One of the nastiest wrecks in the area's history began with a teenager and a pickup truck.
Nineteen-year-old Daniel Schatz of Sullivan was a former high school football star. His father, Dave, had just won the Republican primary in Missouri's 111th district. On the morning of August 5, 2010, the young man was cruising toward Pacific on a clogged Interstate 44 when the trailer-less semi ahead of him hit the brakes. Schatz apparently didn't notice, and slammed into its rear.
Moments later, a bus loaded with high school marching-band members on their way to Six Flags blasted into the back of Schatz's pickup, grinding up and over it. Then a second bus with still more students plowed into the first, thrusting it so high on top of the semi that all four wheels left the ground.
Jessica Brinker, a fifteen-year-old sophomore, was killed on impact, as was Schatz, whose body was found dangling from what used to be his driver's side window. The pickup looked like a crumpled-up wad of paper.
For emergency responders and the Missouri State Highway Patrol, it was a day of chaotic logistics and intense stress. As the community grieved the loss of two young Missourians, a special team of investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board flew in to evaluate the wreck.
And yet behind the scenes, a different kind of drama was unfolding. Within 24 hours of the tragedy, Captain Ron Johnson of the highway patrol placed an angry call to Mark Robbins. Robbins was the owner of I-44 Truck Center, a towing company in St. Clair. The pair had tangled before. As Robbins recalls it, the officer demanded answers: Who had authorized him to tow away one of the buses?
Robbins replied that the patrol itself had dispatched him to the scene and allowed him to haul the bus — which, he then asserted, wouldn't be leaving his lot until his bill got paid. The captain retorted that all the damaged vehicles needed to be in one place, and he'd come pull the bus out with his patrol car and a chain if he had to.
An attorney hired by the bus company drove out to Robbins' lot and paid the bill. With a state trooper watching for trouble, one of Robbins' rivals towed the bus away.
But the matter wasn't over yet.
The following day, a patrolman pulled over one of Robbins' men as he drove in a company truck, citing him for traveling up to fifteen miles per hour over the limit. The trooper also gave the vehicle a full Department of Transportation inspection on the spot — the first time that's happened in twenty years, Robbins claims. The trooper concluded that the wrecker did not pass muster.
A few days after that, the same employee was pulled over in a company wrecker for driving only four miles over the limit. The patrolman issued him a warning.
Then, several months later, Robbins found proof that the highway patrol wasn't just coming after him — it was trying to steer away potential customers.
Late one night in February, a young man in his early 20s flipped his car over on a Franklin County road. (Fearing retribution from the patrol, he wishes to remain anonymous.) Medics quickly arrived and slid him into an ambulance. When a state trooper asked him if he preferred any particular tow company, the young man said he preferred Robbins.
The trooper asked the victim twice if he was sure he didn't want anybody else. Bleeding from the head and suffering from a severe concussion, the young man didn't waver. The trooper then reportedly said he was "tired" of people asking for I-44 Truck Center, and questioned the victim's connection to the Robbins. (He was a friend but declined to divulge that.)
"Here I am, hurt and trying to get to the hospital," the young man recalls, "and all he wants to worry about is what company is going to tow my vehicle." The trooper followed the victim to the hospital, where he cited him for careless and imprudent driving and not wearing a seatbelt.
Those are only the latest skirmishes in the long-standing feud between the Missouri State Highway Patrol and tow trucker Mark Robbins. For more than a decade, Robbins has complained that the patrol unfairly thwarts his attempts to work wrecks. In fact, he sued them for it in 2005 and won. That ruling altered the towing industry across the state.
Now Robbins is suing members of the highway patrol again for the same reason, this time in federal court. The stakes are high for anyone who uses the highways. Friction between wreckers and troopers at messy accident sites can cause delays. Delays can mean costly traffic jams or even secondary collisions.
But Robbins isn't just accusing local patrolmen of flouting state policy. He's also accusing one of them of setting him up for a crime he didn't commit.
Mark Robbins admits he's got a temper. One isn't tempted to test him and find out. He's a meaty six-foot-three with thick mechanic's hands, a graying goatee and intense gaze. His wife and high school sweetheart Gail, a brunette who comes up to his shoulders, is sitting next to him at Junie Moon café in Union.
