One Tow Over the Line
The camouflaged kids have taken up arms. They're fighting to claim territory, weaving around old houses, wending their way through junked cars and trucks on this field in industrial north Denver.
Phhht. A hit.
The proprietor of the paintball battlefield is Floyd Samuel, and he knows all about war. He's in one himself with the City of Denver, he says. At stake is the very land where his young customers are now shooting it out.
Just a paintball shot away is the city's impound lot, where the Denver Sheriff's Department stores and then auctions cars abandoned on the streets of Denver. These boom economic times have also led to a boom in junkers, and the lot is overflowing. So the city wants to expand its auto impound facility onto Samuel's place, as well as a few neighboring parcels.
Which means goodbye to the paintball field, goodbye to Samuel's towing business, goodbye to the peculiar commune that occupies these seven dusty acres.
"They want to take us out, the car pound wants to expand," says Samuel. "They have initiated proceedings for condemning the land we're on. There are other directions they could have went, different ways they could have done it."
Instead, the city took aim at Samuel. He's not about to go quietly.
The 55-year-old Samuel--large belly, a few missing teeth--presides over his seven rented acres at 5300 Brighton Boulevard. Polite to a fault, always offering guests coffee or soda, he is also highly charged about the possible demise of his business.
A former Denver firefighter, Samuel moved into autos in 1979, when Dick Wyatt, a fire department colleague, rented him a body shop. A few years later, Samuel took over Wyatt's towing business, which to this day bears the name of Samuel's mentor.
In the early 1990s, Samuel was looking to expand his enterprises from their home on Smith Road. Another friend, Michael O'Brien, had purchased the seven-acre parcel off Brighton Boulevard in 1992, and he leased the land to Samuel. The intention, both O'Brien and Samuel agree, was for Samuel to one day buy the land.
"He's very hardworking," says O'Brien, who today lives in Yampa. "I thoroughly intended to sell him the property. I offered to sell it to him several times, but the financial stuff wasn't there for him."
"We were just startin' to negotiate when all this happened," Samuel says.
If the property is not much to look at now, and it isn't, things were worse in 1992. Trash and weeds were everywhere. The empty homes looked like dumps--and that's what some were used for.
Back in the Twenties, this land was a work camp for Globeville factory workers, which helps explain Dan's Corner, a working-man's bar on the property that was featured in the 1971 film Vanishing Point. "When Globeville was one of the happening districts of Denver, you had all your millworkers there, and your packing plant," Samuel says. "The bar was famous for its polkas and chops." Today, a friend of Samuel's runs it.
Other friends occupy many of the small homes on the property. "Half his employees are living in four-plexes," says Robert Foreman, one of Samuel's workers. "If they don't know where to stay, they stay here."
At any given time, a dozen or so people live on this land. Samuel's partner, Bonnie Rogers, shares a house with her five-year-old daughter. Foreman himself came to stay after a stint in jail. Samuel once fired one of his employees, but knowing he had no place to stay, let him continue to crash there. "He takes care of folks," Foreman says of his boss. "The city will take away jobs from a lot of people, take away homes from a lot of people."
On the graveled lot beside the houses are more cars. A boat. One day a garage sale with tables full of clothes and games and barbells.
And then, of course, there's "Paintball Adventures," the business Samuel started in 1993. "It's one of the most unique paintball fields in the country," he boasts. "People come in from all over the country. It's in a setting you could almost never duplicate."
The field is a square full of abandoned houses and junked cars, buses and trucks. As you walk around Samuel's property, the "phhht, phhht" sound of paintball rounds slices through the air.
Samuel assumes the city will assess the property at about $800,000, which is what he was going to pay O'Brien for it. But if he can convince the city that the paintball business is worth something, that could affect the appraisal value.
During the first quarter of the year, Samuel says, Paintball Adventures raked in $86,000. The field is popular with scientists, church groups and lawyers. "Paintball is one of the best stress relievers there is," he explains.
The field is also popular with local law-enforcement groups. SWAT teams from Boulder and Englewood have trained there, and Denver's SWAT team has sent Samuel an appreciation plaque for the past three years.
"We'd like to see it stay because we use it," says one SWAT member who asks not to be identified.
Not every officer is as supportive. Denver police sergeant Tony Iacobetta says he has trained there twice, the last time in the summer of 1997. "I don't find that big an advantage of using that," he says. "It hurts when they hit you, especially in the neck."
Samuel "doesn't really do us any big favors," he adds. "Each individual pays his own way."
