booth relished the idea of helping his friend and the city he once dominated. "If I hadn't gotten sick, I would still have the largest tow company in Kansas City," he says. "I'd still have everything and I'd do it right."

After submitting a bid for his services, Joe Booth signed a $20,000 contract to file a report outlining his solutions. Finally, Booth says, the city had hired the only person really capable of rebuilding the local towing business.

The industry of hauling wrecked cars looms big on the American highways and byways. About 50,000 towing companies (in addition to thousands of body shops and garages that tow for customers) account for annual revenues of more than $7 billion. The Towing and Recovery Association of America, now based in Alexandria, Virginia, insists that the towing industry, despite its dirty image, deserves reverential treatment: In 1987, at the urging of such TRAA officials as Booth, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative 1920s tow-truck stamp, depicting the industry as an "integral part of the U.S. transportation system" and a true American icon.

"You can compare the towing industry to the garbage truck," says Summerskill. "People don't like it, but it's a necessity. Think of all the cars that would be sitting around if there were no tow trucks."

But comparing tow trucks to garbage trucks might be an insult to the garbagemen of Kansas City.

Corey Smith, owner of Corey's Tow, located at 4621 Prospect, declines to discuss wreck-chasing and the May incident with motorist Pete Coleman. Smith defers questions to his lawyer, Michael McGovern of Tennessee.

"'Wreck-chasing' is an unfair term," McGovern says. "They don't chase." McGovern says a better term is "'accident-scene solicitation.' 'Wreck-chasing' sounds catchy, but that's not what's going on. People are not driving to these scenes. They are asking people if they can tow cars. If they are seriously injured, they don't interfere. There are some unwritten rules in this business. I'm overgeneralizing, but as a general rule, it's not a wreckless thing or dangerous thing."

James Calloway, a driver for Fulton's Body Shop in Kansas City, frequently relies on his police scanner to track down accidents. "If you are close to it, you run the wrecks," says Calloway, 43. "We don't charge you for waiting time or using our phones. A lot of wrecks you run -- a rollover, three-cars -- a tow truck can call police. There are a lot of tow-truck drivers who do it all the time. All they do is run wrecks for food for their family."

Calloway says the hot strip for wreck-chasers in wait is along 31st Street; his favorite hangout is near 18th Street and the Paseo, which gives him quick access to the interstate. He says he's seen numerous fights between tow drivers craving business from the same accident victims. "I don't think it's right if somebody wants to take your car and it's already hooked up," Calloway says. "I was at a three-car wreck on I-435, and one tow driver said, 'I'll take that wreck from you. I'll tow it for free.' If you get into an argument in front of a customer, they won't want you to take the wreck. The customer will ask the officer to get another one."

McGovern, former legal counsel with the TRAA, represents Corey Smith and a group of 32 Kansas City clients who call themselves the "Tow Operators Working to Protect Their Right to Operate on the Streets of Kansas City." They're the plaintiffs in a U.S. District Court lawsuit against Kansas City. The suit, filed May 17, came in response to an anti-wreck-chasing ordinance approved three months earlier by the city council.

The ordinance, should it go into effect, demands the use of zones or rotating accident call lists to spread the wealth and put a cap on fees charged by registered tow operators. McGovern defends his clients' rights to solicit business on several grounds, including the First Amendment. He says federal laws prohibit municipalities from regulating the towing industry and that Kansas City's ordinance will give certain tow companies a monopoly and throttle local competition.

Using scanners to monitor police frequencies for profit apparently violates FCC regulations, but several ongoing U.S. court cases are testing those laws. Kansas City Police Department spokesman Steve Young says the department's Board of Commissioners has given tow drivers permission to access their air traffic. "This was done in an effort to alleviate racing to the scene. Whether it was effective or not, we've never done a study on it, and we don't intend to because of the new city ordinance."

After the tow operators filed their lawsuit, the City Council volleyed back, passing a second ordinance that delayed the start of the anti-wreck-chasing policy until September. Both parties anticipate a court ruling by that time.

Joe Booth blames wreck-chasing on shortsighted city officials and "unscrupulous" tow operators who hurt their customers, legitimate tow operations, and the industry by driving up insurance rates with excessive charges.

But Booth's enemies say he amassed his prominence in the industry by using the same fraudulent tactics he often derided.

Among their most damaging allegations: After his "retirement" in 1989, Booth continued to operate several tow companies under various names to sidestep lawsuits and legal battles; he was having financial diffculties when he says he quit due to health concerns; and he might be positioning himself to take over ownership of the city's tow operation.

Landing the $20,000 consulting job with the city only heightened suspicions about his motives and political ties.

"Joe does get a lot of stuff put together," says one tow-industry source who asks not be identified. "But he's a salesman. He can sugarcoat just about anything and make it believable too."

Booth denies every allegation.

"I'm not as interested in hauling anymore as I am in people being treated properly," he says.

But Booth's recent legal battles paint a different portrait.

Last year, Joe Booth was a codefendant in a Jackson County circuit court case involving a towing company and a large vehicle storage lot that opened in 1998 at 13850 Wyandotte in Kansas City. The property owners, Miller Screen and Sales Company, won a $60,000 settlement (plus $5,000 a month for rent and profits) against Booth and Associated Towing Services Inc. because the defendants never entered a leasing agreement and failed to leave the location when they were asked to do so. Booth says his part in the lawsuit was in name only, that Associated was operated by a former business partner to whom he had sold access to Booth's Tow phone numbers.

