Nicholas Rigterink may not have been seeking a fight over property rights when he went out for a mid-November dinner, but the 29-year-old Charlottesville man found one– one that ended up with him staring up the barrel of a handgun.
It all started with a plan to meet a friend at Fry's Spring Station, a gourmet pizzeria housed in a former service station where Jefferson Park Avenue bends and bridges the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. It was Rigterink's decision to park his vehicle across the street at another former auto center, a recently-closed Exxon, that put him on the path to looking at the business end of a weapon.
"I've parked there for years with no problems," says Rigterink. "I really thought it was fine to park there."
Perhaps unbeknownst to him, the Exxon went out of business in early November, so the longtime policy of allowing parking on the expansive lot had come to a halt as the landlord posted a pair of no-parking signs on the inside of the glassed office.
The fateful encounter happened on Monday, November 12 after Rigterink, who works as the manager of the Melting Pot restaurant, had finished his shift. With the weather still warm shortly after their 6pm arrival, his group chose to enjoy their meal al fresco. The restaurant's spacious covered patio offers an expansive view of the road locals abbreviate as JPA– as well as a direct view of the old Exxon lot.
Rigterink's party hadn't yet been served any food or drinks when, suddenly, he says he saw two tow trucks pull into the lot.
Hoping to avert the towing, Rigterink raced across the street. As regular readers of the Hook know– and plenty of motorists have learned the hard way– once a tow truck is on site with a targeted vehicle, it may require a payment to allow the vehicle to leave the property.
According to the Virginia Board of Towing and Recovery Operators, a state agency that oversees the industry, if a car has already been hitched, the truck driver has a right to full payment– as much as $150. If, however, the car owner arrives before the vehicle has been hitched, the legal maximum to win release is $25.
Rigterink says a car next to his was already hitched when he arrived but says his car was not connected and claims that he actually walked between his vehicle and the wrecker– something he notes would have been impossible if it had already been attached. He says the tow truck driver from FBR Towing nonetheless demanded $75 in cash before allowing him to reclaim his car.
FBR owner Wayne Hayslett asserts otherwise.
"I was the driver that night," says Hayslett, who explains that even when a vehicle has been hitched, there's space to walk between the tow truck and the car. Rigterink may not have realized it, says Hayslett, but "his car was hitched."
Frustrated by the charge but relieved he wouldn't have to make the two-mile-trek to FBR's impound facility on Harris Street, Rigterink says he paid the cash.
"It wasn't the end of the world," says Rigterink, who returned to his friends, hoping to enjoy the rest of his evening. It wasn't to be.
The manager of Fry's Spring Station came over to his table to apologize for the inconvenience and then pointed out something that Rigterink hadn't noticed: a black SUV parked nearby at the 7 Day Jr. convenience store.
The manager told Rigterink the owners of the Exxon property were inside the black SUV overseeing the towing operation– and allegedly asserted that the couple were personally calling the tow trucks.
"He said that cars were being towed from the lot day and night," says Rigterink.
If the property owners were at hand, Rigterink wondered, why wouldn't they just tell people not to park there– or at least post bigger signs to prevent unwitting trespassers from a ruined evening?
"Why would they want to do that to people?" asks Rigterink. "These are the patrons of neighboring businesses."
Incensed by his own experience and hoping to help other would-be parkers avoid the expense with which he'd just been saddled, Rigterink says he kept his eye on the Exxon lot. He says he left his patio table– three times– to cross the street and warn others who were about to park there.
But the more he thought about the alleged enterprise, the more his frustration mounted. And when he left the restaurant shortly before 8pm, Rigterink says, he saw the SUV still parked at the convenience store, and, believing they were calling the tow company every time someone pulled into their lot, decided to tell them he found their approach frustrating.
He drove over to the 7 Day Jr. lot and stopped his car, a 2002 Pontiac Grand-Am, perpendicular to the SUV. Next, he says he got out. But before he said anything, he says, a woman exited the passenger side of the SUV and approached him.
"I was in the process of asking her why she was doing what she was doing," says Rigterink. He claims he didn't get a sentence out before the situation escalated.
"I heard shouting from the driver of the SUV," says Rigterink, who says he stopped talking as he looked in the direction of the noise.