But while Iacobetta says he doesn't anticipate Denver's SWAT team returning anytime soon, a week later the day squad is back on the paintball field, running through drills.
A few hundred feet from where the Denver cops are training, the Denver Sheriff's Department presides over the city's crowded impound lot. Right now, there are about 1,200 vehicles stored on the twelve-acre site. According to impound lot manager Herbert Peagler, 20 to 30 percent of those are held for evidence in police investigations and can't be moved until the investigation is complete. And until space opens up on the lot, many of the estimated 300 to 500 abandoned cars now on Denver streets will be left there.
Technically, a car considered abandoned should be moved off the street after 72 hours. But "because of our backlog and limited capacity as a holding facility, they stay there," says Captain Chuck Enriquez, the impound commander. "Even though it's a top priority, we have to maintain room for cars hauled in as evidence."
In the first quarter of 1997, the impound was closed to all but emergency tows on nine days. Now the lot is so crowded that during the first quarter of this year, the number of emergency-only days rose to 29.
According to state statute, an abandoned vehicle is one that is left unattended on public property for 24 hours or longer, or one that is left on private property without the property owner's permission. The definition also includes vehicles that are not claimed within 72 hours of being towed to an impound lot.
If the car is not stolen, tow operators (if it's a private tow) or the police (if it's a public tow) are supposed to attempt to locate the owner of the vehicle. If the owner does not claim the vehicle within sixty days, the current holder of the vehicle--whoever is storing it--can apply for a title. Once the title is transferred, the car can be sold.
The city's impound lot auctions off cars twice a month. Last year, Denver made $1 million through such sales; through June of this year, the city's raked in more than $600,000. It could be making more, but the impound lot is just too crowded to allow for more tows--or more sales. The only way they can keep up with demand, impound officials say, is if they get more space. And the only logical way to do that is to get Samuel's land--through condemnation, if necessary.
So far, the city has appraised O'Brien's seven acres, as well as two other nearby properties (one of which it has already acquired). Once the city makes an offer, the landowners can get their own appraisal done and then haggle out a compromise if the two appraisals vary.
If they can't work out a compromise, the city has the option of using condemnation.
"We don't like to condemn people if we can," says Derek Brown, the City of Denver's asset manager. "But the nature of appraisals quite often won't have figures very close."
In order to condemn property, the city must convince a court that taking the land is to the benefit of the community. In this case, the benefit would be removing all those abandoned and junked cars from the streets.
But impound officials say there would be another benefit: cleaning up Samuel's junk.
"Anything we do to it would be an improvement to the neighborhood," Enriquez says. "Look at the trees and bushes out there. Our goal is to clean all that up. We're junk cars, but we're pretty well organized. We don't have cars stacked on top of each other; we don't have car parts falling out."
Leon Braunagel, who runs a salvage yard just past Samuel's tow shop, wouldn't mind seeing the city replace Samuel as a neighbor. "I'd like to see [Samuel] go," he says. "I'd like to get that property cleaned up. It's a pigpen over there. If the city moves in, they'd put up a nice fence, have cops patrolling, clean up the mess over there."
But beauty--or lack thereof--is in the eye of the beholder. Larry Kiesow says he's lived on those seven acres since 1968, and he doesn't know where he'll go if the city takes them over. "What am I supposed to do? Live with Wellington Webb?" he asks. He doesn't understand why Samuel has to go when Denver has other options. For example, he points out, "they got the whole damn airport."
Actually, the city will be making use of the former Stapleton airport--but only temporarily. Last week, the Denver Sheriff's Department set up a temporary impound lot off of Smith Road. But that lot is intended as just a quick fix; it doesn't fit in with either the Stapleton Development Corporation's long-term plans or the city's.
"The city had so many requirements to make the space they need to be up to code," says Karen Saliman of Stapleton Development Corporation, the nonprofit agency in charge of converting the airport to new retail and residential use. "It would be very expensive to get all the permits they need. It looks like in the scheme of things, it's going to be just as fast to acquire land they need as to make modifications."
On top of that, there's the fact that car impound lots aren't very attractive neighbors--and the city wants to make Stapleton a showplace. "Everyone is sensitive to the fact that there's real important community needs to get rid of junk vehicles, and using Stapleton as a temporary site might relieve some of those pressures," says Denver City Councilwoman Happy Haynes, whose district includes Stapleton. But, she adds, the car lot "clearly does not fit into the long-term plans of Stapleton at all.
