A warning for all who park at the old Kmart in Merriam: do so and you face a tow bill.
A group of women recently discovered this lesson the hard way.
"There are four of us here who gave this company $800 in exactly two hours," school teacher Pat Bloemker said. "That's morally wrong and ethically wrong to do that to people."
She was steaming when she showed us her receipt.
"There is an ethical issue here," Bloemker said.
For years, Bloemker and her friends have been using the lot at Interstate 35 and Shawnee Mission Parkway as a meeting spot before carpooling to social events. On Thursday, the group met for their monthly gal pals' lunch, this time at The Cheesecake Factory. This time, their cars were gone when they returned.
"I've been meeting in that spot for at least eight years now," Diane Monteen said. "And this is the first time I've been towed."
The signs are at the entrance and on just about all the light poles clearly stating, "No Parking."
"It says, 'Kmart customers and employee parking only,'" said Dianne Zimmerman.
She admits, they aren't Kmart customers, but there is no Kmart anymore.
"So we thought it was OK to park there," explained Zimmerman. "There's no Kmart, there's no employees, there's no customers, so what were we hurting if we parked there?"
But the current property owner feels differently.
Kmart says its lease expired a year ago. They no longer have an interest in the spot. The tow company employee says the property is owned by Sierra Investments, based in New York.
A manager for Overland Park-based Pro-Tow LLC said the company has a contract with New York-based Sierra Investments for 2 1/2 years to tow vehicles from the lot. He said things changed when Kmart closed.
He says the enforcement aims to prevent idling and clutter, which can draw a bad crowd. He pointed to the case of a trucker found dead and stuffed into a freezer as an example.
Earlier this year, a woman in Kansas City, KS unlocked a freezer that had been put in her garage months earlier and found a man's body inside. That man was identified as a trucker from Tucson, AZ. His semi was parked in that vacant Kmart parking lot.
The tow manager says the means to avoiding sketchy activity changed once the store stood empty. Before, the parking signs indicated, "No overnight parking." The manager of Overland Park's Pro-Tow says his instructions were not to tow during business hours. With no business there any more, there is no longer a legitimate business reason to park there, so the portion of the sign that said, "No overnight parking," was replaced with the words "No parking." That means the enforcement goes 24/7.
Sierra Investments could not be reached for comment.
Merriam Police say they've been getting complaints about the tows for about six months now. The departments have received approximately half a dozen calls, mostly from people who didn't see the signs and thought their cars had been stolen.
The women say they saw a car parked there when they arrived, with someone inside, and that same person was there when they returned two hours later. They contend Pro-Tow is paying someone to watch and call the moment someone leaves. Pro-Tow's manager denied that allegation. He says the drivers check it when they are in the area and not handling other calls, but the company does not have someone stationed there for extended periods of time.
"How many people has that happened to?" Bloemker wondered aloud.
Bloemker and her friends were so upset they called police to the tow business in Overland Park, well aware that there was little police could do, because their dispute was a civil matter and not a criminal one.
"Maybe we can prevent other people from parking there," she said, addressing Pro-Tow directly, "and then you won't make so much money."
She and her friends maintain the signs are confusing regardless. because they reference a place that no longer exists.
"Other people need to know that this is happening," said Zimmerman. "Don't park in that lot or your car is going to get towed and it's $200 to get it out"
Merriam Police say they have no cap on what someone can charge for tow from a private lot. Kansas City, MO, has a cap of $180 for the first 24 hours.
Copyright 2014 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
Tuesday, July 22 2014 10:00 PM EDT2014-07-23 02:00:37 GMT
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