They reside in Franklin County near Sullivan — some 60 miles southwest of St. Louis down Interstate 44 — and have arrived to lunch in Robbins' diesel pickup, which, like Robbins, is big. He keeps guns in it and is willing to show them off.
"We do a lot of coyote hunting," he says, grinning. On trips out West, he also shoots elk, though, during one vacation, Gail couldn't unglue him from his computer. He was busy finalizing his entry into Tow Times magazine's annual wrecker contest. He ended up winning the grand prize in 2009 for his 70-ton rotator, a truck mounted with a giant crane that can swing semi trailers through the air. He calls it "The Intimidator."
He remembers hearing the news. "It put goose bumps down my back," he says.
The couple first launched a roadside repair service in 1991, when they were living out of a trailer. The early years weren't easy. Mark often put in fifteen-, twenty-hour days. Gail wished her husband could've been "normal" and just taken a lunch-pail union job. Instead, she sometimes found herself bundling up their newborn son in the wee hours to fetch parts at a 24-hour shop in downtown St. Louis, then relaying them to Mark on the freeway.
"I just knew I could make it work," he explains, leaning forward in a hunter-orange hoodie bearing his company's logo. Sure enough, by 1997, they'd bought their own shop and grown into a towing company that handled nearly all major accidents in Franklin County.
But during his rise to the top, Robbins developed bad blood with a state trooper named John Oliveras. Whenever Oliveras responded to an accident and had to call for a wrecker, Robbins felt, the trooper favored his rivals. The tow trucker repeatedly lodged such complaints with Oliveras' superiors.
Around this same time, a friend of trooper Oliveras decided to start up his own towing company to challenge Robbins' dominance: Chuck Trombley.
Trombley wasn't exactly best friends with Oliveras, but he did attend his wedding and once came over to help him jackhammer out an old patio in order to pour a new one. At least, that's what the trooper stated in a later deposition. (Interestingly, Trombley denied under oath ever going over to Oliveras' house.)
In any case, both entrepreneur and trooper had good reason to want Mark Robbins out of the towing business.
On the morning of December 6, 1999, Oliveras showed up at I-44 Truck Center, asking Robbins if he kept any firearms in his pickup. Robbins said yes and pulled his rifle out of its case for inspection. Robbins then did the same with his Accu-Tek .380 pistol and handed it to Oliveras, along with the magazine. The patrolman looked them over and asked Robbins to follow him to the St. Clair Police Department headquarters. Robbins agreed.
Upon arriving, Robbins discovered what was going on. He was wanted for questioning. Someone had just accused him of a crime. Someone he knew quite well.
Teddy Williams was a diesel mechanic who'd twice worked for Mark Robbins (and once been suspected by his boss of stealing, according to a police report filed by Robbins). On that bright December morning, however, Williams had a new employer: Chuck Trombley, the area's new tow-truck operator and friend of trooper Oliveras.
Williams also had something urgent to report.
A few hours earlier, he said, he'd been exhausted after working an early-morning job for Trombley and didn't want to drive the 30 miles home to Fletcher. So at 9 a.m., he pulled into the commuter lot at I-44 and Highway 30 and parked his pickup, which had a magnetic "Chuck's Towing" sign on its flank. He stretched out across the seats and dozed off.
At 9:45 a.m., he claimed, he awoke to a loud bang and glass flying everywhere. A bullet landed on his chest. Two more were lodged in the vehicle. He rose up and peered out the rear window. Just steps away, a truck was idling.
"I seen Mark Robbins in there with a scared look on his face," the mechanic would later testify. Robbins, he said, then peeled away.
Williams sped a mile down the road to the interstate's westbound scale house, where semis are weighed to ensure that they meet federal regulations. Williams reported the crime to the trooper who just happened to be present, John Oliveras.
The incident had occurred in the jurisdiction of the St. Clair Police Department, so one of its officers was dispatched. Officer Butch Mikeworth responded and asked Oliveras to find the suspect and bring him to the station.
In the meantime, Mikeworth followed the victim back to the commuter lot. He noticed broken glass on the gravel and tire tracks. But he canvassed the ground for several minutes and saw nothing else.