"The door was half cracked," says Rigterink, "and through it was his arm and a handgun pointed straight at me. He was shaking it, yelling, and had a real look of anger."
Allegedly shocked and frightened, Rigterink says he climbed back in his car, pulled into a spot in front of the 7 Day Jr., dialed 911 from his cellphone, and ran inside to wait for police.
If the cops could find the man brandishing the weapon, they'd surely charge him, Rigterink thought. He was wrong.
The investigating officer interviewed the gun owner. It was Lee Hoff, who along with wife, Gladys, owns multiple Charlottesville properties including both the Exxon and the 7 Day Jr.
The officer approached Rigterink and explained that Mr. Hoff had a concealed weapon permit and that as a property owner feeling sufficiently threatened he thusly had the right to wave a weapon to protect himself and his wife. The officer had another surprise for the young restaurant manager: he was banned from the property and needed to leave immediately.
"He said it would be up to the Commonwealth's Attorney to decide if there would be charges" against Mr. Hoff, says Rigterink, who says he learned in a next day phone call to the City of Charlottesville Commonwealth's Attorney that he'd need to go down to a magistrate and swear out a warrant, something he did on Tuesday, November 27.
According to Charlottesville Police Lt. Ronnie Roberts, officers followed the law in handling the situation, which he describes as a "he said/she said" with no outside witnesses.
For an arrest to occur, "the misdemeanor would have had to occur in the officer's presence," Roberts says, noting that the law provides limited exceptions including incidents of domestic violence.
"We don't have the ability to go back and look at it on replay," Roberts notes. "One says this, one says that. We advise them in which direction they can proceed."
Attorney Debbie Wyatt says she's not surprised police didn't make an arrest.
"The benefit of the doubt most likely goes to the person who says he felt threatened," says Wyatt.
While Virginia doesn't have a "stand your ground" law like Florida's, which permits the use of deadly force in a case where an individual feels an imminent life-threatening attack, Virginia law does provide some comfort to those who claim self-defense.
Had Hoff shot Rigterink rather than simply pointing his weapon, Wyatt says the decision about whether it was a "reasonable" act of self-defense would likely have been a question for a jury.
Rigterink claims he remained on the driver's side of his vehicle and that it was Mrs. Hoff who confronted him. He says he's disgusted by what he sees as predatory behavior by property owners who he considers more focused on punishing parkers than protecting their property.
The Hoffs offer a different version of the events.
"The signs mean what they say," says Gladys Hoff, reached by phone two days after the incident. "If he can't read, he doesn't need to be driving."
The Hoffs are Charlottesville natives who now split their time between Virginia and Florida, and Gladys Hoff says the risks of allowing parking at the old gas station lot are real– and should not be theirs to shoulder. She mentions the possibility that the petroleum pumps or the building could be struck by an errant driver and that her insurance would have to cover damages.
"Anything can happen, and we're the owners," says Hoff, who traces the history of parking problems to the operator of the now defunct Exxon, Steve Gibson, who allegedly allowed parking for UVA football games and the restaurant.
"We're left to clean up his mess," Hoff says of Gibson, who did not return a reporter's call.
"We have gas tanks in the ground," continues Hoff, citing a fear that football game-day parkers might tailgate with open-flame grills, something she fears could lead to a fire or explosion.
In fact, she says, the building did once catch on fire after a vehicle backed into the electrical meter. While that fire was quickly spotted and extinguished, now that the property is vacant she fears another such incident would erupt unnoticed until it was too late.
"Everyone wants to down us," she says, "because we're trying to protect what we have."
As for the gun incident, Mrs. Hoff says she and her husband felt frightened when Rigterink pulled into the 7 Day Jr. lot. And she suggests Rigterink was an aggressor against whom her husband had no choice but to defend. While Rigterink insists Mrs. Hoff approached him after leaving her SUV, Hoff's description is different.
"He pinned us in," she says in a reporter's first interview with her. In a second interview, her description of Rigterink's actions intensifies.
"He came around the side of his vehicle and came at me," says Mrs. Hoff. "No husband is going to watch someone run up in his wife's face. You never know what someone is going to do."
