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Feeling Lucky?

The early-morning sun is just beginning to warm the dirt-and-gravel lot on Beeman Avenue. The only apparent movement at the ramshackle headquarters of Elite Towing, Inc. is the wandering of a flea-bitten black Labrador, whose painstaking steps are punctuated by the steady, annoying ding of a nearby railroad bell.

Leon Gould steers his banged-up Chevy S10 onto the tow company lot, located 15 blocks east of Fair Park, parks, and coolly throws his pickup into park.

Accompanied by his wife, Cassandra, a quiet woman who usually spends her mornings minding the house, Gould is especially determined this Tuesday morning.

Gould thinks that triumph is at hand, that he has finally beaten the company that illegally towed--and allegedly damaged--his wife's 1985 Ford Tempo. He is ready to collect the $110 he paid to bail out his wife's car, plus $10 in court costs ordered by a judge.

Gould plans to collect every last dime, but Elite Towing has one more dirty trick to pull.

Court order in one hand, tape recorder in the other, Gould marches up to Elite's office and knocks on one of the greasy windows. "WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE IF ANY FOUL LANGUAGE IS USED OR THREATS ARE MADE," reads a hand-lettered sign. At Elite Towing, such admonitions are not just window dressing.

After Gould knocks, a woman wearing a Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt cracks open the window and takes the court order from Gould. He waits.

A few moments later, Elite night manager Larry Stober steps outside. He is carrying a paper sack filled with quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. Elite Towing is going to pay Gould the money it owes him in change.

Gould protests. How is he supposed to know if all the money is there? He asks to speak to Elite's president and owner, Lissa Ruffin, who is seated behind the glass window dressed in a Minnie Mouse sweatshirt.

Ruffin will not come out.
Gould asks Stober to count out the money.
"I'm not counting it out," Stober says, thrusting the sack of coins at Gould. "Do you want this money?"

Gould sighs and hands his tape recorder to his wife. He takes the paper sack from Stober and spills rolls of coins out on the gravel. Gould gets down on his knees and begins counting, roll by roll, beginning with the quarters.

The black Labrador stops in front of Gould, raises its right hind leg and begins scratching its mangy belly.

As the morning grows warmer, a yellow taxi pulls into the Elite lot and drops off a towering red-haired woman. Kathey Peat is about to enter a level of hell already known to Gould.

Peat knocks on the window, then knocks again, louder, and glares at the window. The woman in the Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt stares back through the glass, refusing to open the window. "They're just ignoring me," the redhead says, dumbfounded.

Elite towed Peat's car the night before, from the lot of Peat's condominium complex. The woman in the Cowboys sweatshirt opens the window, listens to Peat's story, then pronounces Peat guilty of parking in a fire lane. Elite's driver even took a Polaroid of Peat's illegally parked car before towing it, the woman says.

Behind the glass, the Elite employee holds up a color Polaroid. It is impossible to tell whether there's a fire lane; the picture was taken in the dead of night.

Peat demands the picture so she can inspect it more closely. The employee opens the window and thrusts it out, refusing to let go of it entirely. "There's a fire lane right there," she intones, her voice rising.

"There's no fire lane there," Peat says, turning her head and scanning the scene for witnesses. As she does, the woman snatches back the picture and slams the window shut.

"Did you see that? They won't even let me hold it in my hand," Peat says, muttering about how she's lived in the same condominium complex for 12 years and knows where the cotton-picking fire lanes are.

"Who authorized you to tow my car?" Peat barks, banging on the window for a third time.

The woman in the Cowboys sweatshirt says Elite has a contract with the condominium complex's owner and has a right to tow from the lot. But Peat wants to know who gave Elite authorization to tow--a name, a person. The woman in the Cowboys shirt says she can't say, she just works here.

A mustachioed man with severely crooked teeth pops his head up from behind the gate. He is wearing a hot pink baseball hat featuring the words "Elite Towing" and the image of a tow truck. He clucks his tongue and shakes his head.

 

"As long as we have a contract, we can tow a car off that lot at any time," the man says, his tone of voice sounding as if he can barely restrain himself from adding the words "so there" to his generic explanation.

