HOUSTON – When the law finally catches up to criminals, they may be sentenced to jail or probation. Sometimes they’re ordered to pay what’s called restitution to reimburse their victims for money they took from them.
KPRC 2 Investigates is asking the former owner of a towing company and body shop who pleaded guilty to stealing thousands of dollars and vehicles, “Where’s the money?”
We first exposed Richard Gonzalez and USA Auto Collision in 2016. In 2019, Harris County Judge Danilo Lacayo of the 182nd Court ordered Gonzalez to pay back $185,000 to the victims he stole it from.
Judge Lacayo called Gonzalez into court to find out why he has only paid $15,000 to date.
“Sell your house. Sell your car. Sell your jewelry. Sell all of your stocks. Sell whatever you have. I could care less,” Judge Lacayo said to Gonzalez from the bench. “Pay these people back immediately. You begged me. You were crying. Now pay the money. I feel like I’m having to shake you down.”
Shaking down consumers is exactly what got Gonzalez in trouble with the law.
In 2015, Gonzalez scored a coveted Safe Clear towing contract from the city of Houston. It gave him access to vehicles that crashed or broke down on Houston freeways. Dozens of drivers told us once Gonzalez’s wreckers hooked up their cars, they held them hostage, tore them apart and demanded thousands of dollars to release them.
“They stole it. That’s all there is to it,” said victim Arch Yancy in 2017.
Lacayo sentenced Gonzalez to six months in the Harris County jail and five years probation on one condition.
“He had asked the judge to put any conditions on him that were necessary to keep him from going to prison. And one of the conditions was, ‘You’re gonna pay $7,500 a month while you’re on probation until all of these victims are made whole,’” explained Harris County Assistant District Attorney of Consumer Fraud Shelia Hansel.
In court, Gonzalez told the judge he now lives and works in the Valley and doesn’t make enough money to pay the $7,500 a month.
“I am not sympathetic at all. Zero. Zero. Get a loan,” Lacayo responded. “Because these people are out money. You screwed them over, and they’re still waiting.”
There are 72 victims-- individuals and insurance companies who are owed that money from Gonzalez.
Local politicians were paid by Gonzalez
Our investigation showed before he was arrested, Gonzalez had plenty of money to donate to Houston City Council members, including $10,000 to Mayor Sylvester Turner’s campaign.
Campaign Finance Reports showed he donated more than $35,000 to local leaders. After Gonzalez pleaded guilty, we asked each of them if they gave up the money.
City Councilman Dwight Boykins received $2,500 from Gonzalez. Boykins tried to donate that money to the district attorney’s office to help victims, but the DA’s office wasn’t allowed to accept it. Instead, Boykins donated it to Crime Stoppers.
Former Mayor Annise Parker received $3,000 from Gonzalez. She was no longer in office when Gonzalez was arrested, but she said she was donating the money to charity.
Mayor Sylvester Turner told investigative reporter Amy Davis he would donate the $10,000 he received to charity, but he never disclosed when he did that or which one.
Then-councilman Larry Green received $2,500 from Gonzalez in 2012. Green wouldn’t comment on what he did with the campaign contribution. Green died in 2018 of an accidental overdose.
Councilman Jerry Davis received $3,000 from Gonzalez. He didn’t return our calls requesting if he planned to donate that money.
Help if you need a tow
The entire racket KPRC 2 Investigates exposed may make you concerned if you need a tow truck. If you are in the city of Houston and you are approached by a wrecker driver you feel unsure about, you can call (832) 394-4869 24 hours a day, seven days a week to reach an officer who can help.
When you are in an accident, if Houston police call for a tow truck, they can only charge you $190 to tow your car up to 20 miles.