All parties converged at the police station in St. Clair. According to the detective who first questioned Robbins there, the suspect was "livid." Without being asked, he blurted out that if he really wanted to hurt his rival Trombley, he would've shot up his large wrecker, not a measly pickup. But Robbins did admit to passing by the commuter lot at the time of the shooting.
Meanwhile, Oliveras volunteered to go back to the crime scene and hunt for clues. So he did. Alone. And though Mikeworth had already been there and found nothing, Oliveras claimed that he was able to pick something out of the gravel: a spent shell casing from a .380 handgun. That casing, plus the bullet that landed on Williams and the two plucked from the truck, were sent to the highway patrol for ballistics testing.
When the report came back in March, it showed a strong match to Robbins' gun. A warrant was issued for his arrest on a felony charge of unlawful use of a weapon.
Oliveras lingered at the courthouse on the day the arrest warrant was being processed — an unusual move for a crime committed outside his jurisdiction. In fact, he drove out to personally handcuff Robbins and, according to his later testimony, threatened to charge him with resisting arrest when the suspect got "very excited and upset."
Robbins hired Joe Aubuchon of Union as his defense attorney. A former circuit judge now in private practice, Aubuchon wondered whether an independent ballistics report would exonerate his client. So he ordered one.
"My first feeling was despair," he recalls of reading the results. The situation had worsened. All three bullets and the casing were 100 percent positive matches to Robbins' gun. "But then I really looked at the report, and I thought: Wait a minute. This doesn't make any sense."
First, the victim made it clear in his deposition: He heard one loud bang, his window shattered, and he saw Mark Robbins flee. But why hadn't the first two shots awoken him? He himself testified that he was a heavy sleeper but that even "something less" than a gunshot would rouse him from slumber.
Williams has no listed phone number; his prior number has been disconnected, so he could not be reached for comment.
What's more, the shots couldn't have been fired in rapid succession. The extractor pin was broken, meaning Robbins would've had to manually pull out the spent casing and reload it, three times. And he'd have to do all this from three different positions, because the bullets flew in from different angles, according to the report — all without waking up Williams.
Also, to peer through the rear window and see Robbins, Aubuchon says, Williams would've needed x-ray vision. There were heaps of equipment in the truck bed.
"You couldn't have seen the Goodyear Blimp through that window," Aubuchon says.
Lastly, during questioning at the police station, Robbins' hands had been swabbed for gun residue. The test came out positive. But an hour before that test, he had been handling his guns — because Oliveras had asked to see them. And that would've been enough to trigger a positive finding.
The attorney brought up all of these discrepancies at the trial, which took place after years of delay in January 2003. And by that time, he also had a little help from a witness who'd recently come forward.
Leslie Wideman was a portly, 62-year-old retired trucker with heart problems. He testified that on the morning of December 6, 1999, he'd passed by the commuter lot and noticed Williams' pickup truck with the window shot out.
At about 8:30 a.m. — more than an hour before the alleged crime.
Wideman was a good pal of Mark Robbins. To this day, he doesn't dispute that. But his job lent him credibility: He'd been an auxiliary officer for the St. Clair Police Department for eighteen years.
Once all the witnesses had testified and the evidence was submitted, the judge released the jury to reach a verdict. Charged under a new state law concerning drive-by shootings, Robbins was facing a minimum of fifteen years in prison — and that's what the prosecutor was asking for.
Waiting for the verdict, Mark Robbins' young son, Greg, grew hysterical, Aubuchon remembers.
"Nobody else could console him," the lawyer says. "So I said, 'Your daddy's not going to prison.' And he looked up at me and said, 'You promise?' And I thought a minute and said, 'Yes, I promise.' I'd never done that before, and I've never done it since. I felt pretty good about things."
In less than an hour, the jury both selected a foreman and reached its verdict: not guilty.
The next day, Leslie Wideman reported for duty to the St. Clair Police Department. He found himself locked out of the building until the chief had a chance to speak with him. But after his testimony, he knew what was coming. Instead of waiting, he pushed his badge through the window slot to the secretary.
"I knew it would cost me my job," he says. "But if that's the way they were going to operate, I didn't care."
Still, the outcome of the case left one glaring question unanswered. If Mark Robbins' gun shot up that pickup truck, but Mark Robbins didn't pull the trigger, then who did?