In addition, the Internal Revenue Service filed a tax lien of $51,261 against Booth in 1993. Booth, who lives in Leawood, says he doesn't discuss his personal business affairs.

"When you work with people like Joe Booth, you don't know if he's lying or telling the truth," says Pete LaCock. "In the towing business, there are so many ins and outs and ways to hide things. You never knew if things were on the up-and-up." LaCock says Booth was no different from other characters associated with tow operations. "They were all kinda redneck and some were shady, slick. They all carried guns, and that's what scared me about those guys. Joe is a nice guy, but you never knew where he was coming from."

Richard Howard, a claims manager for First American Insurance Company and former body shop owner who went to Southwest High School with Booth, says Booth's difficulties are not entirely representative of the King of Towing.

"There's hardly anybody that knows more about the tow business than Joe," Howard says. "It's a pretty tough business, but Joe was able to bring some semblance of respectability to it.

"There's no middle ground. You'll find that most of the people that will detract from him are people who are in the same business. He's an extremely fierce competitor. What I hear is he will try to dominate the field and run over them at that particular day and time."

"Everyone says I do things crooked," Booth says. "I don't. You want to know why people don't like me? They can't outrun me to the ball game.

"I can't bad-mouth people," Booth adds. "That's not my style -- that's their style. I do more than piddle around towing cars. People who bad-mouth me want to go to the Hall of Fame, but they don't know how to use their mouths right."

Earning Kansas City's tow-operation consulting job last year tasted like a major victory to Booth, who had routinely clashed with city officials during his towing days but managed to keep himself in their favor. Some observers say his friendship with Loar was a conflict of interest in the $20,000 bid process. But Booth gloats. In August, he mordantly announced Kansas City was among the worst places for towing in America.

Not surprisingly, Booth's report directed criticism at the city's three departments entangled in the responsibility of running the tow lot -- Neighborhood and Community Services and the finance and police departments. But he says wreck-chasers' prowling the city streets contributed to an average tow bill of $302 in Kansas City, more than three times the $98 average in St. Louis.

His recommendations to the city were on par with Mohart's and Funkhouser's studies: Pass a law to end wreck-chasing and turn over the city tow-lot operation to a private firm.

Booth says he was satisfied with the thoroughness of his report. Others were not.

"We paid him, but it wasn't anything we didn't know," Mohart says. "Look, he's a tow-service guy that has been around a long time. He approached us. He probably isn't going to be getting anymore money out of the operation. If somebody was going to line their pockets, they would do it long-term, wouldn't they?"

The investigations conducted by the Neighborhood and Community Services Department and the city auditor duplicated much of his work, Booth says. He contends he was the first on the block to suggest the city turn over its tow-lot business to private firms and adopt no-solicitation laws to curb wreck-chasing. Booth says the auditor's numbers underestimate the depth of the city's financial losses. By Booth's rough calculations, between $1 million and $2 million annually slip through the holes in the tow lot's chain-link fence.

Earlier this month, Mohart's department finished soliciting bids to turn over the control of Kansas City's tow management operation to a private entity, which would be allowed to move the lot to another location and set up additional lots around the city. If that happens, city employees at the lot will either stay there or move to other positions. Morhart says the plan is to have a new contractor in place by September.

Booth says something smells with Mohart's plan. "They have taken a bid from some of their own employees, the same people who are stealing and committing fraud. They should give it to somebody that can do all this for them and do it right."Would that person be Joe Booth? He laughs at the thought. "Hell, all those tow companies that talk about me are going to be working for me anyway," he says.

Booth is preparing to unveil the most glorious of his machinations to date: a national roadside assistance program and hotline that will revolutionize the towing industry. Booth says the concept will enable motorists to dial *811 for a reliable, reputable tow truck 24 hours a day -- the program should make wreck-chasing obsolete, he says. He has contracted with Southwestern Bell and plans to launch the number in the near future. In literature for his new venture, called the National Roadside Assistance Association, Booth asks tow operators to sign up with his service, and he recommends that they "look at (their) towing and road service vehicles and the personnel who man them as rolling advertisements worthy of investment; rather than a separate entity which needs to break even at the price (they) are paid for each call."

And who can question the intentions of a man who is haunted by one surreal moment during his escape from the fire at the MGM Grand. While he and other guests scrambled through the smoke-filled hallways, Booth and his wife saw two men in wheelchairs being pushed by their wives. The women were crying, and so was Booth's wife. Booth and several others, including Kansas City-area residents Glenn and Patsy Barr, helped lift the disabled men through a window to safety.

Sometimes, Booth wonders what might happen if he used a wheelchair and were involved in an accident. Because his blood-clotting problem has weakened his legs, Booth wears tight-fitting therapeutic stockings to improve his circulation. He fears he will be unable to walk one day.

That's why he has been in contact with Luxury TowVan Corp. of Portland, Oregon, which began serving disabled customers in 1998 with an accessible tow truck called the Tow Van -- one fitted with a wheelchair lift and an extra cab. Portland operates eight such vans, and there are seven others around the country. Booth says he plans to ask the city council to purchase a Tow Van for emergency calls involving people in wheelchairs.

"Statistics show that over 50 percent of Americans will be over 65 by the year 2010," Booth says, "and we need to take care of the disabled. We need one (a Tow Van) in Kansas City, but they never listen to me. I try to tell them things and they don't care.

"I'm trying to find ways to help motorists. I'm not out trying to rape people or make money for myself."

This coming from the man who just might be the biggest and best wreck-chaser of them all.

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