MOUNT VERNON — Johnny Ramey doesn’t carry a grudge. He believes in honesty and integrity. He is a good-hearted man who will do anything to help people — friend or stranger. But, he wasn’t willing to back down to the Mount Vernon Police Department and now he’s paying the price.
On Aug. 21, 2008, Ramey, owner of Johnny’s Towing, picked up a motorcycle at the request of the Mount Vernon Police Department.
As part of the wrecker rotation, Johnny’s was one of several wrecker services that is called out for tow jobs by the city for vehicles that need to be impounded or for vehicle owners who have no preference as to who moves their automobiles. As this particular tow took place prior to the opening of the city’s impound lot, Ramey hauled the 2005 Suzuki to his storage facility. While it is not unusual for vehicles to remain in impound during court proceedings, what Ramey did not know was that the 2005 Suzuki had been forfeited to the Mount Vernon Police Department through Mount Vernon Municipal Court on Jan. 7, 2009.
According to Chief Mike Merrilees, he was also not aware Judge Paul Spurgeon signed the forfeiture. So, the motorcycle sat in storage until Ramey started the process to take possession of the abandoned vehicle in June 2010. Ramey said he filed all the appropriate paper work with the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles and got as far as municipal court, which required him to get the police department to sign off on the vehicle so that he could be issued a title. Ramey sent a letter to Merrilees on June 22, 2010, requesting a document stating the city was not interested in vehicle. “I didn’t know the bike existed until I got Johnny’s letter,” said Mike Merrilees, police chief. “I don’t know if we just never got the paperwork on it or what.”
Kathy Savage, clerk of courts for municipal court, told the News the paperwork, which includes a copy of the signed forfeiture and a copy of the form that goes to the BMV indicating the forfeiture, would go to whomever handles vehicle forfeitures and immobilizations for the law enforcement agency.
Nearly two years after Ramey towed the bike, over $8,000 in storage fees, plus towing fee and administrative charges, had accumulated.
“Kit Morgan was handling the impound lot,” Merrilees told the News. “I said if that’s supposed to be ours, transfer it into our name, go get it, put it in our storage and work something out. We didn’t own the bike the time it ran up these charges.”
On June 25, 2010, the city of Mount Vernon acquired a title to the motorcycle. Five days later, Merrilees had a police officer deliver a letter to Ramey, along with a copy of the title, stating the city will pay the towing fee, administrative fee and storage from June 25. Based on the letter, the minimum the city was willing to pay was $200 — $90 for towing, five days of storage at $15 a day and $20 administration fee.
This resolution did not seem at all fair to the Rameys.
“He kept it inside and we paid rent on that building we stored vehicles in,” said Johnny’s wife, Cheryl. “So why wouldn’t you feel like you should be compensated for it.”
“[Police officers] had been down two times before with a trailer to pick up the bike and I wouldn’t let them have it,” Ramey said, explaining he felt the vehicle should not be released until the appropriate fees were paid. Ramey even offered to knock thousands off the invoice in order to come to an amicable conclusion.
When asked by the News if the police department should have been responsible for storage fees from the time the forfeiture was signed, Merrilees said that was a grey area.
“I don’t think he should have gotten nothing,” Merrilees said. “I don’t think he should have gotten $8,000. I don’t think it was worth the hassle. I didn’t think we were ever going to come to a real agreement; it was just going to be a pain.”
After Ramey had two separate visits from police officers to collect the motorcycle, he said Merrilees paid a visit to his office, which was located on West Gambier Street at the time, with another officer.
“He came down, he put one foot out of the car and pointed his finger at me,” said Ramey. “He said, ‘If you don’t give me the bike, I’ll take you off rotation immediately.’ I said, ‘Do what you have to do.’” Merrilees said he did go down to talk to Ramey. He described Ramey as uncooperative, would not release the bike and “got all bent out of shape.”
The chief of police confirmed he took Johnny’s off the wrecker rotation stating he “had problems with Johnny before.” The problems he described were two incidents resulting in damage to vehicles in the city’s impound lot.
“I was upset with Johnny because he ripped the bumper off a car and the back window was broken on a car or truck,” Merrilees said. “We just can’t have that. ... I was kind of fed up with the service we were getting and I had personally put Johnny on the wrecker rotation and I took him off.”
When asked about the damage at the impound lot, Ramey said he specifically remembered both incidences. He said a bumper was pulled lose when a vehicle slid on ice and caused the bumper to snag on a bolt on the wrecker. That took place on Feb. 21, 2009. The second involved something that got lodged through a back window of a vehicle that was already cracked.
“The officer told me not to worry about that because it was going to be scrapped anyway,” Ramey said. “What did it matter? I had insurance that would have taken care of any issue.”
Ramey said he was never contacted by anyone at MVPD regarding the level of service he provided.
According to documents acquired through a public records request, the last call Johnny’s received for a city impound was June 28, 2010.
Ramey said he felt like the delayed complaints about the impound lot were packaged in with the issues of the motorcycle as an “excuse” to remove him from the wrecker rotation. In fact, he called on Mayor Richard Mavis to help him resolve the problem.
“I called him (Mavis) right after Merrilees came down and shook his finger at me,” Ramey said. “The mayor came down and stood right at my counter and said, ‘He cannot do this to you and I’ll take care of it right after I get back to the office.’” Mavis told the News this morning he told Ramey he would look into the situation.
“I was concerned like everybody else would have been as to why he was removed from the call list,” Mavis said. “I actually talked to the chief a couple of times about it.”
Merrilees communicated to Mavis the two incidences of damage to vehicles in the impound lot.
“Armed with those two issues, Mike said he pulled him from the call list because the cars were damaged,” Mavis said.
When asked why it took so long for Ramey to be removed from the wrecker list if at least one of the vehicles was damaged in 2009, Mavis said he was unaware of specific dates.
“I don’t think the chief knew about it immediately,” Mavis. “I thought it was sometime later the chief knew about it.”
Mavis said Merrilees never mentioned the motorcycle in regards to why Ramey was removed from the wrecker list. Mavis said he did ask Merrilees whether or not it was a factor in his decision.
“I have to admit that I asked that question because they were simultaneously discussed with Johnny and my discussion with the chief,” Mavis said. “The chief indicated it was not from the very first, that it had nothing to do with it. ... I do remember having discussions with Mike whether or not there were issues related to who was going to get the motorcycle and whether that had any impact on taking him off the tow list. Frankly, at least my memory tells me it was all based on the two different vehicles brought into the impound area.”
When asked by the News if Ramey was taken off the rotation based on the tow service, Merrilees said it was more than that.
“It was a lot of things; the motorcycle being one of them. I told him that right up front,” Merrilees said.
While Ramey remains off the wrecker rotation, the city did sign over the motorcycle to Johnny’s Towing.
“Perception is a huge thing,” Merrilees told the News. “I took the title and sent it to him.”
Ramey estimates that he has lost about $800 a month by being removed from the wrecker rotation for impound and regular towing calls.
What confused Ramey most about the entire situation is that he felt like he had a good relationship with the city. Very similar to the relationship he has with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office and the State Highway Patrol.
“I would move cars around the impound lot to make room for more cars just because they asked me to,” Ramey said. “I never charged them a dime.”
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