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Moviegoers seethe after cars towed

Vehicle owners contemplate legal action after their vehicles were towed from outside a fast-food restaurant as they patronized a new movie theater.

Ted Bateman and his wife celebrated his 48th birthday by going to dinner and watching a flick at Pinellas County's biggest and flashiest movie theater, the new AMC Woodlands Square 20 theater on Tampa Road.

That's when the pleasant evening took a turn for the worse.

Bateman's 1994 raspberry GMC Sonoma, which was parked at the Burger King restaurant next to the theater, was towed while he was watching the movie. Bateman first thought his Sonoma was stolen, but then he saw Bayside Towing and Recovery employees towing vehicles as fast as they could from the parking spaces around Burger King.

"The night was like the stock market because it was real high and then it took a nose dive real bad," Bateman said. "I came to watch a movie and it ended up costing me $154 to get my car back. Until that is stopped, we won't be back there."

When he tried to ask Bayside employees why they towed his car, all he got was attitude, he said.

"I told (the tow truck driver), "You better be glad that I didn't see you towing my truck, or you and me would be going round and round on the ground.' I was furious," Bateman said.

The Batemans are not alone.

Apparently, dozens of moviegoers' cars were towed that same night in April and owners had to pay a fee to get their vehicles back. Some say they parked at Burger King because they could not find spaces near the theater. Now they are thinking about taking legal action against the towing company.

Sam Risola, the franchisee who owns the Burger King property at Woodlands Square, said his company, Samar Management, had the right to ask Bayside to tow moviegoers' cars parked in the Burger King lot. He said since the theater opened in March, moviegoers have been tying up the restaurant's parking spaces, causing it to lose customers. Signs in the parking lot warn that unauthorized vehicles will be towed.

"We are not trying to antagonize anybody," Risola said. "We are just trying to do what's right. Those parking spaces are just for Burger King customers."

But Sembler Co., which manages the shopping center, notified some of the people whose cars were towed that only Sembler and a maintenance company can authorize towing there.

Todd Pressman, who represents the owners of the shopping center, said that neither the property owners nor Sembler have authorized any towing.

"They believe that Burger King cannot tow those cars," Pressman said.

Risola said the parking spaces are on his property, so only Burger King customers can use them. But the shopping center owners say the parking spaces are for all Woodlands Square customers, Pressman said.

Some of the people whose cars were towed are still fuming.

Richard Styblewski, 38, whose wife's 1998 red Corvette was towed in April, said he has filed complaints with the county's Department of Consumer Protection and the Better Business Bureau.

The couple ate at Burger King before shopping at the center. But they lost the keys to the car and had to get a ride back to their home in Holiday to grab a spare key. When they got back to the shopping center, the car had been towed.

"We walked into a bad situation that night, but everyone was getting ripped off," Styblewski said. "We want it to come to some resolution and we want everyone to get their money back."

Roland Palot, the theater's managing director, said he was not aware Burger King was having problems with parking until customers told him their cars were towed.

"We are concerned and we hate to be blamed for something like this," he said. "It just seems like it should be easy to resolve."

Styblewski learned that Bayside Towing and Recovery did not have a city occupational license at the time. Styblewski also tried to file a claim with the towing firm's insurance company because he says his wife's car was damaged. He was told the policy had expired.

Curtis McGeehen, the owner of Bayside Towing and Recovery, admits he did not have a city occupational license when he towed Styblewski's car but got one as soon as it was pointed out that he needed a license.

McGeehen said his company does have insurance. The insurance company just looked for the policy under an incorrect name, he said.

Karen Sewell, 50, of Safety Harbor said when she tried to recover her car from Bayside Towing, employees were vulgar and disrespectful.

Dan Cromer, 48, of New Port Richey said someone at Bayside's office cursed his wife and physically threatened him after he told the man to stop using foul language.

McGeehen denied that his employees were vulgar. He said the man who cursed was not a Bayside employee and was just hanging out in the office. McGeehen says some of the moviegoers were verbally abusive.

"Bayside employees are not belligerent," he said. "I'm just doing what I was contracted to do."

McGeehen said his company has stopped towing at the Burger King until the owners of the restaurant and shopping plaza come to an agreement.

Sewell said her experience has left a bad taste in her mouth.

"I'm livid over this," she said. "I wouldn't go back. I will not eat at Burger King ever again and I won't go to that shopping center again."

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