Lot manager Peagler says he understands the city's reluctance to move the impound lot to Stapleton permanently. "It's concern for aesthetics," he says. "It's like, do you want to live next to a county or state institution?"
The Stapleton lot will store excess vehicles for about nine months. By then, the city hopes to have its Brighton Boulevard expansion completed.
In the last month, the city has claimed two acres right next door to Samuel, land formerly owned by an auto wrecking shop called A2Z. The city's check came in at $40,000 less than the value of the land as assessed by A2Z, says employee Dwayne Fowler, and there was no money for relocation of the shop a few blocks away to Cook Street. "They basically fucked us," says Fowler. "They didn't give us anything to get out."
Now, Fowler adds, the city wants to charge $100 for each day the shop goes over its set departure day. "I don't know how they're gonna collect," he says. "I'm not givin' it to 'em."
Bob Peters, who runs an auto wrecking business across the street from A2Z and next door to Samuel, has owned his land since 1963. He got a letter from the city a few months ago, then a visit from the city's appraiser.
"They need space, so they're just doin' whatever they do," says Peters. "I guess you don't have any choice. I just think they're gonna go ahead and take it. I don't really feel that's right.
"You go on working your business, and they come up with rules and regulations to change all that," he continues. "It's kind of like dropping a bombshell on you. That's very disgusting."
But if and when the city makes him an offer, Peters says, he doesn't think he'll be able to refuse it.
Nor does Samuel's friend Michael O'Brien, who's lost land to Denver before. Years ago, he says, the city moved him off land he owned on Sheridan to build a chunk of I-76. "I fought the last one, hired a lawyer, the whole thing," he says. "And I lost, big-time.
"As a landowner you feel very put-upon," O'Brien adds. "It's just a situation where you're not sympathetic to their problems. I'm sure they have problems. If it was a situation where they overpaid you for the inconvenience, it would be great. But they don't."
O'Brien knows the city won't compensate Samuel for any relocation costs, and says he plans to give him a cut if any of Samuel's improvements to the land add value to the appraisal.
But O'Brien isn't holding his breath. "Ours is probably the most disorganized property there," he says. "I think they just thought it was a fly-by-night outfit. I don't think they can relocate paintball anywhere, so paintball is down the tubes."
Asset manager Brown says the city will try to "work with all the tenants there to make things as easy as we can." There's a limit to the city's charity, though. "That doesn't mean we'll be throwing a bunch of money to everybody," he adds. "There's not gonna be a whole pot of money."
Instead, he says, once the city assumes the property, it may give Samuel thirty to sixty days to move out, and not charge him rent during that time.
"It's an unfortunate situation for him," says Brown. "All I can say is it's the nature of being a tenant--he might have had to move anyway. We have a need to pull cars in from the four corners of the county. The last thing we want to do is only buy enough land to last us for one year."
The current impound lot has been in use for twenty years. "The new acreage would provide room for another 900 cars," says captain Enriquez. "It's going to last us the next ten or fifteen years."
But while city officials say the expansion is a long-term fix, others are not so sure. "Even if they take this property here," says Leon Braunagel, "they still won't have enough room."
"Even nine acres here are not gonna handle the problem," says Samuel.
"They'll move Floyd off his property, then let it go after a year," says a Denver cop who asks not to be identified. "The city thinks they can go in and play big bull whenever they want."
The City of Denver's twice-monthly car auction is a regular tailgate party. Cars pack both sides of Brighton Boulevard. You can grab a burrito and a Coke from a vendor working out of his van, then head through the fence to the auction yard.
There an old-timer auctioneer with a microphone is pointing to the hood of a car. Patrons with yellow cards gather round, and the bidding begins. "Can I get $120, $120, $120, $120?" he spits out in rapid-fire singsong cadences, pointing to a beat-up white sedan.
The abandoned automotive booty reclaimed from the streets of Denver is diverse. You have Saabs and Camaros, Hondas and Jeep Cherokees, late models and old cars. Some motorcycles. A tan pickup with "Sanford and Son" written on one side. Even a lawnmower and a snowblower.
The prospective buyers cut across race and class lines. Poor people are looking for a car, any car. Middle-class types are here scoping out a possible second car. The rich--they're looking for investments. Buy a car, sell it, profit.
But this isn't easy street for anyone. Most of the cars look undrivable. Banged-up hoods, flat tires, missing wheels, smashed windows, front ends that are almost completely crushed--and you don't even want to know about the upholstery. "Where's the goddamn dip stick?" says one would-be buyer, bent deep inside the hood of a Chevy Beretta.
