Several organized crime groups working in the towing industry have been using violence and property damage as a way to grab control and territory within southern Ontario, York Regional Police said Tuesday, while announcing multiple arrests.
In a news release, police said that investigators from York police, Ontario Provincial Police, Toronto police and the Canada Revenue Agency had launched a joint forces investigation dubbed Project Platinum in response to murders, attempted murders, assaults, arsons, threats and property damage in the region.
Police said the Greater Toronto Area has been a staging ground for violence in recent months, with rival tow truck companies fighting over profits from the towing of vehicles and alleged frauds after the initial tow.
York Regional Police Supt. Mike Slack said Tuesday that organized crime like this begins with an opportunity to make money, and a level of greed that leads to criminal behaviour and violence.
"The towing industry and its lack of regulations have bred exactly that environment," he said in a video posted by police.
"Over time, unscrupulous companies and the people working for them have found ways to inflate costs, and victimize consumers."
Investigators allege that Paramount Towing, which is owned and operated by Alexander Vinogradsky, along with other rival towing companies, have been defrauding insurance companies with vehicles involved in collisions and staged collisions.
Police announced 19 arrests in total, with Vinogradsky facing charges of participating in a criminal organization, alongside a host of other charges. Also mentioned in documents released Tuesday is Mohamad El-Zahawi, 38, who was previously charged with first-degree murder in connection with the death of 33-year-old Soheil Rafipour, who was shot and killed in Richmond Hill, Ont., in December 2018. Police say both El-Zahawi and Rafipour had ties to the tow truck industry.
Police also allege in the release that towing companies partnered with auto repair shops and car and truck rental companies to carry out their frauds.
Slack alleged that a combination of fraudulent billing, repairs and physiotherapy claims earned people connected to the probe millions in "illicit income."
"When these profits were not enough, they staged collisions, using drivers they recruited," he said. One person would play the role of an "at-fault driver," while the other would play the role of a victim, he said.
"They'll actually have cars run into one another — sometimes in the impound yard itself, sometimes on streets or in parking lots throughout the GTA."
'A true wild west'
According to investigators, the arrests and charges come after several search warrants were carried out in areas around the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas in April and May.
"It's a true wild west show out there," John Henderson of the Provincial Towing Association of Ontario recently told CBC News.
"It's gotten to the point where there could be as much as 60 per cent of the towing industry in the GTA [that] is run by the criminal element."
According to police, evidence seized as part of the search warrants includes:
11 tow trucks.
Dozens of guns, including handguns, shotguns, rifles, and a machine gun.
Thousands of rounds of ammunition.
Two conductive energy weapons and brass knuckles.
An assortment of drugs, including five kilograms of fentanyl, 1.5 kilograms of cocaine, 1.25 kilograms of crystal meth and 1.5 kilograms of pot.
Over $500,000 in cash.
Slack said Tuesday that these organizations grossly inflated bills for towing and repairs, with body shops also getting a cut of the profits. Insurance companies were then paying out on these claims, he said.
"These actions victimize innocent drivers, insurance companies and, ultimately, all of us, through increased insurance rates."
Police said insurance companies had been working to "mitigate the fraud and additional costs to the consumer," and had launched legal action against several tow companies.
Vaughan's Carr Law had been hired by the insurance companies, police said, and then in turn became the target of violence, threats and extortion.
Police say Thomas Sliwinski, 39, Qalid Abderzak, 24, and Zakariye Yousuf, 30, have all been charged in connection with an attack at the Carr law firm.
For the past three years, rogue towing companies have been using intimidation and violence to carve out territory, according to police.
Four drivers have been killed in connection with the turf war, police said.
Earlier this month, a 23-year-old man was found fatally shot in his tow truck. Two teens have been charged with first-degree murder in connection with that homicide, although police said they don't believe the killing was connected to the conflict.
At least 30 tow trucks have been burned, and there have been dozens of cases of extortion and robbery.
Two weeks ago, two more tow trucks were torched in Durham Region, east of Toronto.
Slack said it is difficult to identify all of the incidents and property damage linked to these criminal organizations, but when the police probe began in February, investigators found 150 different incidents that were somehow related. Police are confident they will identify more, he said.
Of the 19 people who were arrested in connection with the busts, eight are still in custody, Slack said. Thirty or more additional arrests could be coming in the "coming days, weeks and months," he said.
Lack of oversight a problem, industry rep says
Henderson said unscrupulous towing companies in Ontario even hire "blockers" — at hundreds of dollars a trip — to impede rival tow trucks from reaching accident scenes.
He said the violence has spread to the point that the office of a lawyer representing one towing company was set on fire recently.
Part of the problem, Henderson said, is a lack of provincial oversight. At the moment, GTA towing companies are governed largely by a patchwork of municipal bylaws.
"I could actually pass you the keys to a small [tow truck] and say, 'Go pick up a vehicle on the 401,'" he said.
Slack said that provincewide regulatory changes are needed in Ontario.
"To have a long-lasting effect, there will need to be some changes in the industry — changes in regulation, changes in bylaws," he said.
But after months of violence, Ontarians should see the intensity of the turf war start to abate, investigators believe.
"With the accused facing charges and their assets seized, we expect the level of violence we have seen in our community to diminish," he said.