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Disabled Woman's $15,000 Van Wrongly Declared Abandoned, Sold For Scrap; 'It's Just Very Infuriating'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Leave your vehicle parked on a Chicago street for a week and it could be towed and even sold without you getting a dime.  It is all part of Chicago's Abandoned Vehicle Program. One family lost a $15,000 van with a customized wheelchair lift, then turned to CBS 2 Investigator Dave Savini for help.

Stricken with polio at the age of five, and later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it is fair to say Lisandra Velez's mother Andrea Santiago has had a tough life.  Action by the City of Chicago has not helped.

"It's just very infuriating," said Velez. "The city to do that, with no regards to who that vehicle belonged to, is sickening. It's absolutely sickening."

Santiago owned a van with a $10,000 hydraulic lift for her wheelchair.  It also had a handicapped placard, plates and an additional marking on the side of the van.  The family parked it, legally, along their Jefferson Park neighborhood street for years.  They never had any trouble.

In June, that changed. A Chicago Department of Streets & Sanitation investigator slapped an Abandoned Vehicle sticker on the van - warning if not moved in seven days, it would be considered abandoned and towed.

"It was absolutely not abandoned," said Velez. "She has ailments and doctors' appointments that we take her to; definitely not abandoned."

A single 311 call, a month earlier, claiming the vehicle was abandoned, triggered the tow. The caller gave the van's license plate number, but also gave a lot of wrong information - describing it as a four-door Chevy sedan instead of what it is - a GMC van.

Neighbors signed a petition saying they did not report the van abandoned. They were used to seeing it. The CBS 2 Investigators found Google Earth photos, dating back to 2007, showing the van regularly parked legally along different parts of the street, even in May and June before it was towed.

After seeing the sticker, Velez and her husband Mike Reilly say they took action.

"We scraped everything off the windows and put a sign up that said the vehicle is not abandoned," said Reilly. "We even left a phone number for my wife so they could call and we moved the van up one spot."

Despite all that, the van was taken.

Attorney Jacie Zolna represents the family.

"Anyone can say that they think a car is abandoned," said Zolna, who has successfully sued the City of Chicago for other questionable ticketing and fine systems, including red light and speed camera tickets. "The city runs its municipal fine system like a for-profit business, really; a sleazy, scammy for-profit business."

In Santiago's case, she lost about $15,000 because she never got her van or lift back. A city contractor got to keep both.

"That's really the most shocking," said Zolna. "They can't just keep it without compensation."

Ald. Nicholas Sposato (38th), who also has MS, agrees what happened to Santiago is wrong.

"We made a mistake. I fully say we made a mistake and this can't happen in the future," said Sposato. "We will learn from our mistake."

Sposato, who had nothing to do with Santiago's van being towed, wants to help others like her and and wants to make changes to the Abandoned Vehicle program.

"You would hope people would have a little more compassion and have a half a brain to say, 'I can see the lift in here. I can see the handicap plate. Do I really want to be towing this?'" said Sposato.

The company that towed it, United Road Towing (URT), has a $60 million contract with Streets & Sanitation to handle the city's towing, booting and auto pound management.  URT also owns E & R Towing and other towing operations.  Last year, URT declared bankruptcy, citing in part a $5 million Nevada class-action lawsuit involving improper tows.

The company kept Santiago's van at the auto pound for two weeks then, as the contract allows them to do, they bought it from the city for $15.

The city supposedly sent a letter to Santiago when the van was towed, but the family says they never got it.

"Not a phone call, not a letter in the mail," said Mike Reilly. "We received no notification whatsoever."

Since 2017, Streets & Sanitation used United Road Towing to tow and store 4,178 so-called abandoned vehicles. The city then sold about 65% of them -- 2,715 vehicles -- to United Road Towing for $15 each. The company then gets to sell the vehicles and keep all the profit.

"It was her lifeline; her legs," Velez said about what the van meant to her mother.

"My freedom," said Santiago.

No one from United Road Towing, including those at the city's auto pounds, would say exactly what happened to the van.  But the CBS 2 Investigators finally tracked it down.

United Road Towing got a junk title for the van and sold it for scrap to a salvage yard for $615.  It was stripped of its engine, crushed and buried in shreds along with the hydraulic lift in a pile of scrap metal.

"Oh my gosh," said Santiago about her van being crushed.

Santiago's family has started a GoFundMe page to raise the money they need to get a new van.

United Road Towing made no comment except to tell the CBS 2 Investigators to contact Streets & Sanitation.

Chicago's Department of Streets & Sanitation sent this statement:

"The Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation (DSS) removes abandoned vehicles to promote safety and improve the quality of life in Chicago communities. DSS strictly follows the procedures outlined in the City's municipal code when responding to complaints from residents about abandoned vehicles. DSS places a seven day notice directly on the vehicle requesting the vehicle be moved and sends a second pre tow notice via certified mail to residents with valid vehicle registration. Owners receive another notice via certified mail after the vehicle is impounded. In each case, vehicle owners can also dispute the validity of the tow and impoundment by requesting a post tow hearing or by filing a claim through the City Clerk's office. Residents can find more information about abandoned vehicles at"

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