TravelCenters of America blames truckstop crime on truckdrivers' demand for prostitutes, fake jewelry and drugs

by René Tankersley, feature editor

There's a demand by truckers for prostitutes and fake jewelry, and along with that supply comes the criminal aspect of it," said Michael O'Connor, director of advertising and public relations for TravelCenters of America headquarters near Cincinnati, OH. "Although 95 percent of truckers don't want the prostitutes, fake jewelry and drugs, there are that 5 percent that do. It's a supply and demand problem. There's not a lot we can do to stop the demand. It's been a chronic problem, an industry problem."

O'Connor posed his theory in response to an incident where a 59-year-old truckdriver was beaten and robbed at gunpoint in the truck parking area of the TA truckstop off I-65 at Exit 168 in Montgomery, AL. He responded to questions about the incident after the general manager at the Montgomery TA refused to comment or answer any questions from media regarding this incident or any other incident.

Jeff McConnell, one of the attorneys who writes a regular column called "Road Law" for Land Line, regarded O'Connor's comments as "an interesting theory but not relevant in a court of law."

"Basically, you look at the duty of what a business owes a customer," McConnell said. "Have you been put on notice that a type of problem exists and what steps you've done to correct a problem?"

McConnell says that by saying, "If you weren't a truckdriver, you wouldn't have a problem," that TA is discriminating against drivers based on their occupation.

"Whether you're a trucker, doctor or lawyer, business owners have a duty to all their customers to keep their premises safe and free of known dangers," McConnell said.

Beaten, robbed at gunpoint

John Myers and his wife Carla weren't shopping for parking lot prostitutes, drug dealers or fake jewelry on Dec. 7 when they parked their bobtail truck at the truckstop, where they would spend the night. They had just made a delivery in Montgomery, AL, for Power Source Transportation, the company in Indiana where Myers is a leased contractor. Carla's son Don Mosley was traveling through the area and met them at the truckstop.

After eating supper in the truckstop's restaurant, John, Carla and Don were in John's rig visiting around midnight when they felt the truck lurch. John suspected a possible air leak in the brakes, so he and Don got out to check. Two men, described as armed black men, attacked them separately. As Don was being robbed on the passenger's side, he could hear John being attacked on the driver's side but had no idea what his stepfather was going through until John told his story later.

"A man jumped off the back of the truck with a gun in his hand," John said. "He hit me four or five times, kicked me in the ribs and forced me to empty my pockets, which I did. He even made me pick up the change and give it to him and give him my wallet. I was dazed. He crawled up onto the steps of my truck, got part way in my truck and stole my cell phone off the dash. He even went through my coat pockets. He wasn't in any hurry. My wife was hiding in the bunk. Thank goodness he didn't get all the way in the truck."

While John was being beaten and robbed on the driver's side, another assailant waylaid Don on the passenger's side of the truck. In an incident report for National Security of Alabama, Don explained what happened to him.

"I opened the door, got out and a male jumped off the back of the truck and stuck his gun in my face," Don reported. "I turned my head and he grabbed my shirt, pulled it over my head. He then made me get on the ground face down. He was yelling at me to not look at him. He stuck the gun to the back of my head and told me he would kill me and didn't care if he got caught because he had been to jail before. He made me crawl to the grass face down. He put my hands behind my back and attempted to tie them. His partner came over and said something, I don't know what. He then told his partner something like, 'Tell him we mean business' and kicked me four or five times in the back. Then they took off. I ran into the truckstop for help."

At the same time Don ran into the truckstop, Carla rushed in to get help for her injured husband, John. The son and mother were surprised to find the police standing at the fuel desk talking with the clerk. Apparently, a neighboring truckdriver reported the robbery-in-progress and the police were trying to find out where the robbery was taking place.

John described a comical sight with four or five police cars and police officers asking, "Which way did they go? Which way did they go?"

"It was like Three Stooges on television," John said. "They didn't even make any attempt to do anything, as far as I'm concerned."

He said the police mentioned taking him to the police station to review the "mug" books, but he says they never came back to talk to him after he returned from the hospital.

After the police arrived and started asking questions, the Myers family learned about the man who called 911. The man they knew only as Bill stayed with them during police questioning and even gave John the AT&T phone number to report his stolen cell phone.

Even after Bill drove away, Carla Myers said she only knew his first name, his company and his home state. His company name, Trailer Transit, was easy to remember because they said it is Power Source's biggest competitor and John's previous employer.

Carla said when she asked Bill his last name, he just said, "The good Lord knows who I am." However, a short call to his company, Trailer Transit in Indiana, proved fruitful. The company safety manager knew exactly who Bill was because he had called her right after the incident. After waking up next to an armed robbery, she says Bill was "very much affected by it and needed to talk with someone."

