LAKE WALES, Fla. (WFLA) — Police in Polk County are noticing an alarming new trend: tow trucks stealing cars. When a car breaks down and is left on the side of the road, quick repossession trucks drive in, load up the car and leave almost as quickly as they came.

“I could only think that if that was happening to me, how upset I would be about it,” said Lake Wales Police Sgt. Dale Hampton.

Hampton recently helped find a 2010 Nissan Maxima that a driver left on Highway 27 in Lake Wales, by a RaceTrac gas station. The gas station footage caught it all.

“It shows a white tow truck pass by it, hit the brakes, come back, back up to it,” Hampton explained. “We see this tow truck back up to the car, put the lowering device down, and pick the car up, and it’s gone in seconds.”

It adds insult to injury for drivers, and the Nissan is the latest in a string of strange stealings.

“We’ve been having a lot of this going on lately,” Hampton said. “So that’s why we dug more into it, because initially when we started getting calls for thefts of broke down vehicles, it didn’t make sense to us.”

According to Hampton, the driver of the white tow truck was 32-year-old Jesus Melendez, owner of JM Towing. After towing the car in June, police said he sent a letter to the owner in August, demanding $735 for the car. When the owner called him, he upped the ransom to $5,000 and warned the owner not to involve the police.

“They’re holding them basically for ransom and they’re charging a crazy amount of money,” Hampton said. “A lot of these people are falling victim to it because they want their car back and they just think that that’s OK, and it’s not.”

Before the letter, Hampton and his team were searching tow truck lots to no avail. After the letter, however, they were able to question and arrest Melendez on grand theft auto and scheming with intent to defraud. According to police, Melendez’s letter to the victim states the RaceTrac gas station asked him to tow the car. However, when police checked with RaceTrac, the managers said they don’t tow cars on the highway.

“They’re victimizing a person that’s already in a bad situation with a broke down vehicle,” Hampton said. “We’re not going to tolerate it and we’re going to enforce it to the max.”

Hampton said if your car was towed in the last few months and you didn’t call for that tow, or you’ve been communicating with a tow truck company that has your car, call the Lake Wales Police Department. You can reach Detective Matt Rhoden at 863-678-4223.

If you’d like to stay anonymous and be eligible for cash reward through Heartland Crime Stoppers, you can:

  • Call 1-800-226-TIPS (8477)
  • Dial **TIPS from your cell phone
  • Visit and click on “Submit A Tip”
  • Download the free “P3tips” app on your smartphone or tablet