FORT MILL — A tow truck driver who impounded a Fort Mill man’s Jeep after his arrest last summer is accused of asking a co-worker to forge the suspect’s signature on a car title while the man was in rehab, authorities said. Now, the tow truck company he works for has been placed on probation until the matter is settled in court.
Deputies last Wednesday charged Robert Jason Lane, 32, with altering, forging or counterfeiting a vehicle certificate of title, a felony carrying a maximum five years in prison. A second man, Tyler Baker, has been accused of falsifying James Auer’s signature on his car title and giving it to Lane, who police say went to the state Department of Motor Vehicles and presented documents showing that Auer signed the car over to him.
Arrest warrants indicate that both men admitted the deception to deputies.
Their charges come nearly five months after Lane towed James Auer’s red 1994 Jeep Cherokee from Link Street in Fort Mill when police arrested Auer, then 19, charging him with underage drinking. It also comes at the height of frustration for Auer’s mother, Lori Auer, who has spent the past several months gathering records in hopes of proving that her son did not give his car to Lane.
“I honestly believe had I not gotten the records from the DMV, nothing ever would have been done with this case,” she said.
Warrants show that deputies reviewed James Auer’s car title and DMV documents before filing charges this month. But, Lori Auer claims the investigation dragged because the deputy assigned to the case displayed nepotism towards Lane and would not take her case seriously.
“I do not know why an officer would go to such lengths to protect someone like that,” Lori Auer said.
Deputies dispute those claims, maintaining that obtaining documents essential to the investigation took more than a month, said Sheriff’s Office Capt. Allen Brandon. More, the deputy investigating the case had to “re-interview everyone again,” including Lane and Baker, neither of whom initially admitted any wrongdoing.
“This is the first negative action against Patterson’s Wrecker that I am aware of,” Brandon said. “They are still on our rotation, but if they have any more negative incidents they will be removed.”
Lane declined to comment.
Police arrested James Auer in July after finding him getting out of a Jeep and walking to a Link Street home, where authorities suspected there was an underage drinking party, according to a Fort Mill police report. Inside the Jeep was an open can of Miller Lite. Auer told police that he was 19. He was then charged as a minor in possession of wine or liquor.
His Jeep, according to police documents, was towed by Patterson’s Wrecker Service, one of several businesses on a rotating list of tow companies used by both the sheriff’s office and Fort Mill Police Department. A police inventory sheet shows that Jason Lane signed his name as the tow truck driver.
As her son sat in jail, Lori Auer went to Patterson’s lot to get his medications from the car. When Lane asked who would pay the towing fees, Lori Auer told him she would leave that to her son, according to a York County Sheriff’s report filed last October. She left the vehicle in Lane’s custody.
A month after his arrest, James Auer pleaded guilty to his charges and was sentenced to time served, court records show.
Before her son could be admitted into a rehab facility in Columbia, Lori Auer tried to get his clothes from the car, which was still at Patterson’s. Lane told Auer she would not be able to take any more property from the car unless she brought him the car title and signed it, Auer said. Unwilling to commit forgery, Lori Auer refused.
Tow companies are able to ask for a car owner’s title if outstanding tow fees have not been paid, said Nate Bristow, executive director of the Towing & Recovery Association of SC. Having the title helps when companies want to get rid of the car or sell it. Tow operators, he said, can not put their signatures on another person’s title.
Once he left rehab in October, James Auer and his mother went to the DMV to deal with issues regarding his driver’s license, the report states. There, employees told him he signed over the title to his car to Lane without turning in his tags. But James Auer never signed the title, and was in rehab when his signature appeared on bill of sale documents, his mother said. Also, the signature did not match James Auer’s.
The DMV told the Auers to call the York County Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies spoke with Lane, who told authorities Lori Auer had been unable to pay the tow bill. When Lori Auer tried to get clothes out the car, Lane told her the fees were more than $500 and she needed to either pay the bill or hand over the title, the report states. He said he gave her the chance to pay just $500, but she was unable to do that.
Lane told deputies he spent more than $1,000 fixing the Jeep and went to the DMV to complete paperwork putting the Jeep in his name. After hearing Lori Auer’s complaints, Lane said she could buy the car for $1,500 or pay the $2,900 tow bill.
“I had had enough,” Lori Auer said. She ordered the DMV records herself.
The DMV documents showing that “James Auer“ signed over his car title to Lane are dated Sept. 26. But, according to a letter from the state Department of Mental Health and obtained by The Herald, James Auer was in a Columbia inpatient treatment center from Sept. 17 to Oct. 15.
Rock Hill attorney Jim Morton helped Lori Auer, acting as a “communicator” between the Auer family and the deputy investigating the incident, whom he called “forthcoming.”
The deputy received several phone calls from Lori Auer, “and he attempted to do due diligence to satisfy her,” said Brandon, the Sheriff’s Office captain.
Deputies last week charged Lane and Baker, a part-time Patterson’s employee accused of forging James Auer’s name on the DMV paperwork and then giving it to Lane. The Jeep remains on Patterson’s lot. Morton continues to help the Auer family and is working on getting the car back to them, a battle which might have to be waged in civil court.
“It really hurt me financially...it really put me in a bind without having a car and transportation,” said James Auer, adding that he lost his job after his arrest and was unable to find a new one for months because he did not have a car. “I don’t have the luxury of going out and buying a new truck.”
He has since been hired by an out-of-town contractor and gets a ride to work each day.
Jonathan McFadden • 803-329-4082