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"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."