Tropical Storm Debby had finally let up a bit, but much of western Pasco County remained under water last Tuesday when Mary Kaynok set out from Hudson in her 1997 Plymouth Breeze.
At Ridge Road and Congress Street in Port Richey, the 60-year-old widow tried to ease the old car through high water. "It started making a sputtering sound,'' she said, "but it kept running.''
Not for long.
Kaynok made it 3 miles north when she says the Plymouth died on U.S. 19 in front of the abandoned Service Merchandise store at Jasmine Boulevard. (Note to readers: If this sounds familiar, stay tuned.)
Kaynok called a neighbor who helped push the car into the 54,000-square-foot store's huge parking lot. She left a note with contact information in the window and said she would return for the vehicle. Three hours later she came back and the car was gone. It had been hauled away by A-1 Recovery Inc.
If Kaynok wanted her car, she would have to pay $225, plus $20 every day it sat in the impound lot.
She said she didn't have the money and dashed off an email to state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. "This happened during a statewide weather emergency, mind you,'' she wrote. "I believe I am being taken advantage of much like those who are price gouged during other weather emergencies.''
By the time Fasano got Kaynok's letter, he had already dealt with several other complaints about A-1. Residents of flooded Wood Trail Village off old County Road 54 left their vehicles on higher ground, a vacant lot on Little Road that years earlier had been home to a gas station. Fasano said a limited corporation in upstate New York owns the property.
A-1 towed the cars on Monday. Ed Kelly, who had to pay $230 cash to get his 2009 Chevy Aveo back, called the Pasco County Sheriff's Office and Code Enforcement before emailing Fasano and state Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity.
Fasano called A-1 owner Aaron Watkins.
"We really got into it,'' Fasano said. "He hung up on me when I told him he was probably in violation of state law and that I was going to turn him in to the state Attorney General's Office. He called back later to apologize and said he would reimburse Mr. Kelly and three or four others from that neighborhood.''
Watkins told the Times that he agreed to reimburse the Wood Trail folks "out of the goodness of my heart.'' He said he drove around their neighborhood and saw the flooded streets.
"They parked in private parking lots,'' said Watkins, 27. "We have no way of knowing.''
But what about the storm and the state of emergency?
"The only day I stop towing is on Christmas,'' he said. "I tow over 200 cars a week'' in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. He said he employs six tow truck drivers, "strictly impounds and repos.''
"I've got a job to do,'' he said. "I'm not a bad person.''
Watkins said he pulled numerous cars out of water and removed a tree from a car in Palm Harbor. "Nobody ever hears that side,'' he said.
As for Mary Kaynok, Watkins said he doesn't believe her story.
"You're telling me she drove all that way before her car broke down?'' he said. "Impossible.''
By Tuesday afternoon, she still didn't have her car back. The fee had risen to $344.
"They told me to bring cash,'' she said. "Even if I can scrape that much up, I don't know if I can afford to get the car fixed. I don't know what to do.''
Fasano told her to get the car and bring him the receipt. He'll try to do what he did for Dawn Mitchell, a 48-year-old Holiday nursing assistant whose run-in with A-1 made the news in May.
Mitchell suffered a heart attack while driving on U.S. 19 and pulled into the Service Merchandise parking lot. A relative met her there and drove to a hospital. An A-1 wrecker, meanwhile, towed her car. Watkins refused to waive the fee, saying he had been mistreated by one of Mitchell's relatives. When Fasano read the story, he wrote Ashley Furniture headquarters in Wisconsin because Ashley leases the property and employs A-1 to patrol the parking lot.
A few days before Tropical Storm Debby hit, Fasano received a letter from Ashley, which had sent Mitchell $211. Ashley CEO Todd Wanek wrote that "all parties were innocent in their actions'' and that the reimbursement was "out of good will and the kindness of our hearts.''
Fasano said he intends to study possible legislation to protect motorists from similar impoundments during storms.
"Whether he had the right to tow or not,'' Fasano said, "it's just disappointing that someone would take advantage of homeowners in distress.''