THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Towing tussle: Oxford Hill incident gets ugly
As I have frequently observed, consumer disputes often turn emotional, exacerbating whatever issue caused the dispute to begin with. Throw the added accelerant of race on that conflagration, and you can easily end up with an explosion.
On the evening of September 22, Collier's Towing snagged 18-year old Will Thompson's illegally parked truck from the parking lot of Oxford Hill apartments in Charlottesville. There were several Collier's trucks operating in the lot at the time.
Thompson, who saw his truck being towed, was understandably upset over the $95 fee. At first, the Collier's driver agreed to release the truck then and there for a reduced price of $65, which Thompson's girlfriend, Michele Porter, agreed to pay. But Collier's inexplicably drove off with the vehicle.
The argument continued with a Collier's driver still at the lot as Porter tried to calm her boyfriend down.
At that point, however, events took an ugly turn. Thompson and Porter allege the driver said to Thompson, "At least I'm not married to a ni**er," referring to Porter, who is African American.
Both Porter and Thompson are freshmen at Shepherd University in West Virginia.
Angered, the couple retreated to the apartment of their friend, former UVA football player Keenan Carter, who came out to talk to the drivers. They denied using a racial epithet, but Porter challenged them, adding, "You can't even call me a ni**er. I'm half white. I'm white just like you."
"It don't matter," she alleges a driver responded. "It's just as bad."
Just as a Charlottesville police officer arrived, Thompson took a swing at the driver resulting in Thompson's arrest on charges of assault. The complaining witness is Donald Tate, the Collier's driver. The case is pending.
Later that evening when Thompson's father, Brett Thompson, went to Collier to retrieve his son's car, he says he paid the $95 and asked to speak to the manager or owner.
"They just laughed in my face," he says.
Management Services Corp. owns Oxford Hill, and MSC senior vice president Rhonda Puryear told me that MSC did follow up on the incident with Collier's, but that there were "two completely different stories" of what happened that evening. Noting Thompson's arrest and claiming that MSC has had no trouble with Collier's in the past, she said that MSC would take no action beyond noting the matter.
A woman who described herself as a dispatcher at the towing company, but who refused to give her name, forcefully denied the allegations against Tate. "Donald Tate has a black wife," she said. "He is not prejudiced."
The dispatcher admitted, however, that there was a racial component to the argument that evening, explaining that, "Donald was trying to tell him [Thompson] that he wasn't prejudiced, that he has a black wife."
Explanations aside, the dispatcher had strong words for this reporter. "Before you write a story, you better make sure you have the facts right," she said. "You better make sure you don't slander us because I will come after you."
Carter could not be reached for comment regarding what he witnessed.
So how to unravel all this?
As for what happened that evening in the Oxford Hill lot, it is clearly a "he said/she said" situation. While all parties admit there was a racial component to the argument, it is impossible to tell what actually transpired.
Given that, I can appreciate MSC's position. In the absence of a record of complaints about Collier's, there is little more that can be expected of the company at this point.
Now, however, there is a complaint on record.
I can also understand Collier's standing by its driver, but if Brett Thompson's description of a Collier's employee laughing in his face is accurate (I didn't get the opportunity to ask the dispatcher before she dispatched me!), that seems unprofessional.
Every business has an obligation to fairly hear, evaluate, and respond to people in the community with whom they come into contact– even tow-truck operators who have to deal frequently with angry people. Over time, a failure to do so could catch up with a firm in terms of declining business and increasing hassles, including sometimes unwanted publicity.