Twenty people have been charged in a months-long police investigation into towing turf wars in the Greater Toronto Area, and police said they expect to charge at least that many more in the coming months.
Project Platinum, a joint-forces operation led by York Regional Police, was launched in February in response to escalating organized crime activity in the towing industry.
A Globe and Mail investigation that same month shed light on the lucrative and corrupt business of collision towing, or “accident chasing,” and the lethal lengths to which drivers were willing to go in the competition for that business – and the kickbacks that accompany it.
Since December, 2018, four men with ties to the GTA towing industry have been killed. Dozens of tow truck drivers have been threatened or assaulted for infringing on competitors’ turf, and some have been shot. More than 50 tow trucks have been set on fire.
The charges laid so far stem from search warrants executed in late April and May at homes and businesses across the Greater Toronto and Hamilton area.
“Today, we’ve arrested [20 people], and that’s probably less than half of the number that we hope to arrest,” Superintendent Michael Slack said.
He added that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic and reduced court capacity, the Attorney-General essentially put a cap on the number of arrests police could make at one time.
Although investigators have identified multiple organized crime groups involved in the towing feuds, Supt. Slack said members of only one of them – connected to a company called Paramount Towing – have been charged so far. The owner of that company, Alexander Vinogradsky, 35, is facing organized crime charges as well as charges of fraud, mischief and conspiracy to commit arson.
Supt. Slack said investigators were shocked at the extent of the violence that stems from feuds over towing.
“It’s 100 per cent about towing turf,” he said. “It truly is.”
It is not necessarily the tow itself these companies are after, but the kickbacks that accompany it. A car that is involved in a crash will likely need repairs, and the driver might need a temporary rental car, or physiotherapy. It is an open secret within the industry that some of these peripheral services will pay tow truck drivers to bring them business. As a result, a single car can yield thousands of dollars.
In some cases, Supt. Slack said, entire crashes were staged.
Legal disputes between towing companies and insurers about bills for storage and repairs routinely flood Ontario’s small claims court.
The Globe investigation reported that the Vaughan, Ont., office of Carr Law, which represents insurance companies in such cases, was twice set on fire, and a gunman shot through the windows in broad daylight last September before it shut down for good.
Project Platinum has also led to attempted-murder charges against three men in connection with those attacks, which Supt. Slack described on Tuesday as “truly outrageous.”
Several people were charged previously in the investigation with first-degree murder in connection with the Dec. 24, 2018, death of Soheil Rafipour, 33, who had ties to the towing industry.
Among the charges announced on Tuesday are arson, fraud, firearms and drug trafficking.
In addition to seizing 11 tow trucks in the raids, police confiscated dozens of firearms, several kilograms of drugs and $500,000 in cash.
Stakeholders in the towing industry have long called for reform.
Towing is licensed in Ontario at the municipal level – but many municipalities have no rules, and the industry is governed by a confusing patchwork of bylaws and guidelines.
Although he hopes the seizures and the charges laid in connection with Project Platinum will help ease the violence, Supt. Slack said he too believes provincial licensing and regulation are needed to weed the criminal element out of the GTA towing industry.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford vowed after The Globe’s investigation to crack down on criminal activity in the towing industry, although the government’s plans remain unclear – particularly since the pandemic began. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney said the province continues “to prioritize the cross-ministry work under way to deter this behaviour.”
Mark Graves, president of the Provincial Towing Association of Ontario, said the latest charges indicate the urgency of calls for regulation.
“It should be done already,” he said on Tuesday.
He is concerned about the impact COVID-19 and the reduced number of collisions on the road as people stay close to home has had on the towing business. Good companies are already starting to go under, he said – and the bad ones are going to get desperate.
“What we’re really focusing on right now is trying to get the government to understand that, if they thought it was bad before, just wait until the economy starts to normalize. It’s going to escalate, it’s going to be exacerbated by the desperation of companies out there,” Mr. Graves said. “That’s a huge fear.”
With a report from Rick Cash
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