The mystery "Bill" is actually William Jessee, a 57-year-old trucker from Pennsylvania. He has driven trucks for more than 27 years, two years with Trailer Transit. The story of his 911 call is as intriguing as the robbery itself.

Asleep in his truck's bunk, Bill was jolted awake when the scuffling men bumped his truck. He peeked out the curtains through the little window in his sleeper berth and saw all John's belongings strewn beside the truck. He immediately called 911.

"When I looked and saw all his stuff on the ground, I was scared," Bill said. "I just tried to stay out of sight and be efficient. I was scared to death."

As he tried to report a "possible robbery in progress," the emergency operator hung up on him. He looked out the window again, and this time saw the gun. Bill called 911 again and asked the operator why she hung up on him the first time. She told him she thought it was a prank call. He explained in a voice barely above a whisper that there was a man with a gun robbing someone right outside his truck and he didn't want the gunman to hear him. This time, she dispatched the police.

More blame shifting by TA

TA admits the "franchised truckstop, which is not a company-operated site," operates in a very tough neighborhood where a hotel clerk was shot in the head at the hotel across the street a few years ago. TA management hires security guards from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and tries to keep their lots well lit, according to O'Connor.

He says TA and other truckstop chains have trouble getting good truckstop locations.

"No one wants a truckstop in their back yard," O'Connor says. "People think they bring a lot of problems. Urban areas have the most problems. Most of them are pretty good, but there are some problem sites in the inner city."

Although O'Connor admits TA needs to provide a safe place for people to stop, he also blames the crime problems on the local police.

"We don't get the cooperation of the local police," O'Connor said. "Sometimes as much protection isn't available as we would like." He also complains that after being arrested on truckstop parking lots, prostitutes and drug dealers are released the next day. "It's a law enforcement problem, too, in the way that people are not being imprisoned," O'Connor said.

Montgomery Police Department's Public Information Officer Cpt. Rick Locklar doesn't agree. "That may be his perception, but that's not the case," Locklar said. "Any time they call we respond, maybe not as fast as they expect, but we will respond. That business is located in one of the city's districts that has the most calls for service from year to year."

In District 10, where the TA is located, city police had 17,000 calls in 1999. District 13, which borders next to the truckstop, had more than 20,000 calls in 1999. As a result of the high call rates, District 13 is being split into smaller districts with more units available.

As far as the prostitutes and other criminal elements being at the truckstops, Locklar says TA is responsible for keeping the criminals and prostitutes off their own property, but added anyone who does business with the prostitutes and other criminals shares the responsibility. Locklar says the local police are doing their part to combat crime at the "notorious" truckstop by running prostitute details and reverse details with undercover prostitutes.

"We catch prostitutes up there all the time," Locklar said. "There's not that many robberies, it's mostly prostitution, drug activity and fake jewelry sales."

Victims lose more than money, possessions

In the truck parking lot, John Myers lost his wallet, $250 cash, his Nokia cell phone and some keys. The thief took Don's wallet, which was found later a block from the truckstop in a deserted lot, minus $60 cash.

More important than the money or belongings, John lost his health. He went to a Montgomery hospital twice that day for injuries received during the attack. He remains at home recuperating from a broken rib and bruised lung, which his doctors say make him vulnerable to pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses. John's doctors ordered him to take six weeks off work and started him on antibiotics to stave off the pneumonia.

John is more than disappointed with TA's lack of reaction to the incident, especially considering how much time he and his wife spend in truckstops.

"Truckstop management never came out to check on us or said they were sorry this happened," John said. "I spend more time in truckstops than I do in my own home. You hear stories about stuff like that, but it's just stories, it doesn't happen to you."

The only response came from the security guard after the incident. He simply asked Don to fill out an accident report, but did not get a report from John and Carla Myers because they were gone to the hospital.

John and Carla remember seeing the security guard around 10 p.m. While they were eating in the restaurant, he came in looking for drivers that were parked illegally. The next time they saw the security guard was around 4 a.m. when a taxi was taking them back to their truck. He came to see why a taxicab was in the truck parking lot. When they explained about their trip to the hospital, the security guard told them he was in the bathroom when they were being robbed.

Because the time off work could ruin him financially, John has consulted an attorney about TA's responsibilities and liabilities for his injuries and losses.

"At my house, I have liability insurance on my property, otherwise I'm subject to a lawsuit," John said. "The thing that worries me is that my bills will continue for the next six weeks. I don't know how I'll continue financially."

As an attorney whose customers are truckdrivers, McConnell finds TA's attitude toward this incident "bizarre for someone trying to operate a nationwide truckstop system. Because our clients are commercial drivers, I can't comprehend an attitude that tells truckers they're not as worthwhile as another class of people."