Two years before the matter ever came to trial, Mark Robbins received an anonymous phone call. It was a woman. He didn't recognize the voice. She informed him that he was the victim of a conspiracy, but didn't give many details.
He filed a report with the Franklin County Sheriff's Department but had no other proof. So he started taping all his phone calls.
Late in the evening of March 11, 2001, he got another one.
"Uh, you don't know me," the man said. "But, uh, I got some information about that trouble that you've been in, about the shooting and things; uh, I think somebody's trying to set you up."
This time, the tape was running. Robbins asked the caller to identify himself. The man refused, but continued.
"I don't think they intend for this to go that far, but, uh, I think it's kind of got out of hand." The caller said what they'd originally meant to do was put Robbins "out of business."
Robbins asked him who "they" was.
"Ted, Chuck and Oliveras," he replied — referring to the rival tow trucker, the alleged victim and the state trooper.
"How come you're callin' now?" Robbins asked. "My life's been hell for two years."
"Well I, uh, just kinda got feelin' guilty about it, and I, I'm tired of them guys, uh, talkin' about it all the time," the caller said. He said that Williams shot up the truck the night before the shooting. Then, in the morning, he waited for Robbins to drive by. Oliveras coached him on where to park the vehicle on the day of the shooting, the caller added.
Could someone have stolen Robbins' gun? In a conversation with the RFT, Robbins' former attorney Joe Aubuchon says theft of Robbins' gun was "consistent" with the evidence, though he declines to suggest a culprit.
"Robbins was the kind of guy who carried guns in his car and left it unlocked," the lawyer says. "And people knew that."
As proof that he had inside information, the anonymous caller also informed Robbins of further mischief. Trombley and an accomplice shot up the sign in front of Robbins' shop at some point, the caller said. And, indeed, when the call ended and Robbins checked his sign, he discovered bullet holes. He filed a police report several days later.
Robbins had the anonymous call traced by Southwestern Bell and the result faxed to the Franklin County Sheriff's Department. A corporal wrote up a report, stating, "The call came from Chuck's Towing and Recovery Service."
With some digging around, Robbins developed a theory. He believed the caller was Ralph Feuerborn, the man who occasionally ran errands for Trombley.
Feuerborn passed away in 2002, a year after the call came and before the matter went to trial, where it wasn't submitted into evidence. But Feuerborn's son, John, tells the RFT that he's listened to the recording. John used to work for Trombley, too, and says his father indeed had access to the inside of the business.
"It sounded like my dad," Feuerborn says of the voice on the tape. "I ain't saying it wasn't him."
Shown a transcript of the recording by the RFT, Trombley called the whole thing "fabricated" and denied any wrongdoing.
As for the state trooper, Robbins filed a formal complaint against him with the Missouri State Highway Patrol in October 2003, alleging that Oliveras helped frame him. Robbins received a response three months later from a colonel in internal affairs. There was "no evidence" that Oliveras "acted improperly," an officer wrote.
Assistant Attorney General of Missouri Doug Leyshock, who is curently representing Oliveras, did not respond by press time to requests for comment.
Twelve years after the incident, at lunch with a reporter, Robbins describes all these past events with passion, as if he's still defending himself. He points out, for example, that two of the bullets fired into Williams' pickup missed any glass. "It wasn't me, and I'll tell you why," he asserts.
"I don't miss."
Up until Mark Robbins' blockbuster lawsuit against the state in 2005, the highway patrol used "rotation lists." If motorists broke down on the highway and weren't blocking traffic, a trooper would ask: Do you care who tows you? If not, the trooper would determine whose turn it was among a set of reputable companies. That's who got dispatched.
When Robbins first started towing in the '90s, his spot on the rotation was crucial. Most motorists don't have a preferred towing company. (Some long-distance truck drivers barely know what state they're in.) Therefore, any towing company on the list will receive calls. An outfit that gets kicked off, however, will see its pool of service calls drained.
Such befell Robbins during his two years as a criminal defendant. Pending the outcome of his case, the highway patrol's Troop C — whose jurisdiction includes St. Louis and Franklin counties — booted him from its rotation. Not good, he thought. But at least he kept busy in Troop I, which covers Phelps and Crawford counties.
