For many people who park in Arlington County, the owner of Frank's Towing and Recovery was long ago branded Public Enemy No. 1.
County police said they were well aware of the company's tendency to overcharge motorists. Criminal charges failed to stick, and fines were not paid. The behavior didn't change, police said.
And so, after complaints continued to pour in about Frank's Towing and owner George King, police settled on another method, one they referred to as the "Al Capone way."
King, a former Arlington police officer, was arrested yesterday, this time on 20 counts of tax fraud. If convicted on all counts, King, 45, of Woodbridge, could face up to 20 years in prison and $50,000 in fines. He is also due back in court next week on another matter: for unpaid fines levied against him by a judge four years ago for overcharging motorists.
"It is very satisfying to see the [tax] charges filed," said Amy Barr, an investigator who spent a year poring over King's records to build the case. "We took the time and the effort to do this right for the community . . . and we have stopped this business, at least for right now." Barr added that "the Capone way" refers to the fact that the notorious gangster of the 1920s and 1930s was ultimately convicted of income tax evasion.
The complaints against King and his business cut to the heart of Arlington's quality of life. With parking at a premium near popular nightspots along Wilson and Clarendon boulevards, people sometimes park where they shouldn't and are towed.
But no company seemed to generate as much bitterness as Frank's Towing, which has also been accused of pouncing on vehicles moments after motorists park their cars. King could not be reached for comment because he was being held in jail without bond yesterday. It could not be learned last night whether he had retained an attorney. He is to be arraigned today.
Arlington officials have long complained that people are vulnerable to price gouging by tow truck operators because a loophole in federal law prohibits local and state governments from exercising strong oversight. Efforts are underway to change the law.
Through July 2004, the most recent data available, county officials received 48 complaints about Frank's Towing, most regarding overcharges.
The state cap, about $95, is often violated, police said. King said in an interview last year that he didn't believe he was breaking the law by sometimes charging $120. County officials said towing companies are required to comply with the state cap.
Although other towing companies have also been accused of charging more than the state cap, Arlington's chief prosecutor, Richard E. Trodden, said in an interview last year that "there seems to be a pattern with Frank's Towing."
Being towed by Frank's angered one Herndon man so much that he fought back by creating a satirical Web site. A phone number for its founder, Josh Burnell, could not be located, and he did not return an e-mail yesterday.
But, as Burnell explained on his Web site, his Honda Prelude was towed from the parking lot of the Clarendon Gold's Gym several years ago. He said it was parked legally because he was a member of the gym. After taking a cab to the impoundment lot, he was ridiculed and insulted, he wrote. The employees demanded cash, which he didn't have, and refused his credit card. A friend finally arrived to bail him out.
Later, he sent a letter to King to inform him that the Frank's Towing domain name had been "towed" to an Internet server in Canada. To get it back, the company would have to pay numerous fees, which totaled nearly $10,000.
"In order to reclaim this Internet domain, you will need to pay for the cost of towing plus any accumulated impound lot fees that may have accrued," he wrote. "You can make payment directly to Arlington County Citizens Against Predatory Towing, either in cash or cashier's check. Credit cards and company checks are not accepted."
After a year-long investigation into his business, King was charged in a warrant last week with the tax crimes. He turned himself in Monday, Barr said, and was released after promising to return to Arlington General District Court yesterday for his arraignment. But when he failed to appear at the hearing, a bench warrant was issued.
Detectives didn't have to travel far to find him. He was sitting in his office in the 1000 block of North Garfield Street.
After examining the allegations against Frank's Towing, Barr said she and other detectives looked for ways to home in on his business. In November 2004, Barr and her partner seized 15 boxes stuffed with records from King's office, she said.
In all, they sorted through more than 10,000 towing records from 2001 through most of 2004, which they entered into a computer database. Then the detectives subpoenaed King's personal and business banking records and cross-referenced them against the tow sheets.
They took the database to a forensic accountant in the Richmond area, she said, who found what they were looking for: numerous alleged violations of the state's tax code.