ST. PETERSBURG —Tuesday was not the first time sports fans have left Tropicana Field to discover cars they had paid to park in a nearby private lot had been towed away.
Patrons left Tuesday's season-opening Rays game to find their cars towed away from a lot at 511 16th St. S. Nycole Ellington-Jones of Tampa said she parked at the same lot for the Jan. 2 Under Armour All-American football game and experienced a scenario similar to Tuesday's. No-parking signs covered up. A $10 fee. Towed cars when she and her husband returned, with no-parking signs newly uncovered.
And a $109 fee to get her car from Apex Towing and Recovery.
Police charged Phillip DeCelles, the owner of Apex, for towing the cars in January without alerting police within 30 minutes as required by law. DeCelles was arrested Thursday for failing to appear in court on that misdemeanor charge.
Police are still investigating Tuesday night's incident, in which 30 people paid $10 each to park in the same lot. Apex said it towed five cars before the lot emptied out. Police said the towing company did nothing wrong and blame the attendants who charged to park on the lot.
Meanwhile, the Pinellas County Department of Justice and Consumer Services is investigating complaints it received about Tuesday's incident to determine if Apex violated county regulations, said chief investigator Larry Krick.
"We're aware of the situation and we are currently looking into it to see if everything was followed correctly," he said.
St. Petersburg police have increased patrols in private parking lots areas around the Tropicana Field. The Rays on Friday issued a statement titled: Rays Take Steps To Protect Fans From Parking Scams. The team's solution: park in designated lots.
But there might not be enough space in the official lots for this weekend's three-game stand by the visiting New York Yankees. Police say parking scams increase during heavily attended games, such as Tuesday's opening-season sellout.
Raquel Hernandez was among those scammed on Tuesday. She and her husband were late getting to the game, she said, and they initially passed the lot. After turning around, they got in a line of 10 other cars pulling into the lot. She did not see any no-parking signs.
She said the man who charged them $10 was wearing a Rays jersey, had a single gold tooth, a shaved head and was heavyset.
"When we came back to that same place, there was absolutely nothing there," said Hernandez, who is eight months pregnant. "No cars, and the sign that said '$10 parking' said 'Towing'."
They flagged down a police officer and explained what happened. While waiting, Hernandez said she saw an Apex tow truck drive by.
"It was awful," she said. "It's makes us not want to go back to any games, that's for sure."
Contact Andy Boyle at [email protected] or (727) 893-8087.