The Tow Truck Turf War and the Driver Left for Dead

In Pittsburgh, the tow truck business is notoriously cutthroat. This winter, two rivals arrived at the same wreck and the feud crossed a line.

The Tow Truck Turf War and the Driver Left for Dead

It all started with a crash. A couple was driving north on Washington Boulevard when they ran into another vehicle. The police were called, and minutes later a ping for a tow truck was out. Dozens of drivers were waiting.

One was 27-year-old Jason Stotlemyer. It was February 2, 2019, and the native of Munhall, Pennsylvania, after just a month towing cars for Halbleib’s Auto Body, was still adapting to the wrecker’s code: Always be listening, be quick and be cautious. Like many newcomers in Pittsburgh’s dangerous towing business — where on-the-scene arguments and brawls are part of the work — Stotlemyer found his way into the situation by necessity, rather than absolute choice. After working in construction for 12 years, he had broken his leg in a November motorbike accident and found himself with no way to support his fiancée and their 6-month-old son Carter. A friend of his, Brandon Johnson, tipped him off about Halbleib’s.

“I had to take it,” Stotlemyer says, matter-of-factly. “Yeah, I knew the risks. But my baby had to eat.”

Just over a month later, Stotlemyer was driving back to the shop when he got an urgent call from his boss, John Halbleib.

“Hey, did you see that accident?” he said, referring to the two-car incident on Washington.

“Yeah, I got it,” Stotlemyer said, and hit the gas.

Stotlemyer says he was the first to the crash on Washington, which meant that, by custom, it was his tow. He hinged the car and was preparing to drive away when two towers from C&R Collision showed up at the scene. According to Stotlemyer, they began harassing him, demanding he give up the tow and leave.

“We’re going to call Big J,” they said, according to Stotlemyer’s lawyer, Casey White. “Do you know who Big J is?”

Stotlemyer did not. “Well, call him,” he said.

Moments later, a 28-year-old man named Jerald Robinson showed up to the scene, as the towers promised. Stotlemyer says that Robinson is what is called in the business an “enforcer,” a sort of on-the-street bouncer hired to solve territorial disputes that pop up regularly among crash chasers. (Robinson’s lawyer, Fred Rabner, denies that characterization of his client’s work, explaining that Robinson “was there in an ordinary course,” just doing his job.) Stotlemyer had faced intimidation before. He stayed.

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Either Robinson or Stotlemyer made the first move. The men’s lawyers gave contrasting accounts of who went to their respective trucks in self-defense, and who did not. Regardless, Stotlemyer ran to get his bat, which many towers carry in their truck. Robinson, on the other hand, ran to his vehicle to get a gun.

Stotlemyer exited his truck, placed the bat on his left shoulder, took one step backward, shut his passenger-side door, then turned around fast. His lawyer, White, says he was about seven feet away from Robinson when he made eye contact. Then, one of the men attacked.

Robinson’s gun went off, and the bullet exploded through Stotlemyer’s right hand, punctured part of his lung and lodged itself in the lower part of his spine. “Right then and there,” he says, “I could feel I was paralyzed.”

Stotlemyer dropped to the ground, unable to feel anything below his chest. All this happened, he says, in precisely two minutes. He didn’t know exactly what happened: Was I just shot?

According to White, Robinson and crew fled the scene, as everything, for Stotlemyer, went dark.

Depending on whom you ask around town, the towing industry in downtown Pittsburgh is either rampantly gang-like or not particularly violent and no different than in any other American city. Most, if not all, greenhorn towers are paid solely on tow-by-tow commission and subsequent repair: Either get the car or don’t get paid ($400 to $500 depending on who you work for).

“It’s all about greed, greed, greed,” a driver for the tow company Max’s, who asked not to be identified, says while waiting in a drugstore lot in Whitaker. “The dudes that chase just want more money. They don’t care.”

Unlike several cities, including Austin, Texas, and Boston, Pittsburgh currently does not assign individual towing companies to specific police zones; towers define their own territories, and the result, as Stotlemyer puts it, is a “free-for-all.” Many are instructed by bosses and co-workers to hide their insurance card, lest a rival tower snatch it and rip it up, and to never forget to take their keys with them when they get out of the car, for fear that another driver might break in, steal them, and toss them down a storm drain. There are stories of wreck chasers blowing through red lights, getting into shouting matches with crash victims, or driving so recklessly that the result is another wreck. Among chasers, all of this is part of an often unspoken sentiment of company pride: We are faster than you, and we will risk our lives to prove it.

This is also why many towers carry bats, provided to them in training. Some of the more experienced drivers, says former Pittsburgh Police Lieutenant Ed Cunningham, prefer a concealed pistol.

Kim, Stotlemyer’s mom, brings her son’s wheelchair close as they get ready for a doctor’s appointment. (Photos by Heather Mull)

“If you’re out there by yourself at two in the morning, on the side of the road?” he says. “Well, you’re gonna want to protect yourself. I mean, like any other citizen would do, right?”

Almost two years before Stotlemyer drove to the tow on Washington Boulevard, Cunningham walked into a hearing for the city’s Transportation Subcommittee to testify on the state of the towing industry. He had headed the department’s Traffic Division for 10 years and knew a little more than the next guy about the underbelly of accident-chasing wreckers. Just a month prior, two rival companies had gotten into a fight that resulted in one party pulling a gun.

“Luckily, in that case,” Cunningham says, “no shots were fired.”

