ST. PETERSBURG — Some Tampa Bay Rays fans leaving Tuesday's opening game had more to yell about than a last-minute victory.
Five cars were towed in what police are investigating as a parking lot scam.
About 30 fans parked on what they thought was a legitimate lot, only to return after the game to find cars being towed.
It turned out someone had covered up the No Parking signs warning drivers that their cars would be towed. When the fans returned, the signs were no longer covered.
An angry crowd gathered and police were called. One fan tried to block the tow truck from taking his car and the truck driver hit his leg, police said. The man was not injured.
The towing company owner blamed whoever was behind the scam and hopes the incident prompts a police crackdown.
"It's probably always going to go on as long as there are less fortunate people downtown and people who are just greedy and want to take advantage and be opportunists," said Phil DeCelles, owner of Apex Towing and Recovery, which was hired by the property owner to tow vehicles from the lot, 511 16th St. S.
Property owners are required to get a city permit to park cars and to post signs with the ordinance number, DeCelles said. People holding cardboard signs advertising parking may not be legitimate, DeCelles said. If a parking area seems sketchy, it probably is, he added.
"I understand people are upset with our behavior. It's always going to happen because that's just the nature of impounding," DeCelles said. "They don't like it because they got victimized, and in this way they get victimized twice."
Robert Richute, 27, of Oldsmar, was one of the victims. He said he paid a man $10 to park. It was the only place open near the stadium, he said, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
When he returned, his car was gone. He caught a cab to a friend's car and then went to Apex Towing. Richute said he paid $120 and got his car back after midnight.
"Pretty sure the parking sign must have been covered with a T-shirt," he said. "When we came back the T-shirt was gone from the sign."
Owner John Romondt said he contracts with Apex to remove cars from his property because of potential liability. The lot is intended for tenants of an adjacent apartment building he owns as part of a trust.
Police said Apex is not the target of its investigation, which is focused on whoever collected money from the fans.
James Richards, the driver who towed the cars Tuesday night, said he checked the property earlier in the afternoon and the signs weren't covered.
Richards said he started towing vehicles and as the night progressed, some of the owners arrived. They were not happy.
The sign at the entrance to the lot wasn't covered then, Richards said, and it wasn't until another car moved that he noticed a covered sign in the back of the lot.
City Council member Wengay Newton and his wife attended the game and parked in a lot next to where the scam was run. He saw about a dozen fans whose cars were towed. "They were hot," he said.
Newton said he drove four fans to Apex Towing and it was 1 a.m. before everyone got their cars. One man had to drive back to Orlando with his disabled son. He got a lift with the tow truck.
Newton blamed the tow truck driver for taking cars away after finding evidence that a scam had been pulled.
"People come to our city to stimulate our economy and then get ripped off,'' Newton said. "It's been going on for three years, and it's got to stop. It's not right that after a Rays game, fans get their cars held for ransom."
Newton said he will push for a city requirement that parking attendants wear photo IDs. Police patrolled parking lots Wednesday night to ensure fans weren't bilked, he said.
DeCelles was happy to hear about the police patrols. If Tuesday's incident prompted that, he's pleased. "What we've done has helped," he said. "This is what it took to get to this point."
Newton doesn't necessarily agree. "This is big business," he said. "These towing companies make big money during the baseball season, and it's hurting our city."
Thursday afternoon, DeCelles was arrested in an unrelated towing incident. He was accused of failing to appear in court on a misdemeanor charge of not alerting police when vehicles were towed from the same lot on Jan. 2. State law requires tow truck operators to notify police within 30 minutes of towing a vehicle.
He was released at about 9:35 p.m. Thursday on a surety bond, jail records show.
Andy Boyle can be reached at (727) 893-8087 or [email protected]
CLARIFICATION: A photo appearing with earlier versions of this story online and in print editions of the St. Petersburg Times showed a permitted parking lot as well as a nonpermitted lot. It has been replaced with a photo showing only the lot described in the caption.