MINNEAPOLIS - In downtown Minneapolis with her brother for the Journey concert, Jean Wilhem pulled into the parking lot at 1st Avenue and 3rd Street.
“Saw this sign here, it said 10 bucks,” Wilhem said. “Great! What a great price.”
She says she put $10 into an envelope and placed it in the parking lot’s yellow drop box.
“Looked like it worked, and I really didn't have any concerns. We're in the middle of the city,” Wilhem said.
But when she returned after the concert, Jean's car was gone.
“Walked in and said, ‘Where the hell is my car?’” Wilhem said. “And I was just really, really mad. Who stole my car?”
It turns out her car had been towed to an impound lot because the parking lot claimed she hadn’t paid.
Metro WSI Towing told her to get her car back, she had to fork over $275.
And she wasn’t alone. While there, Wilhem met three other women who said the same thing happened to them that night at two lots run by Red Spot Parking.
“Then it became disturbing. It wasn't just a freak thing. It was a pattern, it seemed to me,” Wilhem told KARE 11.
When we heard what happened to the women, we started investigating – asking the City of Minneapolis whether the cars should have been towed.
City officials investigated and found that Red Spot had improperly ordered the towing of all four cars that night. And it wasn't the first time that had happened.
City records show last year Red Spot improperly towed nine cars over two days. The city sent a letter ordering them to stop. It said Red Spot hadn’t complied with an ordinance passed two years ago to crack down on questionable towing.
Council member Jacob Frey – now mayor – had pushed through a requirement that parking lots with drop boxes may not order towing unless they can show that the same car parked twice without paying within a six-month period.
Records show Red Spot is the only towing company that the city has caught improperly towing cars this way.
Two days after KARE 11 started asking questions, Red Spot stopped using the yellow drop boxes. Drivers now need to pay using a smartphone app so there will be a payment record.
John Rimarcik, the owner of Red Spot Parking, told us, “We’re doing everything we can to comply with the city’s ever-changing parking rules.”
Red Spot also agreed to refund the towing charges to Jean Wilhem and the owners of the other cars towed that night.
Other lots still use the drop boxes, so Wilhem has this advice the next time you put parking money into an envelope: “I would say to anybody, videotape it or take pictures. Have your own backup. I even had a witness, but it didn't seem to matter,” she said.