Denying such assertions, Rigterink asks why Mrs. Hoff would leave her car if she were so frightened?
She says her fright began only after Rigterink began moving menacingly, and she repeatedly expresses a suspicion to a reporter that he was intoxicated, a notion he flatly denies.
"I didn't even have time to finish one beer because of the towing issue," says Rigterink, noting that he'd been prepared for the couple to make allegations after he summoned police.
"I half expected them to demand the police breathalyze me," says Rigterink. "I would have welcomed it."
Rigterink's dining companion that evening, Turner Pittkin, downplays any likelihood that Rigterink presented a threatening appearance and supports Rigterink's one-beer assertion.
"It wasn't a wild night," says Pittkin. "We were just getting dinner."
Pittkin– who notes that the group also included his girlfriend and his girlfriend's three-year-old child– recalls how the "shaken" Rigterink summoned him after the incident. And Pittkin, emphasizing that his friend is not the type to start a physical altercation, says that he too felt shocked over the Charlottesville Police Department's unwillingness to make an arrest.
"Really?" asks Pittkin. "If you just feel threatened, you can pull a gun and point it in someone's face?"
However, Mrs. Hoff also expresses outrage. It starts, she says, with the management of Fry's Spring Station, who, she claims, failed to make adequate parking plans for a restaurant that can seat 180 people but has just six designated parking spots.
"I asked them when they opened," Hoff relates, 'What are you going to do about parking?' I told them I didn't want people parking on my property."
Robert Sawry, co-owner of Fry's Spring Station, says there's plenty of street parking.
"This is an urban restaurant," says Sawry, who is also the managing partner of The Downtown Grille restaurant on the Downtown Mall. He compares these urban eateries to Richmond's fan district, where restaurants thrive despite any dedicated parking. Finding parking in the Fry's Spring neighborhood, Sawry insists, simply means a diner may have to walk a few blocks.
Sawry acknowledges that the Hoffs are within their rights to tow, even as his own approach to parkers who occasionally snag his private parking spot downtown is a bit softer.
"I leave a note," he says.
Were the Hoffs calling in their tows? A manager with Fry's Spring Station concedes that he has no proof, and Mrs. Hoff says she just happened to be watching the tow patrols on the fateful evening.
"The tow company patrols the lot," she says.
And she reacts with indignation to any notion of fee-splitting. That's the legal-but-controversial practice that has incited criticism of developer Keith Woodward who has earned $25 per tow from his downtown lot. Both Mrs. Hoff and the owner of FBR Towing deny any such fee-splitting arrangement.
Still, frustration remains for Fry's Spring Station managers over the Hoffs' handling of what may appear to a tempting parking place. There is no rope around the perimeter, and Mrs. Hoff confirms that she rebuffed the restaurant's entreaty to purchase and post more prominent signage. Currently, the two signs taped to the inside of the old Exxon office are set back from the street, unlighted, and can be difficult to see after dark.
"It's not up to me to have their signs all over my property," says Mrs. Hoff. "I think they ought to post it on their own place."
In fact, Sawry points out, the restaurant has posted placards to warn diners, and he expresses gratitude that the owners of nearby Anna's Pizza #5 have taken a different tack when his patrons have strayed.
"They give us a courtesy call," says Sawry, "so we can have the customer move the vehicle."
For Rigterink, the issue doesn't revolve around the Hoffs right to deny parking at the shuttered station.
"It's their property, so they can use it how they want," concedes Rigterink.
What he wonders aloud is why they aren't willing to install a clearer warning, and he says he's speaking out so nobody else who approaches the Hoffs goes through the experience of looking down the barrel of a gun.
"They knew what they were doing was going to piss off a lot of people, and they were sitting there ready to deal with some violent, mad person if need be," he says. "I approached them like an adult and had a gun in my face within 15 seconds."
Hoff, however, says Rigterink has unfairly and inaccurately portrayed her and her husband.
"My husband and I aren't Bonnie and Clyde," she says. "We own property, we've lived here all our life, and I pay high-dollar taxes. The signs are up. You don't just park on other people's property."
Note: Due to an editing error, the railroad line was misidentified in this story. It is the Norfolk Southern line and not the CSX line as originally stated. The error has been corrected above.