"I just want to know who authorized you to tow my car!"
Peat is yelling. The woman behind the window is yelling back. The man in the pink hat is clucking. The railroad bell is dinging. The dog is scratching. And Gould is counting.

"Nine dollars and twenty five." Cling. "Fifty." Cling. "Seventy five." Cling. "Ten dollars. Ten dollars twenty five...."

If Leon Gould were not a persistent man, he would never have exacted justice from Elite Towing, Inc. As predatory and reviled as towing companies might be, Elite is about as nasty as they come.

During just two years in the towing and auto resale business, Elite's gravel-strewn lot has become a theater of aggravation where blood boils, temperatures rise, and insults are hurled in every direction.

It's not just the frustration of car owners who get caught parking illegally. When some Elite drivers couldn't find cars to tow legally, they apparently felt free to haul off anything they could find.

Judging by court records, lawsuits, tax records, and complaints to state and city officials, Elite Towing, Inc. may have set a new low for the towing business--and that's a long way down.

In the last two years, Dallas County judges have ordered Elite and one of its drivers to pay nearly $200,000 in damages in various lawsuits. In one case, a company driver illegally tried to tow a car and ran over the car's owner in the process. In another case, Elite was ordered to pay $5,000 to a driver whose car it illegally towed and then sold.

Then there's the matter of an ongoing criminal investigation by the Dallas County District Attorney's office, examining, in part, whether Elite illegally towed cars from a U.S. government parking lot near Fair Park.

In January, police raided Elite's lot and seized the company's business records, plus 10 cars they suspected had been reported either missing or stolen. One car was allegedly stripped of its wheels, rims, and radio by Elite employees.

In May, a Dallas County grand jury indicted two Elite employees for theft as a result of the seizure. The two men are awaiting trial.

The indictments come on the heels of another criminal investigation. Last year, a Dallas County grand jury indicted Elite president Lissa Ruffin on one count of felony theft after she allegedly tried to "appropriate" a car. The district attorney's office, however, later asked that the charges be dismissed.

Elite attorney Joe Shearin says the charge against Ruffin lacked merit and calls the ongoing criminal investigation a "fishing expedition" carried out by a handful of cops who are conspiring to put the company out of business.

"The seizure of those cars was an illegal seizure, and the fact that it happened in January and there have been no charges filed against Lissa Ruffin or Elite Towing ought to tell you something," Shearin says. "Elite Towing is a legitimate towing company that runs its business by the book."

Shearin is right in his claim that the district attorney's office has not filed cases against Ruffin or Elite. First Assistant District Attorney Norm Kinne did not return the Dallas Observer's calls, and staff members of the Dallas County Commercial Auto Theft Task Force, which spearheaded the January sting, declined to comment.

But Shearin's contention that Elite operates by the book isn't exactly accurate. The Secretary of State's office yanked Elite's charter in February for non-payment of taxes, effectively stripping the company of its corporate status.

Elite isn't officially a corporation anymore, but its trucks continue to haul cars onto the crowded lot at 4947 Beeman Avenue. The spot is also home to "Elite Wholesales," which continues to sell unclaimed cars.

A sign prominently posted outside Elite's office informs teed-off drivers that they can complain to the Texas Department of Transportation. Just dial 1-800-299-1700 and spew.

But complaining to the state doesn't do much good. Of all the private towing companies in Texas, Elite is among those with the highest number of complaints currently on file with the Texas Department of Transportation. While state officials license towing companies like Elite, however, they have no authority to investigate complaints. Instead, they merely stow the reports away in a file.

Likewise, complaining to the City of Dallas does little good. No other private towing company licensed in Dallas has received more complaints than Elite in the last two years. Nearly all of the complaints involve allegations that Elite improperly towed cars which the complainants say were parked legally.

 

Although city officials have helped some drivers get refunds, expecting the city to curb Elite's improper towing practices is akin to spitting in the wind.

The only recourse left for wronged drivers is a time-consuming trek to the civil courts, and it takes the persistence of a Leon Gould to prevail even then.

