Patron upset at Fort Worth hotel for passing buck on stolen car

Imagine that you use valet parking at the Fort Worth Hilton across from the Fort Worth Convention Center. When it comes time to fetch your car, the valet pulls your vehicle under the overhang, steps out and walks away.

As you step toward your car, another man swoops in from nowhere, jumps into the driver's seat and speeds away.

Your car is stolen.

This happened to Hunter Wilder of Azle in August.

He went to a wedding reception at the Hilton and left his 1997 Lexus with the attendant.

When it came time to get his car, the attendant stepped away and another man jumped into his car. The driver almost ran over a group of girls standing near the traffic lane, Wilder recalls. "They had to jump out of the way."

He yelled, "Hey, that guy just stole my car!"

"The guy runs the next red light, goes down a couple of blocks, hangs a left and it's gone," he said.

Then it happened again. Three weeks ago. Same situation. Same hotel.

Paul Carpenter, a minister from Gainesville, told me how his Toyota RAV4 was stolen Jan. 29 while his wife waited for it: The valet attendant "got out and left it running," he said. "Somebody ran up from the shadows on the driver's side and drove off."

Wilder filed an insurance claim with Towne Park, the outside company that runs the Hilton's valet operations. But Towne Park's insurance carrier denied the claim.

The reason? Towne Park was not responsible because the car thief shoved the attendant out of the way and thus assaulted him, using force, to take control of the car, the carrier told Wilder.

Wilder says it didn't happen that way. He says the attendant walked to the other side of the car and left the path to the car wide open for the thief.

Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Ralph Swearingin could decide who is responsible. Wilder filed a small claims lawsuit against Towne Park, seeking $4,000 in damages. The court has invited both parties to mediation, but Wilder says he wants a trial.

He said that his car was damaged and that he suffered losses.

"I lost my laptop and laptop bag, radar detector," he says. "My identity information was stolen off my laptop, along with my checkbook. Somebody tried to make a debit from my account, but I had already gotten LifeLock and locked everything up."

He said he believes that Towne Park employees "had control of my vehicle at the time it was stolen, and we witnessed them leaving it running and unattended."

Carpenter says he's upset with the hotel because officials there passed the buck to the insurance company. The same happened to The Watchdog. When I tried to interview the Fort Worth Hilton's general manager, Stan Kennedy, he said he could not comment since the hotel hires the outside company to manage its valet parking. He directed me there.

Towne Park, based in Annapolis, Md., has 6,000 employees who will park 10 million cars this year, says Tom Wickert, the company's vice president of administration.

Although the two car thefts occurred at the same hotel within five months, Wickert said it was out of the ordinary. He questioned whether it was of importance to Watchdog readers, saying, "It's like getting snow in Fort Worth on the Fourth of July. It's so uncommon it's probably not even worth telling them about it."

Third-party companies that handle parking are not uncommon. At the Omni Fort Worth Hotel, Larry Auth, director of sales and marketing, says the hotel keeps its parked vehicles behind controlled gates. He says he can't recall any cars stolen from the new downtown hotel.

Fort Worth has two ordinances that could apply here. It's against the law to leave an unattended vehicle running. And leaving a key in a parked car is also against the law. Fines for each are $100.

The city renews the license of valet parking companies annually. A license can be denied if the city decides a parking company "endangers the safety of persons or property or is otherwise not in the public interest."

How do you check out a valet parking company? Fort Worth police spokesman Sgt. Pedro Criado came up with a good method to test the professionalism of the service.

Criado says every valet attendant must carry a driver's license because, obviously, he or she is going to drive your car. But he has learned that some attendants don't have one.

He suggests asking an attendant who is going to take your car, "Do you have a driver's license?" Follow up with, "Can I see it?"

It's against state law to let anyone without a license drive your car, so Criado says you should ask the question to protect yourself. The fine for that violation is $152.

The Watchdog column appears Fridays and Sundays.

Dave Lieber, 817-685-3830

Twitter @DaveLieber