Worried about the intensifying behavior of “rogue” wreckers, Cunningham urged the subcommittee to push statewide legislation to regulate the towing industry, citing “price gouging, unnecessary towing, and making it tough for motorists to find their vehicles.” In short, Cunningham testified that the drivers were behaving in a no-holds-barred fashion: blatantly ignoring city ordinances and traffic lights, obsessively monitoring police and ambulance scanners to beat their vehicles — and other towers — to a job. They had, Cunningham notes, sprung complete indifference to the law. (Ironically, Halbleib had sued the Pittsburgh Police Department in 2012 for “shooing” towers away from jobs.)

“They’d drive recklessly, speed, hammer through red lights, just to be the first ones there,” he says. “The fistfights would follow. And worse.”

After his testimony, Cunningham formed a task force made up of then-Councilman Dan Gilman and Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich to figure out how the city could combat the crash chasers and other “eager” towers who would stake out drivers illegally parked in business lots. For roughly a year and a half, the Cunningham-led team conducted an investigation into the Pittsburgh towing crisis, to sort out whether it was a problem of policing or lax city policy.

According to Hissrich, the issue comes down to a matter of public safety. “I have been at crashes where drivers have gotten into arguments,” he said via email. “Police officers then have to act as mediators when they should be focused on assisting victims or directing traffic.” (Gilman, now the mayor’s chief of staff, did not respond to calls for comment.)

The result of the committee’s work was a 17-page proposal that the industry should be regulated and reformed by assigning companies to six zones defined by preexisting police boundaries. Following a series of strict demands — truck quotas, minimum response times and regular police check-ins — the proposal ends on a full stop cautioning companies against bad behavior. “The service provider shall ensure that its personnel will display patience, tact and courtesy when dealing with [clients],” it reads. Towers “shall not knowingly or negligently create situations that would cause unfavorable attitudes toward the City of Pittsburgh.” The report was published on February 9, 2019. Stotlemyer had been shot seven days prior.

That week, Stotlemyer woke up in a hospital bed at UPMC Presbyterian. He had been in a coma since February 2, and was still on life support, teetering between life and death. When he awoke, his doctors labeled him a T5 paraplegic, which means he can walk with brace support and drive a modified car. Doctors had to remove parts of his lungs, along with breaking sections of his ribs. He couldn’t walk, nor could he eat or drink regularly. Doctors squeezed water into his mouth via a sponge. His whole body was distended, all of his organs bloated.

“The first thing I told them when I woke up was, ‘I don’t think I can walk,’” Stotlemyer says. “Honestly, I was just grateful to be alive.”

Sabri Tschannen, Stotlemyer’s fiancée, says that she and his mother, Kim, visited Stotlemyer “on shifts” during and after his comatose state. She even brought their son, Carter, in the event that Stotlemyer lost his life — a worst-case scenario that Tschannen knew all along was a possibility.

“We used to argue until four in the morning about him being a tow truck driver,” she says. “Sure, Kim and I were angry that he did this. But at the same time, we were just glad that he was here alive.”

Stotlemyer sits on his wheelchair with his one-year-old son Carter.

After a two-week stay in the hospital, Stotlemyer endured two more weeks of intense inpatient rehab, learning how to be mobile, change himself, take showers, use a wheelchair. While at UPMC, he got a visit from an X Games paraplegic athlete named Jonathan Stark, who gave Stotlemyer advice about how to ride a bike again with the help of a support cage. Although doctors at UPMC’s Spinal Injury Institute say he’ll require years of further care, Stotlemyer’s not fretting excessively about what-ifs — he’s more concerned with how to find work and raise his son.

“I’ve got a lot on my plate right now,” he says, “rather than beating myself up over whether or not I’m gonna walk again.”

On a Tuesday in late April, the Stotlemyers gathered in Jason and Sabri’s living room, in a home they have rented with Kim’s help. Every week, Kim comes over to help Sabri care for Carter and assist with around-the-house repairs, including a recent bathroom remodeling. After all, Stotlemyer can’t do much. He spends most days immobile on the couch, using the energy he has to care for Carter.

“I’m really worried about myself right now,” he says. “I still have a long way to go.”

No charges have been filed in the shooting, and District Attorney Mike Manko announced on May 30 that Robinson won’t be prosecuted, essentially siding with his lawyer’s argument that his client was shot entirely in self-defense. The Stotlemyers say they plan to pursue civil remedies for the injury that will affect Jason for the rest of his life.

“It’s crazy to me,” Kim says, sitting next to Jason on the sofa, “because this guy is still out there towing cars, and my son’s here, sitting in a wheelchair.” (Robinson did not respond to calls requesting comment for this article.)

Cunningham, who retired from the Pittsburgh Police Department in early 2018 to take a chief’s position in Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, declined to comment on when or how the wreck-chasing crisis can be resolved. There have been no public statements on the proposal, and no official release from the Mayor’s Office about whether a revised towing system will be officially implemented.

Still, Cunningham is confident that using an assigned system for towing companies would at least stymie the illegal wrecker activity. At the very least, he hopes change comes before another wrecker is shot. As does Stotlemyer.

“I mean, if I died,” he says, “then we wouldn’t even be having this conversation in the first place.”

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Heather Mull is a freelance editorial photographer with a background in writing based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who has been working on regional stories for over 21 years. Her work can be seen at www.heathermull.com and she is on Instagram as @heathermullphotography.