Like a mechanical vulture, the tow truck cruises the city streets searching for dead metal. A concealed police radio sputters and hisses a message from deep within the rear wall of the cab: Two-car accident, 300 block of H Street NE.
Gunning the engine, the driver maneuvers the truck along the Southeast Freeway toward the scene. "We should find a lot of tow trucks there," he says, referring to other drivers who, like him, illegally monitor police radios and race to accident scenes in search of towing jobs that can net them as much as $500 a week, after expenses.
But when he arrives, he finds instead two blue-and-white police scout cars, their red lights whirling, and a traffic investigator's beige cruiser.
"It's too risky to stop," the tow truck driver says, asking to remain nameless for fear of being fined by police. "Those traffic cruisers will give you a [$100] ticket in a minute. But that's a good accident. Both cars will probably have to be towed.
So the tow truck operator bypassed the accident and headed into the night looking for other opportunities -- other people's wrecked cars.
The driver is one of a small band of two truckers whose companies are under contract to tow wrecked and stolen autos for the D.C. police department. Like highway pirates, these nomads roam the streets of Anacostia and Northeast Washington searching for wrecked autos. With concealed police radios hidden in the cab of their trucks, they locate the accident scenes and mysteriously appear at accident scenes without being called by police. A few even chase ambulances.
That the practices violate city towing regulations and can cost a tow truck owner his business license and $100 fines is a moot point with the highway adventurers. These drivers claim most D.C. police officers aren't enforcing the laws anyway and actually help so-called outlaw tow truck operators break them.
Outlaw drivers caught running to accidents are rarely ticketed, they said. Some officers give the towing jobs to tow truckers who stop on the scene. Other police hail cranes as they cruise by.
Capt. Donald H. Christian of the police department's planning and development office, which oversees the police crane program, denies thee charges. He said he is aware of the allegations against the police, but said so far they have not been substantiated.
"If that's going on," he said, "it shouldn't."
Sgt. Raymond Diegel of the traffic department agrees that the practices violate towing regulations, but said it is possible that District officers are unwittingly promoting the violations.
While traffic investigators are most familar with the crane regulations, Diegel said only two or three patrol the city at any time. He said the bulk of the accidents are handled by officers who don't know the city towing regulations or how the crane program works. Some don't care.
"He [the officer] wants the job done," diegel said, "It doesn't make much difference to him how it gets done."
Fully aware of this, outlaw drivers and their wily competitors have been deadlocked for months in a war of highway piracy.
There are 15 crane companies on the police contract crane list. Under the guidelines of the contract, the cranes must be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to tow wrecked and stolen autos. The police pays up to $17.50 to have stolen cars towed. The companies set their fees to tow wrecked autos, which run as high as $65 but average $50. The nearest crane company to the accident is supposed to be called.
The war being fought among half-a-dozen small crane companies in far Northeast and Anacostia is a range war. Tow truck owners who say they rarely, if ever, run accidents claim police in these districts are giving the outlaw operators accidents outside their territory. In the frenzy, the complainers say they're losing money on jobs rightfully theirs.
"The trucks that run accidents don't care about the $15 jobs," said Allen Thompkinson, owner of A&B Towing at 2300 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. "They're after the big money. That's got to be cleaned up."
Thompkinson claims he doesn't run accidents but has been victimized by the highway bandits. On several occasions this year he said he was summoned to an accident by police only to find the wrecked auto gone or hooked up to a competitor's crane. He said a crafty driver can evade tickets and gross $1,500 a week before paying gas costs and expenses for leasing trucks.
Earl and Bonnie Lowe, owners of Anacostia Towing at 1750 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, said they have been stung by highway bandits ever since they opened their business.
"When we first came here 20 years ago the cranes were riding wide open," Mrs. Lowe said. Drivers sped through red lights and sometimes had accidents, she said. They fought hand to hand over the wrecks.
Diegel, a traffic investigator during those early years, compared the early mayhem to "vultures coming in on a carcass."
The street brawling ended 10 years ago when the city government estabilished towing regulations to distribute business among the towing companies more fairly and ensure the trucks were properly equipped. The regulations also answered complaints from the American Automobile Association and motorists who were victimized by the drivers.
"What they were trying to do was get the riff-raff off the street," Earl Lowe said. Now the Lowes fear the lawlessness is returning.
Outlaw drivers continue to monitor police radios, race to accident scenes and solicit towing jobs from motorists before police, or a competitor, can arrive. Others boldly approach the officer on the scene and ask for the job.
Paul Tibbs, co-owner of Billy's Towing on Kenilworth Avenue, NE said he posts trucks on round-the-clock patrols on I-295, the Southeast Freeway and at heavily trafficked intersections to watch for wrecks. His drivers then call in the accidents to police dispatchers.
"Sometimes we get the job," Tibbs said, "sometimes we don't."
At the Joy Donuts Shop at Bladensburg Road and New York Avenue NE -- a hangout for the drivers -- packs of tow trucks can be seen scurrying out of the parking lot heading for jobs, some of them illegal.
Behind the wheel, highway cowboys known as "Choo-Choo" or "Blood" race through the streets and freeways, weaving in and out of traffic at speeds well above the limit. They claim much of the grandstanding is done with blessings of the police.
On one occasion, following a three-car crash, William Walker, owner of A-1 Towing at 631 Howard Rd. SE, said the officer on the scene let him handle the job along with the crane summoned by police. Walker said he drove to the accident scene and talked his way into the job.
Still, Walker claims he would prefer not to be an occasional outlaw. If the law was enforced, he said his work would be more pleasant and the towing more fairly distributed. Police enforcement of the regulations is unpredictable, he said.
"It depends upon the weather. If it's snowing or raining, or how their day went," Walker said of his experience with the police. "All they want to do is clear the street. One day they'll give you a $100 ticket, the next day they'll flag you to an accident."