DETROIT (WXYZ) - The 7 Action News Investigators are digging deeper into a shady towing company with a history of complaints for hauling away cars from a local shopping center.
Larson's towing has a contract with the strip mall to tow away cars of non-paying customers who park in the mall lot. But we've uncovered more alleged victims who say they were legally parked, including a woman who took her case before one of America's most famous judges.
We're also hearing from a business owner at the mall who says Larson's has been towing legitimate customers and it is driving people away from her business.
Diana Djokic owns and operates a successful restaurant called the Royal Grill, and she works hard for her money. But lately, she says, she has lost customers.
It's not because of the service. And by all accounts, the food is good
Djokic says customers are abandoning her because of those tow trucks from Larson's that are towing cars by the hundreds.
Larson's sends spotters out looking for anyone they don't think is a customer at the mall and tows them away. They charge the car owners $400, cash only, to get them back - far above the average rate according to the Better Business Bureau.
Worse yet, there's strong evidence that they're towing legitimate customers, even shopping center employees. Djokic's waitress says she got the hook three times. Even Djokic, the restaurant owner, has been towed.
"My car got towed at least six times. And anytime I call to check why they got my car they kept saying they saw me going to the hospital which never happened," Djokic said.
The Royal Grill is right next to the Detroit Medical Center, and a lot of Djokic's customers work or do business there. People like Mark Haacke, a Ph.D. who does cutting edge research on three dimensional MRI technology. The Royal Grill used to be his favorite haunt, until he and his secretary went there for lunch one day, and came out 30 minutes later to find his car had been towed.
"And to me, it seems like somebody basically stole my car," Haacke told 7 Action News.
On top of that, Haacke says, his all-wheel-drive Infinity was improperly towed and it caused almost $4,000 worth of damage.
"So I had to get my car repaired and it took three weeks to get all the parts in for this," said Haacke.
Haacke says he has plenty of witnesses to put him at the restaurant, even a time-stamped receipt.
Djokic says she knows of at least two others who were towed while eating in her restaurant.
"One of them has a problem, they'll tell all of their friends around. And then it really affects us in a bad way," said Djokic.
Bad news does travel fast, especially when it gets national TV exposure. One of Djokic's customers sued the owner of Larson's Towing and wound up in front of America's most famous judge, Judge Judy.
On a recent episode involving a nurse from the Detroit Medical Center, Judge Judy awarded her $1,500 even more than she asked for.
The TV jurist chastised Larson's owner Tom Larson.
"And you had no right to tow her car, at all…that's what happens when you pay by bounty for towing," Judge Judy said in her trademark scolding tone.
Even before the case hit Judge Judy, Haacke had reluctantly abandoned his favorite restaurant.
"We've all boycotted it. We don't go there. And now I feel quite bad for Diana because I like that group and we've enjoyed eating there, like I said, for almost ten years," Haacke said.
When the 7 Action News Investigators went to confront Tom Larson about these complaints we discovered he had bailed out of his location in Redford Township and disappeared.
We did a little detective work and caught up with him on the street as he was dropping a car.
"You know the lady down there at the restaurant says that you're hurting her business because you towed so many customers," Investigator Scott Lewis told Larson.
"No. I'm not hurting anything," Larson replied.
Larson has a contract with the shopping center owners and he says everyone he tows is parking illegally.
" Well we've got guys that have proof that they were in there eating and you towed their car," Lewis told Larson.
"That's what they all say. They went to the restaurant and everything else, but 99 percent of them went to the restaurant after the fact," Larson responded.
Larson's is not a member of the Better Business Bureau, but the agency gives him an "F" rating. They say Larson's "has a pattern of towing vehicles prematurely, aggressively, and charging above average fees...towing incorrectly while consumers are shopping at businesses, or en route to businesses in shopping areas".
And Larson's got hammered by Judge Judy who said she was really impressed with the evidence presented against him.
"Judge Judy is nothing but drama TV. That's what it's for. Okay? It was pre-set. They knew what they were doing before we even got there," Larson said of the beating he took on the show.
But Mark Haacke says his drama is real and he thinks it's
time for a broader discussion on how to protect innocent people from being towed off private property.
"There should really be a law against this. The police wouldn't do anything, despite the fact that I contacted several parts of the police department, and they told me I would have to deal with this through civil claims court," said Haacke.
So why did Larson leave his location in Redford Township?
We found out he moved out in a hurry, just before court bailiffs showed up to evict him. And an employee for the building's owner said Larson left the place trashed. He also left owing a pile on money in back rent. According to court records, Larson owed nearly $12,000.
And that $12,000 is just the beginning. The 7 Action News Investigators discovered there are a lot of people who say Larson stiffed them, including some of his own employees.
Getting back to the towing problem, the restaurant owner and waitress both said they got their cars back without having to pay because it was obvious that they were employed at the strip mall and therefore, legally parked.
The waitress says she actually caught them in the act two of the three times and made them drop her car before they left the parking lot.