Yet on the day before Robbins' acquittal, Troop I removed him from its rotation, too.
So when the jury returned the "not guilty" verdict Robbins had longed for, he figured he could finally get back on Troop C's list, right?
Wrong. In a Kafkaesque move, Troop C declared that it was extending Robbins' suspension indefinitely — despite his acquittal — because Troop I had just banned him. Getting banned in one troop meant getting banned in all troops, Captain Ron Johnson would explain in a later deposition.
Fed up, Robbins took the patrol to court in Cole County, suing them to place him back on rotation.
During an early court hearing in January 2006, Captain Randy Becker from Troop I took the stand and tried to justify why he banished Robbins.
The removal process seemed to have operated at Becker's personal whim. When Becker initially expelled Robbins, he had mailed him a list of four specific offenses, most concerning safety. Robbins addressed each one at an appeals hearing in April. But at the end of the month, the captain reaffirmed his own decision, only this time, he cited altogether different reasons.
Now Becker was saying he'd received complaints that Robbins was "double billing" trucking companies. When pressed as to how many such complaints he'd fielded in the past ten years, Becker could recall only two. Asked how they were resolved, he admitted, "I don't have any idea."
Then Becker complained that Robbins' men kept dialing up dispatch and asking why it wasn't their turn on rotation. Asked where, in writing, that was prohibited, Becker said it wasn't.
Indeed, the "main reason" Becker got rid of Robbins, he finally admitted, had rather little to do with towing: Robbins had cussed out a female trooper with whom he had a history of arguments.
On June 26, 2006, after a trial covered by several St. Louis TV news crews, Judge Richard G. Callahan ruled in favor of Robbins. The tow trucker got no money in the suit. He hadn't asked for any. All he wanted was justice. Which he thought he got, at least at first.
But the judge didn't reinstate Robbins on the list. He threw out the list entirely.
As Callahan saw it, the highway patrol seemed to be trying to protect the public from shoddy wrecker outfits. But good intentions aside, it had no statutory authority to decide who was shoddy and who wasn't. Tow truckers like Mark Robbins "should be allowed to compete," the judge wrote, and freight companies "should be free to select" any towing outfit they want.
Therefore, Callahan declared, the highway patrol was "permanently enjoined from creating, maintaining or enforcing a rotation list" statewide. This meant in cases where the customer had no preference, troopers could now dispatch whomever they saw fit.
The irony was clear. The judge prohibited the patrol from picking winners and losers — while granting them the leeway to do exactly that.
Since the 2006 ruling, Mark Robbins complains, state troopers have used that leeway to shut him out while steering business toward his competitors.
But have they?
A Riverfront Times analysis of state accident data shows that I-44 Truck Center towed more tractor trailers and buses — the big money jobs — than nearly all of his major nearby competitors from 2006 through 2010 in St. Louis, Franklin, Crawford and Phelps counties combined. (See chart.)
Brandy Barth, one of Robbins' attorneys, doesn't dispute his success.
"He's got a good business," she says, "which speaks to the quality Mark offers, despite their continued attempts to interfere with it."
Still, Robbins filed a lawsuit in federal court last November. He alleges that ever since his felony charge in 2000, he's been iced out of accident scenes by more than a dozen highway patrol employees.
Some have actively discouraged wrecked truckers from calling him, according to the suit. Others forbade it outright. And each missed opportunity could have meant thousands of dollars in missed revenue.
Robbins tells the RFT he can remember about twelve occasions since 2000 when a semi wrecked and he obtained permission from the freight company to work the scene, but when he showed up — sometimes before any other tow truck — the patrol shooed him away.
Robbins' competitors express little sympathy for him, pointing to his methods.
But while Robbins swears he's never engaged in "call jumping" — a serious breach of towing etiquette whereby a wrecker pulls up to an accident without coordinating with anybody — he does confirm that he listens for accidents on his scanner.
Sometimes, he or an employee will hop in a pickup, race out toward the scene on an outer service road and see who's wrecked. Robbins will then dial the home company, apprise them of the situation and ask if he can work it.
That approach is legal but problematic, says Jeff Vogelgesang, a nearby towing rival.
