PHILADELPHIA – Turf wars among tow truck drivers are nothing new in Philadelphia, but they have turned unusually violent — and now deadly — in 2010.
A territory feud apparently led one driver to repeatedly run over over a rival with his truck at a gas station early Sunday, killing him, police said.
Ray Santiago's death comes months after authorities charged another tow-truck driver with shooting a competitor at an accident scene. Both firms involved in that case were then vandalized, one with a barrage of bullets and the other with a fire that tore through 13 vehicles.
"It runs in cycles, but 2010 has been the most violent year I've seen in almost a quarter century," said lawyer William J. Brennan, who has defended several tow operators charged in on-the-job scrapes. "Maybe it's the economy. Maybe people are getting desperate."
Glen McDaniel, 25, of Philadelphia was being held without bail on murder, drunken-driving and other charges in Santiago's death. It was not clear if he has an attorney.
Philadelphia police try to rotate tow jobs among a list of approved operators, but they don't do so if a tow truck beats officers to a crash scene. That leaves rivals racing dangerously through narrow city streets to claim jobs before police give them away, critics say.
That cutthroat competition explains why TV producers seized on Philadelphia for an upcoming TLC network show called "Wreck Chasers," which is following several drivers with an unidentified firm for a series set to start next month.
The city was chosen because of the unusual and competitive nature of its towing businesses, the show's executive producer, Jim Kowats, told The Associated Press earlier this month. A TLC spokeswoman did not immediately return a message Monday.
Santiago, 30, may have been involved in a towing-related film project, but police did not know if it was the TLC program, Lt. Frank Vanore said. And no filming was under way when the fatal argument erupted, said Vanore, a police spokesman.
City Councilman Jim Kenney wants oversight of the industry moved from police to the Philadelphia Parking Authority. The authority has dispatchers and impound lots available, and could eliminate the dubious practice of drivers getting cash from auto-body shops to bring in wrecked cars, Kenney said.
In July, police charged Jose LaTorre Jr. of J & Sons Autobody with shooting a Mystical Towing driver in the thigh as they argued at a crash scene. LaTorre had gotten there first, but was trying to claim the customer from his Cadillac Escalade. The Mystical tow driver therefore considered the client fair game.
"With wreck chasers, whoever's got a truck and some guts, and a connection with a body shop, wins," Brennan said.
He had defended Santiago on unrelated drug charges in 2008, and recalled his client as a family man, with a wife and children.
Police believe Santiago had an underlying feud with McDaniel over their respective territories, although there was no accident in progress when they met up Sunday just before 3 a.m. at a North Philadelphia gas station. They ran into each other as a bar let out across the street.
They may have argued over a woman at the scene, but police believe they mostly fought over their turf.
"I don't think it was about a specific tow, like we've seen (at issue) in the past. This is more like, 'You're in my area. What are you doing down here?'" Vanore said.