Nobody likes having their car towed, and few people would rate tow truck drivers as their favorite type of people. But Elite owner Ruffin says the public should feel sorry for her and her employees, who she says are unfairly blamed and abused.

"People's general attitude is 'the poor public, they're not in the know. These people [wreckers] know, so they're taking advantage,' but that's not always true," Ruffin says. "I could go on and on and on about the abuse we take."

Ruffin and her employees may take a lot of heat for their work, but her call for sympathy is likely to fall on deaf ears.

Somebody has carved the message "fuck elite towing" into the wall of the company's office. It's not hard to see why.

"We got scammed that night. That's my personal opinion," says Leon Gould. "A hundred and ten dollars is pocket change to me, but it's the principle of the matter."

Gould believes Elite employees are in cahoots with property owners and parking lot attendants who lure drivers onto private lots while Elite drivers lie in wait. Gould's theory, like any conspiracy theory, has a lot of unknowns attached to it, but it is the best he can come up with to explain what happened to him on the night of October 5.

Leon and Cassandra Gould were looking forward to watching the SMU Mustangs take on the Missouri Tigers inside the Cotton Bowl. When the Fort Worth couple arrived at Fair Park in their maroon Ford Tempo, all of the official parking spots were taken: It was a Saturday night and the State Fair of Texas was in full swing.

The Goulds drove down Haskell Avenue and spotted a man waving cars into a parking lot next to the El Atroncan II night club. A sign stated that the lot was authorized for overflow fair parking, and the waving man had a green-and-white special events parking permit issued by the City of Dallas. The Goulds forked over five bucks and left their car at the El Atroncan, as did about a dozen other drivers who had been waved into the lot.

Some two hours later, the Mustangs missed a last-minute field goal and suffered a heart-breaking 27-26 loss. It was a helluva game, but for the Goulds the nail-biting finale was just the beginning of the stress they were about to endure.

When the Goulds returned to the El Atroncan II, the parking lot had been cleared.

"The first thing I thought was, 'who stole my car?'" says Cassandra Gould. Other football fans wandering about the lot wondered the same thing.

An El Atroncan security guard told the carless drivers he had called Elite Towing, Inc. and had their cars towed: They were improperly parked on a private lot, and he needed to clear the space for the bar's patrons. Tempers began to flare.

Soon, the police arrived and began escorting car owners to Elite Towing to retrieve their cars. In all, nine cars were towed from the El Atroncan that night, according to a police report.

The night before, the cops told Gould, there had been a near-riot at Elite after another group of fair-goers had their cars towed under suspiciously similar circumstances. The information didn't help matters.

"People were furious. And of course they [Elite] have a sign up that says if you're rude or loud or discourteous, you can't get your car back," says Lisa Hertlein, who had also parked at El Atroncan.

Hertlein, her three children, her husband James, and his father had driven to Dallas from Sugar Land that weekend to celebrate parents weekend at SMU. The trip was a disaster. Besides getting towed, SMU lost, and the family got a flat tire on the way home.

While waiting in line outside Elite's office, the Hertleins and the Goulds began asking questions. Who was the parking attendant, and why did he have a city parking permit? If he had a parking permit, what gave Elite the right to tow cars off the lot?

On the other hand, if the permit was a fake and fair-goers weren't supposed to park at the El Atroncan, why wasn't the lot posted with signs?

Whoever the attendant was, he got arrested, according to a Dallas police report detailing the towing that took place at El Atroncan that night. The report does not provide the name of the attendant, but it describes him as a white male who told police he worked for the night club.

 

The man was arrested outside the El Atroncan in the early hours of October 6 for "outstanding city warrants" and was later transported to detox, according to the report. The parking permit police found on the man was issued to 1101 South Haskell Avenue, the same address as that of El Atroncan.

Jon Rose, the city's parking enforcement manager, says his records indicate that the permit was issued in 1995 to one Ricky Lee Cantrell, age 39 or 40, who listed his address as 1007 Meandering Way in Dallas.