"He tries to peddle himself to the customer on the scene," says Vogelgesang. "That's going to entice everyone else to do it, then you're going to have wrecker chasers out there, and somebody's going to get hurt."
Other competitors are more colorful in their criticism.
"He's nothing but a big-ass bully punk," says Pacific-based tower Mike Hyndrich. Hyndrich insists — and every area wrecker who's spoken to the RFT agrees — that the local tow truckers all get along with customers, each other and with the patrol, except for Robbins.
No question, Robbins is a scrapper. He's had at least three customer disputes since 2004 in which some type of physical altercation has broken out, according to police reports. Two years ago, Robbins tried to forcibly escort an angry customer out of his office. The customer, convinced his father-in-law was "being screwed" by Robbins, punched the businessman to the ground.
He's now facing two separate lawsuits in Franklin County from customers who believe Robbins overbilled them. When the customers refused to pay, Robbins in turn refused to release their vehicles. Now the parties are battling in court.
Hazelwood-based insurance adjuster Ed Tuepker, who is involved in one of those suits, says he's dealt with Robbins a few times a year for the last decade.
"Some of his bills are steep," Tuepker says. "But he's not the only tow company in the area that has steep bills."
Regardless of how state troopers feel about Robbins, patrol policy officially prohibits them from uttering "negative" or "detrimental" comments about a tow trucker at an accident scene.
Yet, Robbins claims, that policy didn't stop one trooper from telling a female accident victim last August that she shouldn't call I-44 Truck Center because it gouges its customers.
The trooper warned her within earshot of several people involved in the accident, according to Mark Robbins' son, Greg, who responded to the scene.
The female customer wasn't spooked, because she happened to be Greg's girlfriend. And, after discovering their relationship, the patrolman agreed to let Robbins tow away her car — but not before checking the tint of her window for compliance with state law.
"If Mark is truly so expensive, then let the market take care of it," says Barth, who is fighting the case alongside prominent attorney Chet Pleban. "The patrol shouldn't have any say in who does what in this business."
Jeff Vogelgesang, whose own towing shop sits a mile east of I-44 Truck Center, feels differently. He longs for the state to regulate who gets called and how much they can charge. "If there were a set of rules to abide by, that would be great," he says. "But there's no rules that I know of. It's the wild West out here."
Vogelgesang is the same age as Robbins. The two grew up in St. Clair as friends, but Vogelgesang says they've drifted apart.
"Truthfully, Mark is his own worst enemy," says Vogelgesang. "He's well capable of doing the work. But he thinks he should get it all, and nobody else should get anything."
He remembers how, years ago, Robbins mentioned to him in passing that if anybody else in St. Clair tried to challenge him with a big wrecker, they'd regret it. About a year ago, Vogelgesang bought one.
Last Christmas, both companies rolled along in St. Clair's annual parade on their hulking machines. When the Robbins' wrecker passed Vogelgesang, he says, Gail Robbins flipped him off.
"That's just how they are."
During an ice storm on December 16, 2010, Mark Robbins peered through a hole that had ripped into the side of a wrecked semi trailer on Interstate 44. He spied something odd: a palette of U-Haul boxes encased in bubble wrap, hiding behind stacks of carryout containers.
With twenty years' experience handling cargo, Robbins can sense when something is off. (He once even alerted authorities to a contraband load of moonshine he'd stumbled upon.)
On this occasion, the drivers — both Haitian — offered Robbins a fat wad of cash to get them rolling again without notifying their home freight company.
Robbins hauled the semi back to his lot, and the next day, he notified the patrol. The troopers investigated and seized hundreds of pounds of marijuana.
A few days later, when Captain Ron Johnson — the same captain who'd grilled Robbins after the horrible two-bus accident near Six Flags back in August — placed a call to I-44 Truck Center, Robbins took his call.
What now? He thought.
The captain was calling to thank the tow trucker for his help.
But after a decade of bad blood, two lawsuits and even criminal charges, Robbins wasn't totally ready to bury the hatchet.
"You could tell he wanted to get off the phone," Robbins says. "So I went into this whole thing about how it's important to keep drugs off the streets because they endanger our children."
He smiles mischievously.
"I just wanted to keep him on the phone."