When you're stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire and see the lights of the tow truck, you feel relief. But when you're parked illegally and see those same lights, the reaction is much different. Some people become violent, and the tow truck drivers are the targets.
But now, one tow truck company is vowing to fight back.
Matt Julius has seen the heat of battle. He's been a tow truck driver for ten years and has the scars to prove it. There's a long scar on the left side of his face. He said he got it the day an angry car owner hit him with a Margarita glass. An emergency room doctor closed the wound with 57 stitches. Julius has also been shot. The wound to his side was minor, he said. "Every now and then, we have those reality checks where people come out with guns," Julius said.
But now, his tow truck company can capture everything that happens. Julius works for South West Auto Tow, also known as SWAT. The Dallas company invested in a $50,000 surveillance system from GeoVision and equipped nine of their tow trucks with four cameras each.
The company's manager, Jerry Splawn Junior, can watch his tow truck drivers live on the internet or download the video to his hard drive. Splawn is 28. He was once SWAT's top driver, pulling in a six figure salary. His father is a driver for the same company.
On this day, Splawn is reviewing video captured from Julius' tow truck . Splawn said, "This guy here. He's running to find the resident. He's got a shotgun in his right hand." Julius can be heard telling the gunman he was only doing his job. Splawn explains that whenever a resident comes out to claim their vehicle, the tow truck driver puts down the vehicle and leaves. Julius said his life isn't worth the 25 to 35 dollars he could get for towing away a car.
"It's crazy what people will do to stop us from towing the vehicle," Julius said. That can be seen in another video where a woman tried to block one of SWAT's tow trucks from leaving an apartment complex. She stood in front of the tow truck with her a baby in her hands.
In another video, a car pulls alongside a SWAT tow truck already cruising down the road with a vehicle in tow. The tow truck driver is Splawn's dad. The car is trying to keep pace with the tow truck. A woman in the car's passenger seat screams at Splawn's dad. Splawn explains that the manager of a grocery store called their company, asking them to remove the woman's vehicle because she had parked it with a "4 Sale" on his property. The woman claimed she had gone into the store to shop for groceries. She's waving what she says is her receipt. Splawn's dad tells the woman to have the store manager call them. The driver of her vehicle then pulls in front of the tow truck to try and stop it. But the tow truck loses them on the next turn.
The most dangerous part of the job, Julius said, is when drivers must tow vehicles in a dangerous part of town. "The car could be loaded with guns or loaded with drugs. They'll try to take our life to protect their stuff," he said. Splawn said they can and do turn over their video to the police department now. The video also protects the company from unjustified claims. "It shows a driver didn't break in and steal a sticker. It shows damages. It shows we didn't cause it or did. Now we have proof." Splawn said.
Splawn would've liked tow truck video from June 26th 2007, when he was shot five times. Splawn said, "He hit me twice in the back, in the neck, leg and stomach." He drove himself to the hospital. "Last thing I remember, my dad leaning over me and praying for me. Then I woke up about three weeks later," Splawn said. His wife Twila said, "Well, you know God has him here for a reason."
Splawn's nerves were shot after that but he went back to towing cars for the company. Then, in October of 2009, someone else pulled a gun on him. That's when Twila had a talk with the owner of the company, Dan Messina. She wanted Splawn off the streets. So, Messina created a new job for Splawn managing the tow truck drivers. But even that didn't keep him from having to dodge bullets. Splawn says just last year, someone sprayed the front of South West Auto Tow's building with bullets. There were holes in several rooms. No one was hurt, though it rattled Splawn again. Splawn was a bomb loader in the Air Force in 1999. He said that job was a lot safer than this one. He and some of the other tow truck drivers have taken to wearing bullet proof vests when they're on the job now.
Though towing illegaly parked cars will always be a dangerous job, drivers at SWAT know someone will always be watching over them now. Julius said, "It's Big Brother watching over us at all times." South West Auto Tow says their company is one of only two tow truck companies in the United States with video surveillance equipment on their trucks. SWAT can thank Jerry Splawn for that. After his nearly-fatal shooting, he pushed for it.