A woman who recently answered the door at 1007 Meandering Way says a Ricky Lee Cantrell Sr. lives there, but he doesn't have any parking permits. The woman, who declined to identify herself, said the permit holder might be the son of the Cantrell who lives there.

"I haven't seen that boy in a while," said the woman, who added that she had to go and shut the door.

Dallas County court records do not show who was arrested in response to the towing incident at El Atroncan. The records do, however, reveal that a Ricky Lee Cantrell, age 39 or 40, has had 18 criminal charges filed against him since 1974. They resulted in convictions for DWI, possession of a controlled substance (LSD), check forgery, burglary, and theft over $10,000.

Rose says the city had no notion of Cantrell's record when it issued him the permit. Nor has the city taken it away since the fracas at El Atroncan. As far as he knows, the city has never yanked anyone's special events parking permit.

On a recent Friday afternoon, El Atroncan owner Juan Orona was standing on top of the bar's roof spreading tar. Asked if he could explain the towing situation on his lot, Orona said, "no understand English."

Asked if he knows Ricky Lee Cantrell, Orona said, "Ricky? Don't know Ricky."
Orona then returned to his work repairing the bar's roof. Beneath him, several "no parking" signs are posted on the bar's outer walls, warning that unauthorized cars will be towed to Elite Towing, Inc.

Gould and Hertlein say the signs weren't there the night their cars were towed. Just in case he was mistaken, Gould says he returned to El Atroncan shortly after the towing and took pictures of the building. In the pictures, which Gould proudly displayed recently, the signs aren't there.

Gould believes the lot's owners may have cut some sort of deal with Elite Towing to lure in unsuspecting drivers and tow their cars.

Gould's claim that there were no signs posted is a bunch of baloney, says Lissa Ruffin. Elite's president is seated at a conference table in the law office of Joe Shearin, as is Elite night manager Larry Stober. Elite attorneys Shearin and Ken Blassingame are also present.

The mention of Leon Gould's name causes all four of them to roll their eyes. In October, Ruffin says, Gould went to every television station in town, whining about Elite Towing and ruining her business in the process.

"I don't believe we were treated fairly in this respect," says Ruffin, who acknowledges that Dallas County Justice of the Peace Juan Jasso ordered her to refund Gould's money because of "improper signage."

That night, Ruffin says, Elite's drivers were simply doing their job. Ruffin adds that she doesn't know who Ricky Lee Cantrell is, and that she can't help it if people get towed because they park illegally.

"People that don't want to do the paid parking, they go up there and park," Ruffin says. "The property owner went to court with us on this and said, yes, he did authorize us to tow Leon's car, OK?"

After the fateful evening, Gould contacted Hertlein to see if she'd be interested in filing a lawsuit against Elite. Hertlein says she considered it, but decided it would be too much of a hassle. Except for attending her son's graduation this spring, Hertlein says she's never coming back to Dallas.

"When we got home, we kissed the driveway," Hertlein says.
Gould went to court anyway. On October 24, Leon and Cassandra Gould appeared at a hearing before Judge Jasso. Lissa Ruffin, Larry Stober, and Juan Orona also appeared. Jasso ordered Ruffin to refund Gould the $110 towing fee, plus $10 in court costs.

Gould says the judgment was a small victory, but it doesn't cover the estimated $703.13 worth of damages he claims Elite caused when its drivers towed his wife's Tempo. A copy of an estimate, which Gould obtained on October 7 from an Arlington-based mechanic, reveals that the car's front fender, front panel, and side mirror were damaged.

 

Jasso, who chuckles at the mention of Elite Towing, Inc., says he's seen a sharp increase in towing complaints filed in his court this year, and the majority of them involve Elite.

On November 26, Cassandra Gould went to Elite's office to collect the towing refund. When an Elite employee presented her with a sack of coins, Cassandra says she didn't know what to do. She was afraid to take the money and wind up getting shorted.

After consulting with her husband by telephone, Cassandra says she returned to Jasso's courtroom to see if he could order Elite to find a more appropriate method of payment--or at least count the money to see if it was all there.

Jasso, who confirms that an Elite employee later tried to leave the money with the court, says he told the two parties to solve the problem themselves. Coins are, after all, legal tender.

