Lisa Sansone of Wethersfield says her plans for a night out with a friend back in April came to a halt when her car disappeared.
She parked her car at Metro Square in Middletown, walked over to a Main Street restaurant, and returned to the plaza to see a movie. That's when she realized her car was missing.
“I went to the police station to report it," said Sansone. "They immediately said 'Oh you’re in Metro Square? Your car wasn’t stolen. It was towed.'"
Lisa isn't alone. Middletown Police and business owners tell the Troubleshooters that cars are being towed by the dozens every week out of Metro Square.
We visited the plaza several times over the course of a month. Every time we were there, tow trucks arrived, cars were hauled off, and people were left wondering what happened to their vehicle.
It happened to one man who didn't want to give his last name.
Peter parked his car at Metro Square because his family, including two 20-month-old children, was visiting an ice cream shop that is part of the plaza, but first, they walked to a bank that's off the property.
When they returned, their car was gone. What frustrates him even more was the conversation his wife had with a woman answering the phone at D&L Towing.
“My wife said ‘Don’t you have children? I have to get my sons home. It’s 90 degrees out today. It’s lunchtime. I can’t walk home three miles with two infant sons.’ And she said ‘well that’s not going to help you get your car back anytime soon.’”
D&L returned their car to the lot, but only if Peter promised to have $133 cash, exact change, ready for the driver.
There are signs posted that identify the lot as private, warning drivers they will be towed if they are not patronizing businesses at Metro Square, but every person we spoke with who was towed tells us they only saw them after they were towed, describing them as small enough that they could easily be missed.
"There are a few," said Sansone. "They’re very unobtrusive. They’re not meant to be noticed.”
Sansone also points out while she ate dinner away from the plaza, she returned to see a movie at the theater, which is on the property. She didn't expect she would have to park twice during the evening.
Property manager Brian Herschberger says Metro Square and the parking lot are private property and they have every right to tow. He cites concerns over liability for people who aren't patronizing businesses in the plaza.
When asked about people who leave the property first, like Lisa Sansone and Peter, and later return to business at the plaza, he says he simply doesn't believe them.
"When I start talking to these people, they're flat out lying to me," said Herschberger.
What we observed after several visits to Metro Square is a man roaming the lot wearing a shirt with the word 'Security' printed across the back. When people walk away, he follows them until they are off the property. He then returns to their cars, makes a phone call, and moments later, a tow truck shows up and the car is hauled away.
While the towing frenzy has frustrated those whose cars have been hauled away, many businesses at the plaza also say management is going too far.
"Towing cars is not a problem," said Margarito Rodriguez, manager of Puerta Vallarta Restaurant. "But the way they’re doing it there is a problem.”
Rodriguez says several of his employees have been towed in recent months.
D&L returned their cars, but he doesn't understand why they were towed since his employees never left the plaza. Rodriguez said he's also seen cars towed belonging to his customers, to a woman with three young children, and even an elderly woman who he describes as having difficulty walking.
The Troubleshooters also received a call from an irate mother telling us the security guard, or spotter, took pictures of her teenage daughter and her friend as they walked away from their car.
According to the woman, when the teens returned to the lot, they realized their car had been towed.
Moments later, a tow truck pulled up, and the driver said he recognized her from the pictures he had received. He offered one of them a ride, which they declined.
Herschberger said he knows of the incident and defends the security guard.
"He didn't realize their age, and the pictures are just the backs, no faces," said Herschberger.
D&L owner Kevin Harrison denies any pictures of the girls were taken. He also says the security guard, who roams the lot and follows people out, is paid for by him. But he says he doesn't pay him by the number of tows he calls in. He also reminded us that what his company and Metro Square are doing is perfectly legal. He says they're doing it to protect parking for the businesses. Many of those same businesses tell us the way they are towing customers is rather unseemly.
Middletown Mayor Dan Drew says he is aware of the situation and the city is looking into the matter, but because this is private property, there may be little the city can do.
What concerns many of the businesses at Metro Square is the image that's left with customers who have been towed.
Lisa Sansone's husband Tim Nixon says they'll do business elsewhere.
"We have a great town here in Wethersfield," said Tim Nixon. "Why don’t we take our business to Wethersfield, or Berlin’s got movie theaters, or West Hartford? They’re all about the same driving distance for us. Why bother going to a place where they treat people this way?”
One driver whose car was towed away during a lunch with colleagues shares the same sentiment.
“I’ll have to make sure I remember that and stop frequenting any of these businesses here. That will make them all happy.”
Metro Square's property manager says the security guard, or spotter, is supposed to warn people walking away that they will be towed.
We asked D&L's owner if their paid security guard was following the direction of property management. He says often people are too far away to hear his warnings.
During our observations, we never once saw the security guard make an effort to warn people they would be towed.
Both Metro Square and D&L insist there is no financial arrangement between the two. D&L only makes money when they tow. That's what has Sansone so frustrated.
"They can prey on the public for profit," said Sansone. "And that's exactly what is happening."