Court report: Tales of two wrecker companies

Noted towing company owner George Morris savored a rare victory in Albemarle County Circuit Court last week when he was found not guilty of assault. I say "rare" because Morris, who owns Lethal Wrecker, has cut an impressive swath through local courts over the last decade, beginning with a 1995 conviction for assault and battery of a woman in Crozet.

His appearances over the past two years– or, more precisely, his nonappearances, as he usually declines to attend legal proceedings– have mainly been for either charging more than state law allows for towing or for damaging the towed cars, and have resulted in thousands of dollars in fines.

Morris's August 31 trial was short but lively, and more than a little strange. First, Morris was not accused of touching his accuser, Freddie Buttner. Legally, "assault" can also mean verbal threats. Second, the alleged dustup was videotaped, and the videotape– which was viewed by everyone in the courtroom– was about as menacing as a picnic at the old folks' home.

Buttner, who had previously worked at Lethal, joined Charlottesville Wrecker last November as a tow-truck driver. On January 30, he got a call from dispatcher Lori Rankins, who said Morris was looking for him and believed Buttner had stolen two L-arms– pieces of towing equipment– from Morris, who wanted them back.

About an hour later, Buttner glimpsed Morris at the Liberty gas station on Pantops and pulled in. He stopped the wrecker near Morris, who was pumping gas into his pickup, and testified that Morris "started yelling" at him. Buttner denied that he'd taken the L-arms, at which point, he stated, Morris stripped off his jacket and approached the wrecker.

"He was upset," Buttner testified– so much so that Morris's girlfriend got out of the pickup and told him to calm down. Instead, Buttner says Morris threatened to "pull him out" of the wrecker, and, at one point, reached inside the driver's-side window but stopped short of touching him. Buttner, saying he didn't want to risk things turning physical, drove off.

The surveillance tape from Liberty gas, as I said, was a wash. A monitor was wheeled in, and the tape was played, but if the confrontation had been explosive enough to warrant Morris's arrest, you couldn't tell from the tape.

Judge Paul Sheridan's decision hinged on whether Buttner had reasonable cause to fear imminent danger. Pointing out that Buttner was free to simply drive away, he declared Morris not guilty– and Morris, clearly elated, exited the courtroom with Lethal dispatcher Donielle Messner.

The drama in this case came from testimony by the two companies' dispatchers. Messner testified that during a discussion of the missing L-arms, she'd asked Morris why Buttner "was driving around flipping off our drivers." And Rankins, night dispatcher and bookkeeper for Charlottesville Wrecker, testified, "It's no secret there's no love lost between the two companies."

Even the most ardent local crime buff may have missed what, for me, is the most intriguing aspect of the case: the fact that Rankins is again working as a bookkeeper. In 1998, Rankins was convicted of embezzling $86,000 from Edgecomb's Imported Auto Sales & Service, by which time she'd racked up three convictions in the City for worthless checks and petit larceny and one in the County for welfare fraud. For the embezzlement rap, she was sentenced to five years with all but 30 days suspended.

Now she's keeping Charlottesville Wrecker's books– and making restitution to Edgecomb's at the rate of $50 a month. Betsy Edgecomb, who was amused to hear that Rankins is again working around money, says that she frequently skips payments for a month or two– but never for three: According to the terms of her sentence, three months and she's out. Or, more precisely, she's in– as in jail, if a judge sees fit. At this rate, the debt will be paid somewhere around 2145.

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