The next day, Leon and Cassandra Gould filed another civil complaint against Elite. Now they want Elite to pay for the damages to their car, plus the wages Leon Gould says he lost by taking numerous hours off of work to deal with the matter.

Again the eyes begin to roll inside Shearin's office. Ruffin flatly denies that Elite damaged Gould's car, while Stober explains that towing is a damage-free activity, generally speaking.

"You can tow a car plain across the United States and never damage the front end," he says in a gravelly voice. "Towing is the same difference as running it, driving it or whether you're towing it."

As Stober continues his explanation, Ruffin's denial becomes less convincing.

"It's no problem to tell when a wrecker damaged his car, you know. I don't say we don't never make mistakes and don't never damage one," Stober says. "We do, and we fix what we damage. He [Gould] was offered a damage claim that night, and he filled it out."

Leon Gould isn't the only one who has taken on Elite Towing, Inc. And the El Atroncan is just one of many vehicular battlegrounds upon which people have faced off with wreckers.

Rob Clements says Elite Towing gave him nightmares when he was running the now-defunct Major Theater in East Dallas. Clements says his customers' cars were in danger of being snatched away almost every time the theater showed a movie or hosted a live band.

"I literally went out there with a shotgun and tried to run them off. The police told me I couldn't do that, but in my opinion I was protecting my property," Clements says. "I was willing to shoot tires. I could have come close to killing a man, which I didn't want to do, I was so fed up with it."

Located next to the old Debonair Danceland on Samuell Boulevard, the Major Theater is surrounded by a vast, glass-covered parking lot. Clements says he leased a portion of the lot from its owner, a man he would only describe as "Mr. B," who also owns the land and building once occupied by the Debonair.

Under a contract Elite had with the owner of the Debonair club, "no parking" signs were hung on the building, and Elite's wreckers routinely patrolled the lot. Even though the Debonair has been closed for more than a year, Ruffin says her drivers continue to patrol the lot. She maintains that the contract she had with the former owner of the Debonair is still valid, though she could not remember the man's name.

Clements' feud with Elite came to a head on August 19, 1995. That night, more than 100 people showed up for a lecture by California author Robert Anton Wilson about the American jury system. A few minutes into the lecture, a kid bolted into the theater and announced that a group of tow trucks had descended on the cars outside.

"I ran out and, sure enough, there were about three trucks. They were ripping cars off the lot," says Bob Martin, who attended the lecture.

Audience members began to spill out into the lot and surround their cars, hoping to fend off the tow trucks until police arrived. The warring factions began hurling insults.

At some point, Lissa Ruffin and her sister arrived on the scene in a pickup truck. Jason Cohen, owner of Forbidden Books and a co-sponsor of the lecture, says the two ladies fit right in.

"They were as bad as the truck drivers. They said, 'this is our lot.' They were adamant. We were swearing at them," Cohen says. "They were real mean people."

 

Martin agrees.
"They threatened to shoot me, one of them did," says Martin, adding that another driver told him, "I'm going to run over your ass, motherfucker."

Then, according to a lawsuit Martin later filed against Elite, wrecker Larry Dickerson did try to run Martin over.

"He slowly backed up. I was backing up with him. There was a commotion off to the right, and I turned my head," says Martin. "That's when he gunned his truck and hit my knee and side and knocked me to the ground. I started screaming. I thought I was going to get crushed."

In his lawsuit, Martin accused Dickerson of assault and claimed Elite was negligent for hiring him. Last December, Martin won a default judgment after Elite and Dickerson failed to respond to the lawsuit or appear in court.

Elite and Dickerson were each ordered to pay $20,000 in actual damages and $75,000 in exemplary damages, according to copies of the judgments.

Jeannie Markarian, who also attended Wilson's lecture, claims Dickerson injured her that night after he smashed into her car, according to a lawsuit she filed last November against Dickerson and Elite.

Markarian claims she wrapped her arm around Dickerson's side mirror and asked him for his name, his driver's license, and the name of his boss.

