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Raging tow truck war in Ontario leads to sweeping arrests for murder, arson, fraud and organized crime

A raging war between rival tow firms fighting over highway towing in southern Ontario, along with the bogus repairs, car rentals and medical claims stemming from them, escalated to murders, assaults, arsons and threats, police said.

The violence was so terrifying a law firm was shut down and a lawyer forced into hiding by a frightening underworld triptych — a firebombing, drive-by shooting and murder-for–hire plot — all over representing insurance companies fighting against false claims, according to police.

Well beyond rough-and-tumble business by hard men, towing cartels evolved into actual organized crime groups with hierarchy, diversification and sophistication, York Regional Police said Tuesday, announcing 19 arrests.

As the profits go up, the need to defend them increases

“Organized crime does not always come in the form that we expect. It does not always have a name like ’Ndrangheta, the Mafia or street gangs. Its members do not always wear colours,” said Insp. Mike Slack, head of Organized Crime and Intelligence Services with York police.

“Organized crime begins with an opportunity to make money and a level of greed that leads to criminality and violence. The towing industry and its lack of regulations have bred exactly that environment.

“As the profits go up, the need to defend them increases and then you’re into the levels of violence we have seen in the Greater Toronto Area.”

York police unveiled their results of Project Platinum, a joint-forces probe into the violence from at least four organized criminal tow cartels.

Charges include murder, gangsterism, drug trafficking, gun offenses, extortion, robbery, fraud, arson, assault, perjury, obstruct justice and many others.

Along with 11 tow trucks, officers seized a machine gun, 16 handguns, 12 shotguns, nine rifles, a sawn-off shotgun and three high-capacity drum magazines; thousands of rounds of ammunition; five kilograms of fentanyl, 1.5 kilograms of cocaine, 1.25 kilograms of crystal methamphetamine, 1.5 kilograms of cannabis; and more than $500,000 in cash.

The competition for hooking up a vehicle after a collision is about far more than the tow fee, Slack said.

Police allege the real money is in scams and schemes after the tow — from rental cars, inflated repair work, insurance fraud and physiotherapy claims. Damage to cars was enhanced once in the shops or made up entirely. Accidents were even staged, he said.

“Any aspect that could be dirty, it was dirty,” Slack said.

It then spread into firearms and drug trafficking, and to protecting turf and financial interests.

Carr Law, a law firm in Vaughan, north of Toronto, took on hundreds of civil cases by insurance companies against tow companies and repair shops. The firm secured court actions and had bailiffs removing vehicles that had been corralled off the highway.

It’s a marker of its success that the firm was relentlessly targeted in egregious attacks.

Early last year, a hooded man drove up to the office on Rutherford Rd., smashed its front door, emptied jerry cans of gasoline into the foyer and set it ablaze.

A few months later, police say, a man showed up at the firm with a gun. An employee was confronted in their car and hit, robbed and threatened. Later, shots were fired through the firm’s windows while staff members were inside. Police laid charges in a murder-for-hire plot and say it was linked to the tow wars.

“That was probably one of the more outrageous events for us — when you’re attacking the justice system, when you’re attacking a lawyer who is defending in civil court different cases with the insurance companies,” said Slack.

Three men were charged for the law office attacks.

Others charges stem from the death of Soheil Rafipour, 28, who was shot outside in Richmond Hill, Ont., on Christmas Eve in 2018. Police say the murder stemmed from the tow war. Both the victim and the men charged were involved in the tow industry.

Other recent murders being investigated in Toronto and Brantford are believed to also be linked to the tow war.

The four tow cartels were sometimes, but not always, rivals.

Police alleged Alexander Vinogradsky, 35, of Vaughan, ran both the tow company Paramount Towing and one of the cartels, alongside Omer Zahawi, 36, of Vaughan and Filippo Genova, 22, of Toronto. Each faces charges of fraud and gangsterism among many others.

Other arrests, likely more than 30, are still expected, including white-collar workers, police said.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions for courts and jails, arrests have been socially distanced, with police focusing first on the alleged bosses and those accused of violence, drug trafficking and weapons offense.

“Then we’ll move down to all the other people participating or aiding in these frauds,” said Slack.

“We expect the extreme level of violence we have seen in our community to diminish,” he said.

“But we also see that to have a long-lasting effect, there will need to be some changes in the industry, changes in regulations, changes in bylaws.”

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