HOUSTON – A towing company with ties to USA Auto Collision Center -- a business on Houston’s south side that was shut down after a Channel 2 investigation last year -- is accused of similar bad behavior after drivers lodged some complaints.
In May 2016, dozens of victims and countless hours of investigation led to the closure of USA Auto Collision Center and Stan's Wreckers. Five employees were arrested and charged with stealing from customers.
Piece by piece, our hidden cameras watched as bidders took what was left on the property of USA Auto Collision Center at a private auction in January. Tow trucks, vehicles and office equipment were among those items.
Owner Richard Gonzalez sold it all, from what was once his business on Almeda Genoa Road, after the state revoked his towing and storage licenses.
Our investigation culminated in a raid and five arrests. The employees taken into custody were charged with organized criminal activity. They are Richard Gonzalez, Ruben Rendon, Andres Vasquez, Brenda Awawdeh and Paulita Rodriguez.
The Houston Police Department seized documents and equipment that officers said proved those employees conspired to dupe customers and prevent the victims from calling for help.
Here’s what the scam entailed, according to investigators: when a driver’s car broke down, a worker from USA Auto Collision Center arrived at the scene, telling the driver that the only place he or she could tow the vehicle was to a storage lot that was also owned by the company. Once the pair arrived there, the Collision Center employee tricked the customer into signing documents to take the car apart at a body shop also owned by the same company. In order for the drivers to get their cars back, they’d have to spend thousands of dollars, officials said.
“They wouldn’t let me have my car,” Jim Robinson said. “They wanted $2,800.”
When asked, “They just took your truck?”
“They stole it,” Arch Yancey told reporter Amy Davis. “They stole it. That’s all there is to it.”
Nearly one year later, where are the suspects?
Andres Vasquez, who ran the body shop, disappeared when he posted bail and left jail. He hasn’t been seen since.
Ruben Rendon, who worked at the body shop, was jailed again three months after his arrest -- this time, for failure to stop and provide his information in a hit-and-run crash. He paid bail in that case, but in December, he entered a Target store with a rolling suitcase and filled it with electronics, according to court records.
When security stopped him, Rendon bit the officers, screaming, “I’m not going back to jail!” police said. Rendon’s bond is now set at $100,000. He was charged with robbery and bodily injury.
And yet, another USA Auto Collision Center remains open in another part of Texas -- in Pharr, in the Valley. The two businesses have more in common than just their names. This USA Auto Collision Center is owned by Lorenzo Gonzalez, the father of Richard Gonzalez.
Lorenzo Gonzalez attended a Houston City Council meeting last year, where he pleaded with members not to cancel the city’s towing contract with the local USA Auto Collision Center.
“Allow me to resume control of my business,” he said at the time. “I will also remove my son and every other employee of the company.”
The council didn’t buy his story, and now, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation is trying to get Gonzalez’s license in Pharr revoked, as well -- citing the same deceptive tactics that were used at the Houston business, officials said.
In Pharr, the Gonzalezes share a limited partnership of the towing company currently under investigation.
If they’re found guilty, the five suspects arrested in the Houston operation face between two and 20 years in prison. The date for a criminal trial has not been set.