"Dickerson cursed [Markarian] and suddenly accelerated his truck....and her body began being dragged alongside, towards another vehicle. Right before [Markarian] would have been crushed between the tow truck and this other vehicle, [Markarian] managed to extricate her arm from the mirror and was thrown to the ground," Markarian claims in her suit.

Markarian could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Kim Shauck, who also represented Martin, did not return the Observer's phone calls. The case is still pending.

Ruffin says Markarian, Martin, Clements--the whole lot of them--are exaggerating. First off, Ruffin says, no cars were towed that night.

"They didn't get to tow any cars because people in the theater come out with shotguns, their bouncers, and held the drivers at gunpoint until the police got there," Ruffin says.

And secondly, Ruffin says, no one tried to run anyone over.
"This lady Jeannie came over to one of our drivers and wrapped her arm around his mirror and wouldn't get off of it," Ruffin says. "Well, the police pull up just in time to see her let go of the mirror and hop down in front of the wrecker and say, 'he hit me, he hit me.''

No criminal charges resulted from the parking lot fracas.
When asked why she didn't bother to respond to Martin's lawsuit, Ruffin claims she didn't know about it.

"I didn't answer. I didn't show up in court. I didn't respond. And, believe me, if I had been served or was aware of a $95,000 suit, I'd-a been there," Ruffin says. "The courts can't prove to me that I was ever served papers."

Court records show that Elite (which is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week) was properly served notice of Martin's lawsuit. Martin's process server did, however, have trouble finding Dickerson.

If Markarian's case goes to trial, Ruffin will be put in the position of defending her decision to employ Dickerson, who still works for Elite. Ruffin says she conducts criminal background checks on all of her employees and does not hire anyone who has been convicted of a felony or has too many speeding tickets.

Dickerson's record, she says, popped up clean.
Dallas County Court records show that Dickerson has been charged with a wide variety of crimes, ranging from misdemeanor speeding to felony burglary, 13 times since 1976. Those charges have resulted in convictions for theft, forgery, and possession of a controlled substance.

"You know, Larry was charged not long ago with a hot check thing," say Ruffin, her memory having been jogged. "They obviously had the wrong person. He's never had a checking account in his life. He can't read. But to answer your question, no, I have not been aware of any of those things."

In recent years, Lissa Ruffin has had her own problems with bad checks. In February, the Secretary of State's office forfeited Elite's corporate charter because Ruffin wasn't paying the corporate taxes. Ruffin says that she, like other small business owners, is struggling to make ends meet.

"My checks keep bouncing," Ruffin says. "Elite Towing is not a booming business, so I mail them [the state] a check and hope that I can cover it before it comes through."

For the moment, the Secretary of State's office is only one of Ruffin's concerns. In May, Elite employees Carl Caldwell and Jerry Cooper were indicted for theft over $1,500 as part of an ongoing auto-theft investigation into Elite Towing, Inc.

 

The men were arrested last May, after police raided Elite's property in January and seized its business records and 10 cars, which they suspected were stolen.

The seizure wasn't the first time Elite was accused of stealing cars. In 1994, Dallas resident Marcus Grant sued Elite after one of its drivers towed his car. In his suit, Grant claimed the company sold his car without properly telling him they had towed it. In a one-page response to the suit, Ruffin disputed where the car was towed from and said it was parked in a fire lane.

As part of a partial summary judgment signed in August 1995, Elite was ordered to pay Grant $5,000 for the vehicle. Grant's attorney Jared Lackman says Elite duly paid Grant all the money owed to him.

While Grant's suit was pending, a Dallas County grand jury indicted Ruffin on one count of theft over $1,500 because she allegedly tried to "appropriate" another man's car. No details of the case are available, and the charge was dropped at the request of the Dallas County District Attorney's office.

During the January raid, Sergeant Sammy Morris, an investigator with the Texas Department of Public Safety, observed a 1994 Honda Accord that was missing its tires, rims, and AM/FM tape deck. Morris says he found the parts hidden in a box near the car, according to statements he made during a June hearing in Dallas County District Court.

