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Toronto's tow truck arson wars continue as a burned-out tow truck from Above Towing, sits in the parking lot of a funeral home at 10366 Yonge Street in Richmond Hill, Ont., on March 6, 2020.

J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Eight people have been charged in connection with an assassination attempt outside a Thornhill plaza one year ago, as part of a towing industry turf war that continues to play out across the Greater Toronto Area.

A 17-year-old tow-truck company employee was one of the victims in that shooting, which took place on Feb. 16, 2020, in the parking lot of the busy Promenade Mall.

At the time, a tow truck taped off by police at the crime scene was one of the only clues that the case was connected to a turf war brewing within the towing industry. On Friday, York Regional Police Detective Sergeant David Sedgewick said police can now confirm that they “believe that this [case] was part of the ongoing tow-truck industry power struggle, to realign the zones.”

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More than 50 trucks have been burned and at least four men with ties to the industry have been killed, as tow-truck operators across the GTA fight over territory within the lucrative industry.

In the Promenade Mall case, a local tow-truck company owner had been sitting inside a car in the parking lot and two of his employees were standing next to it, having a conversation with him, when a masked suspect approached the trio and started firing. Two of the men – the 30-year-old man sitting in the car, and one of the men standing outside, who was 17 years old – were shot. Both victims have since recovered.

“This shooting took place at one of the most populous malls in York Region, right in the parking lot of Promenade Mall. So the likelihood or the chance that a bystander would have been struck during this is very real,” Det. Sgt. Sedgewick said Friday.

The list of people charged in this case includes several men who were previously charged last summer, as part of a joint-forces investigation into the violence and corruption plaguing the industry. Mohamad El-Zahawi, 39 – whose charges in the Promenade Mall shooting include attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder – is facing a separate first-degree murder charge, in connection with the Dec. 24, 2018, death of Soheil Rafipour, 33, who also had ties to the towing industry.

Asked about what links can be drawn between those two specific cases, Det. Sgt. Sedgewick said that alliances within the industry are fluid.

At some point leading up to this attack, he said, there was an “ultimate split between some of these players that led to people starting their own companies and going out as independents. And, you know, this violence is part of the tactics used against those that were encroaching on these territories.”

The reason the towing industry is so lucrative is because after a crash, a car will likely need repairs, and the driver might even need physiotherapy. Many of these peripheral businesses are willing to pay tow-truck drivers kickbacks to bring them business, and as a result, a single crash can yield them thousands of dollars. In addition to industry players, at least seven police officers across Ontario have been charged with towing-related corruption in the past year.

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The provincial government pledged last spring to overhaul the industry. But since the COVID-19 pandemic began, those efforts have lagged. So far in 2021, police across the GTA have received reports of at least three tow trucks being shot at. At least two trucks have been set on fire in driveways, and at least two body shops have been firebombed.

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