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Days after a Chicago newscast about parking lots packed with old and rusting Gary police cars, the city cobbled together a plan to do something about the problem for the first time in years.

While Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson says the city’s response was transparent and hewed to state laws regarding the disposal of public property, voices within Gary’s automotive business community have raised doubts about the official story.

The plan, which involved selling some cars for scrap while towing others to a new location, was hastily concocted out of public view and a waste of taxpayer dollars, according to three business owners familiar with the matter.

The owners spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation from the city.

Police cars rotting in the spotlight

The business owners say the city began moving the police cars shortly after a March 13 CBS News story about the long-neglected problem. In the report, Lake County Assessor Jerome Prince, who is running to unseat Freeman-Wilson in the Democratic primary, said the abandoned cars were an “environmental hazard” and called on the city to sell them for scrap.

The CBS report focused on three locations where the decrepit cars had piled up over nearly a decade: a city lot near the Salvation Army store on 11th Avenue, another lot at the northwest corner of 13th Avenue and Massachusetts Street, and a yard next to a maintenance building at Ninth Avenue and Madison Street.

In response to the CBS News story, Freeman-Wilson said many of the old squad cars were still being used for parts, while others had been sold in previous auctions but had never been picked up by their buyers. She also said the city intended to sell some of the cars at an auction in the near future.

But the Gary business owners say the administration’s plan is nothing more than a damage control operation in the wake of an unflattering news story. Instead of putting the police cars up for public auction, they say, the city junked them in a deal with Westville-based Paul’s Auto Yard and left money on the table.

“This is how Karen Freeman-Wilson operates and how she’s operated for years,” one of the business owners said.

In an interview with The Times, Freeman-Wilson defended her administration’s handling of the issue and denied the city had ignored public property disposal laws.

“Our legal counsel is comfortable with us disposing of those vehicles,” Freeman-Wilson said. “The property that is being disposed is ours to dispose because it had already been sold.”

Local business owners also have criticized the city’s hiring of Gary-based Republic Frame and Axle to tow some of the police cars to another piece of city property where they are concealed from public view. In doing so, taxpayer money was used to temporarily hide the problem of instead of finding a permanent solution, they said.

A Times reporter confirmed the dwindling number of old police cars sitting on the 11th and 13th Avenue lots. As of April 4, each lot held roughly a dozen squad cars, compared to well over twice that number at both locations at the time of the CBS News report.

Republic began towing the squad cars to city property near Ninth Avenue and Madison Street on April 3, according to one of the Gary businessmen, who is a former towing company owner. The lots are part of a complex of city buildings that include maintenance garages and the street sweeping and animal control departments.

A Times reporter who visited the site on April 4 observed old cruisers, unmarked sedans and police vans stashed in two lots adjacent to the animal control building. The same lots previously contained only scraps of rusted iron, according to photos taken March 15 and provided to The Times.

A hasty deal

While the city was moving cruisers from the lots featured in the CBS story, it also was looking to offload some of the cars to Paul’s Auto, according to the former towing company owner.

“It is absolutely true,” he said April 5. “The city made a deal with Paul’s Auto Yard. They have been moving cars until a few days ago.”

Another business owner says he saw Paul Shafer, the owner of Paul’s Auto, speaking with Harlan Smith, the city’s director of vehicle maintenance, at the lot on 11th Avenue. The owner said he was surprised to Shafer possibly discussing city vehicles with Smith.

“Paul has never gone to these auctions, he’s never been a high bidder,” the business owner said, recalling his own experience attending public auto auctions in The Region.

The arrangement with Paul’s Auto was partially confirmed by a municipal employee who spoke with The Times on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. The city worker says he witnessed tow trucks from Paul’s Auto hauling old police cars from the 11th Avenue lot on April 1-2, but did not know where those cars were taken.

Asked about the city’s hiring of Paul’s Auto, Freeman-Wilson said the company was the winning bidder to buy and haul away previously auctioned vehicles that were left on the 11th Avenue lot. Those cars were sold to Paul’s as scrap because they were not worth enough to justify another auction, she said.

On April 2, The Times contacted Paul’s Auto locations in Gary, Lake Station and Westville, the company’s corporate headquarters, for comment. Representatives at all three locations denied the company had taken possession of any decommissioned Gary police cars in recent months.

Paul’s stopped picking up police cars for the city by April 4, according to all three business owners who spoke with The Times. Talk within the auto salvage and towing community about the deal was bringing unwanted attention to the company, the former towing operator said.

“After the (CBS) story broke, Paul’s stopped getting the cars because they got heat for it,” he said.

The ex-owner went on to defend Shafer, saying he took advantage of an opportunity from the city like any businessman would have. He also criticized Freeman-Wilson’s administration for rushing into a deal after years of inaction on the decaying cruisers.

“It’s not like they don’t have a process to do it,” he said. “They’re just not doing it.”

Freeman-Wilson attributed criticism of the city’s handling of the old police cars to political mudslinging during primary election season.

“We know that there’s always some kind of allegation,” she said.

Conflicting explanations

As questions have swirled around the nature of the deal between Gary and Paul’s Auto, city employees have offered conflicting explanations about what happened to the old police cars that are no longer on city lots.

Two of the Gary business owners claim city employees told them that some of the squad cars were sold in March at a public auction run by J.J. Kane Auctioneers.

“I was told that by three people who work for the city,” one of the sources said.

In fact, the last auction of any kind that J.J. Kane held on Gary’s behalf was in September 2014, a company representative told The Times on Tuesday.

Sources who spoke to The Times also expressed doubt about the city’s contention that some old cruisers were sitting on city lots because auction buyers had failed to pick them up. One of the business owners, who has decades of experience buying cars at government auctions, said it was exceedingly rare for a buyer to put up money at auction without ever intending to take possession of the car.

“If Jesus Christ himself had made that statement, I’d call him a liar,” he said, referring to Freeman-Wilson’s explanation.

The city’s deal with Republic Frame and Axle to haul some of the police cars to city property at Ninth Avenue and Madison Street also has raised questions about whether other towing firms were given a chance to compete for the job. Sources who spoke to The Times could not recall seeing a public request for bids at any time before Republic began towing the cars.

“It was too quick for a public announcement,” the former towing company owner said, referring to the three week-period between the CBS News story and transfer of cars to the Ninth and Madison location.

Freeman-Wilson denied the allegation, saying the city had solicited bids from other towing companies. Republic was the low bidder to tow old squads from the lot on 13th Avenue in preparation for an auction the city intends to hold “later this month,” she said.

“The towing was done in conjunction with quotes,” Freeman-Wilson said. “We opened it up (to bidders).”

The whole episode — both the deal with Paul’s Auto Yard and the shuffling of the police cars to a different location — is emblematic of the way Gary has neglected to dispose of public vehicles under Freeman-Wilson and her predecessor, Rudy Clay, according to the ex-towing company owner.

“They wait until these (police) cars get completely run down, they strip them, and then leave them there,” the former towing operator said. “It seems like they’re purposely leaving them there.”

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