In October, defense attorney Blassingame filed a motion to have the evidence suppressed. Blassingame says the search warrant police used during the January 10 raid did not specifically cover cars or car parts, and the seizure of the automobiles was therefore improper.

"They just can't go out on the lot and start looking at cars," says Blassingame, who is defending the case with Shearin. "They have absolutely no case. It's what we call insufficiency of the evidence, and we're gonna try the case."

In his affidavit for the search warrant, Morris said he began his investigation into Elite after two federal employees complained that, during the 1995 state fair, Elite towed their cars from the General Services Administration building, which is located near Fair Park.

On three occasions, Ruffin "went to the Social Security Office and talked to Contract Security Officer Gary Burkhart about obtaining a contract to tow vehicles that were parked at the office by individuals that were at the fair," Morris stated. "On each of these occasions, Ms. Ruffin had been told not to tow any vehicle from this location."

On September 30 and October 2, Morris says, Elite towed at least three cars from the lot anyway. The owners later got their cars back, and two received refunds for the towing fees.

Although police and prosecutors have had a year to review Elite's business records, they have not brought any charges against Elite or Ruffin. The fact that the authorities have only found one car with missing tires and a radio is the best evidence that they are on a "fishing expedition," Shearin says.

"For whatever reason, someone has decided that Elite Towing and Lissa Ruffin are going to be targeted," says Shearin, who adds that a group of certain unnamed law enforcement officials have a personal problem with Elite.

"It's a full-blown conspiracy," says Ruffin. Larry Stober nods his head in agreement and says there's a reason why the cops are after Elite.

When asked to explain why the police might be harassing Elite, Ruffin and Stober stop talking and exchange glances with their defense attorneys.

"There's a really good story out there that isn't ready yet," Ruffin says. Everyone else concurs.

"I'm counting pennies now," Leon Gould says.MMM M M M M"I should have brought a chair," Cassandra Gould says. "I didn't think he was going to count the pennies."

It's 11:30 a.m., and Leon has been counting for more than an hour.
In the background, behind Elite's rickety wooden fence, stands the large warehouse where Elite employees store all of the cars that aren't claimed by their owners. Elite employees have been moving cars in and out of the warehouse all morning in a never-ending game of musical cars.

A driver pulls up to the gate in an apple-red Fairlane and guns the car's engine--it's an ear-piercing way of letting the woman in the Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt know that he wants to get out. The gate opens, and he pulls out into the drive and parks. The figure "$1,750" has been written on the car's rear window.

 

The driver retrieves a piece of adhesive tape from the woman in the Dallas Cowboys sweatshirt and tapes an "Elite Wholesales" sign to the car's windshield. The sign also acts as a temporary license plate. Everything being street legal, the man guns the Fairlane's engine and tears out of the lot.

He's not the only Elite employee driving cars with temporary license plates. In fact, almost all of the employees entering and leaving Elite's lot on this day are driving cars with "Elite Wholesales" signs tacked on them.

In the Fairlane's dust, a white minivan with a Dallas County/State of Texas decal on its side pulls into the drive. An aging man dressed in a spectacular blue suit approaches the office and asks for Lissa Ruffin.

"Merry Christmas," he says, laughing as he serves Ruffin with a notice that she is being sued.

Talk about timing. The official notice just happens to pertain to the lawsuit Leon and Cassandra Gould filed on the day before Thanksgiving.

Moments pass.
Ruffin barges out of the employee entrance of her office and stands on the cement stoop, peering down at the kneeling Gould.

"Sue me?" she stammers, her clown earrings dancing. "I'm suing him for as long as he's aggravating me being on my property!"

Ruffin wheels around and slams the door behind her.
Gould finally finishes counting. Cassandra reports that she's counted exactly $119.96. A dime short.

Larry Stober reaches into his pocket and flicks a dime to Gould. After signing a receipt for the money and duly dictating the outcome of the morning's events into his tape recorder, Gould scoops the mound of change back into the paper sack.

A man pulls up in a gray sedan and stops at Gould's side. He glances down at Gould, tosses his head back, and smirks.

"You wanna play games?" he says, revving the engine as the gate slowly opens. "We gonna play games now.


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