FOX 12 Investigation: Portland towing company sold stolen car

Published: Oct. 13, 2022 at 7:30 PM PDT
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PORTLAND Ore. (KPTV) - Not many stories about stolen cars have happy endings, but one Washington County man is back at the wheel of his Subaru thanks to some luck and unexpected help.

FOX 12 interviewed the car’s owner, Talon Moe, over the summer.

“The kindness of this gentleman -- I just thank (him) so much, that’s why I’m here and sharing this story,” Moe said.

It’s a story that also shines a light on Oregon’s complicated towing laws where gray areas can leave victims feeling confused.

“If anything, I just don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” Moe said.

It was back in February when someone stole Moe’s 1998 Legacy Outback from a street near his apartment in Washington County.

Moe said the car was a limited edition from Subaru, released with a unique emblem in celebration of the maker’s 30th anniversary.

According to Washington County Sheriff’s records, Moe filed a stolen vehicle report immediately after.

Moe told FOX 12 he wasn’t sure he’d ever see the car again, but he posted about his stolen car online on social media, asking people to keep their eyes open for it

He had only had the car a couple of months and hadn’t yet registered it in his name at the DMV.

“I had recently saved this car,” Moe said. “I spent a whole week putting a new engine and a new transmission in it. I learned all the things of the car – I was under it, in it, covered in oil,” Moe added, saying that long wait times at the DMV due to the pandemic made it difficult more difficult to update the registration.

Fast-forward about three months later to the end of May, Moe said he got a surprising message on Facebook.

“Out of nowhere, a stranger, someone I had sold something to on Facebook marketplace, (sent a message saying) ‘I found your car,’ and he sends me a photo of the car, and I’m like, ‘What?’”

It was a big shock. Moe’s car was sitting for sale at a used car lot in southeast Portland.

“I manage to get out there and I talk to the dealership and they’re like, ‘This is our car, we bought it from an auction house this is our car,’” Moe recalled.

Portland Police records shows that officers went to the lot with Moe to clear up the confusion and help him take the Subaru back.

Yet, a mystery remained; how did Moe’s stolen car end up in a used lot?

Moe set out to follow the paper trail and Fox 12 confirmed that Washington County dispatch records show the Subaru was towed from the Frank Estate apartments by Sergeants Towing on March 11.

The tow truck driver told the dispatcher that he towed the Subaru to the company’s tow yard in north Portland.

Moe told FOX 12 he believes the thief ditched his car at the apartments, which are located just a couple miles from his home.

According to Sergeants Towing general manager, Jesse Copeland, apartment management at the Frank Estates reported the car as abandoned and asked the business to tow the car.

The FOX 12 investigators learned, through dispatch records, that the tow truck driver knew the Subaru was stolen that very same day.

In an audio recording, the tow truck driver is heard saying, “Hi this Sergeants Towing company. I towed a car that records is telling me is stolen.”

But because Moe never registered the car in his name, Copeland said his staff sent out a letter to a previous owner of the car in Washington. The letter, which Copeland provided to FOX 12, says the car was impounded.

Copeland said the towing company never heard back so the car was appraised at less than $500 and sold at auction 18 days after it was towed.

Moe wanted to know if it is legal for towing companies to sell a stolen car.

As it turns out, it’s complicated.

“It can’t be (put under a lien) if it has an active stolen report on it,” said Karen Scardina, who owns Auto Lien Source.

Scardina said she helped shape Oregon’s current laws related to towing.

According to Scardina, towing companies are supposed to store stolen cars and notify police, who then take over the case to reunite the car with its owner.

The Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles -- which regulates the towing industry -- confirmed the law, telling FOX 12 that towers are generally required to report cars they tow to police dispatchers, but it’s not cut-and-dry.

A DMV policy analyst, in a message shared with Fox 12 said, “There is no statute or rule that I’m aware of that states a tower cannot sell a stolen vehicle. Logic dictates that wouldn’t be wise…A tower shouldn’t knowingly sell a stolen vehicle, of course, but towers are not linked up to the law enforcement database and wouldn’t necessarily know a vehicle is stolen.”

It’s not a clear answer, and a spokeswoman for the DMV even suggested that FOX 12 reach out to a lawyer for an interpretation of complex towing laws.

Here’s what FOX 12 did find out: there are instances under Oregon law when towed cars can be sold after a 15-day period. Typically, the impound period varies depending on a car’s worth. For example, more expensive cars may need to be held for a 30-day or 60-day period before they can be sold.

According to the DMV, cars worth $500 or less can only be sold to licensed metal scrappers for recycling and parts.

As for the fate of Moe’s car, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office asked Portland Police for what’s called an “agency assist” essentially asking PPB to take over the case since the car was towed out of the county and into Portland.

Portland Police records show an officer did respond to the tow yard to make a VIN report late that same night, but the yard was closed so the officer left, leaving a message for the tower to call again when the yard reopened.

It’s unclear what exactly happened next, but a Portland Police spokesman told FOX 12 that it appears the case ended up “falling through the cracks.”

Less than three weeks later the car was sold to Snap Towing, according to records.

In the end, Moe said it all came down to chance, and the eagle eyes of a fellow Subaru lover to get his car back.

“I just can’t believe a stranger, who I sold something to on Facebook would go back, to messenger, go look and say, to that guy, ‘I found it.’”

Sergeants Towing declined to do an on-camera interview with fox 12 but Copeland did send FOX 12 a lengthy statement that reads in part:

“I feel that sergeants towing did everything possible in notifying the appropriate parties of the tow… Sergeants towing and the other towers in the area probably find and recover the lion’s share of these stolen vehicles. It seems that it would be prudent for there to be a universal method to determine if a vehicle was stolen, a way to identify and contact the injured party and for there to be a reciprocity of reporting between the various agencies and municipalities, but that does not seem to be the case.”