Rule of thumb: Never assume any vehicle will start. "Ninety-eight percent of them you have to tow," says one customer. "A lot of these are good parts cars. Some of those are pretty hammered."
Gene Eatinger, an auto repair guy, is here for parts. From a hundred feet away, he can spot the pristine front end of a late Eighties Nissan. The headlight alone, he says, will go for $150. Eatinger is a pro, and pros don't often come to the city lot. Eatinger's only here to help a friend.
This is the turf of novices, average Joes, folks liable to drive the price of cars up well beyond what they're worth.
The first cars sold are police cruisers stripped of their decals and sirens. One goes for $3,600. Cash.
It's the cash that makes private towing outfits suspect the city's intentions.
Wyatt's Towing tows between 7,000 and 10,000 cars a year; of those, it sells 2,800. And these days, Samuel says, the city is a primary competitor. "To me they're getting away from service, getting into the business," he says. "The industry is getting tighter and tighter and tighter."
The city, he adds, "takes abandoned cars and sells them, almost the same service we do, only we do it on private parking and they do it on the street."
But Enriquez, the impound facility commander, disagrees. "The difference is ours is a public auction," he says. "We infringe on their territory under no circumstances. The average person, when they buy from Wyatt's Towing, he's already got the price on there. We just say you're buying the tow."
Towing companies worry not just about the city's size, however, but also about rules that seem to give it an unfair advantage.
According to a state statute revised in 1986, when a private towing company sells an abandoned car, it can keep only the cost of towing and storing the car. That calculation is based on $50 for a tow and a $4 storage fee per day, for a maximum of sixty days--which means the most a company can make is $290. Any proceeds beyond that must be remitted to the state.
There's no cap in place for the city, though. "How come we can't sell cars for more than $290?" asks Bill Harmon, a Wyatt's Towing worker. "This ain't no free country. They sell the same fucking thing for $3,000 or $4,000 more. They're racketeering. That's what they're doing."
"An enforcement agency has a recognized different purpose than a towing company," responds John Duncan, deputy director of the state's Motor Vehicle Division. "The police can sell it for whatever they can get and keep the proceeds."
Besides, he adds, tow-truck drivers also enjoy some special privileges. For example, they can acquire liens on cars more easily than private citizens can; once they've towed the vehicle away, if the owner doesn't come for it within sixty days, the tow operator can simply have the title transferred over, a process that takes only a few days. "To apply for that title, you and I would have to post bond three times the amount of the vehicle," Duncan says. "Tow operators do have a privilege beyond the average citizen."
In order to make sure private towing companies didn't abuse that privilege, the statutes were changed twelve years ago to make sure operators weren't overzealous in selling off cars whose owners proved difficult to reach. But the result, Samuel says, is that private business is punished, while the city is rewarded with hefty profits--profits it can use to expand the pound so it can sell more cars so it can make more money.
"If word got out," Samuel says, "every goddamn tow company in the state would be screaming."
The city is "towing in a lot of cars they can sell," says the Denver cop. "They almost became a private car dealership. They know they're making quite a bit of money."
The city's not in it for the money, Enriquez responds. "All our tows are violations of city and state law," he says. "So we're not competing against anyone." Besides, the city has many costs that private businesses do not. There's Denver's $800,000 towing contract with Mirage Towing. There are high storage costs. And there's the auctioneer's fee.
The city sells about 300 cars a month at auction, with an average take of about $278 per car, rather than the $3,600 the squad car brought in. And Denver also sends between 80 and 100 cars to the crusher each month, Enriquez points out. The city nets only $73 for each crushed car.
Samuel says he realizes that "even cities need a cash flow." He'd just rather see the money flowing from somewhere other than his seven acres on Brighton Boulevard.
"If they moved it out to Stapleton, they'd have unlimited space to expand, and everything on one site," he says. "The traffic is easier, the security is ten times greater."
Although the city has yet to make an offer on O'Brien's land, impound officials say they're serious about expanding the impound lot. So while O'Brien waits for a bid, Samuel is trying to improve the property. He's already begun work on a large chunk of landscaping in the middle of his paintball junkyard, complete with flowers and several small "ponds," as he calls them.
"If they can prove land was greatly enhanced, it would be a benefit to him," says O'Brien.
Right now, that's about as much as Samuel can hope for. Although he'd rather stay put, he says, "the only way we can have a remote chance of winning is to talk them out of it."
And if he loses?
His confidence is suddenly restored.
"You fight 'em," he says. "You don't lose. You attack 'em in another direction.