By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
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By Jon Campbell
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Yes, it had been towed from Florida—not by A Blue Knight, but by Ajaco Towing. No, Florence Katz's car was not in New York. It was in Ajaco's yard in East Hanover, New Jersey.
"That was the first time I knew that he didn't do the work himself," Katz says of Sclafani. And that's when she and her car entered the Bermuda Triangle.
Ajaco told her that it had her car but would not deliver it to her door, even though that's what her contract called for. Of course, Ajaco told her, she was free to come to New Jersey to get it—after she paid them $1,400.
Katz's round-trip charges should have totaled $1,260. She'd already paid Sclafani $1,890, and now a company she had no idea she was doing business with was demanding $1,400 from her.
She says she told Ajaco that she could prove she paid Sclafani. But Sclafani hadn't paid Ajaco, and the towing company said it was holding her car until someone paid. Jason Cleffi, the owner of Ajaco, told Katz that he hadn't been paid for hauling her car from Florida to New York. In fact, she says, he told her he hadn't even been paid for hauling it to Florida in the first place.
It wasn't only Katz's car that was being held hostage. Inside the Honda were her walker, her laptop, and her medications. "My undergarments," she tells the Voice with quiet anger, "nearly all of them were in the trunk!" Cleffi, she says, assured her that at least she needn't fear her valuables would disappear. Her car was safe in their lot, until she (or Sclafani) paid up.
Stranded by the loss of her car and its contents, Katz stopped going to the gym and e-mailing people. She had to depend on her friends for rides and, worse, the notoriously unreliable Access-a-Ride. Longer walks—sans walker—were all the more difficult, if not impossible. Since she was living on a fixed income, she could not afford to rent a car or pay Ajaco in the hopes of getting her money back, someday, from A Blue Knight.
Just to stay alive, she had to shell out money to get more medication beyond the two weeks' worth she'd flown back with. And, of course, to get new prescriptions, she had to prove that she wasn't engaging in Rush Limbaugh–style doctor shopping.
Katz was in a real bind. Although Sclafani was bound by the judge's order, Ajaco was not. The court order left a gaping hole—dealing with the actual car transporters—and Katz's car had fallen right in the middle of it.
With her children living out of state and a grandson from overseas trying to help her from afar—and an Attorney General taking her complaint about a company in another state that was holding her car hostage—Katz says she was beginning to despair. That's when she met the Bilello family.
Marilyn Bilello, who lives in West Babylon, Long Island, was in a similar fix with Sclafani's outfit: Her car had gone down to Florida, but never came back up. Just like Katz, she had been charged for the trip down, the trip back, and an extra charge for no apparent reason.
She did, however, have one thing Katz didn't have: children nearby to fight on her behalf.
Daughter-in-law Marie took on Bilello's case almost as a full-time job. She tracked down a receipt from when her car had been picked up in Florida for the trip back and saw that two cars had been towed to New Jersey: one belonging to her family, and one belonging to a Florence Katz in Queens. Marie called her up.
"Florence sounded so sweet, and she was in the exact same position as Ma," Marie tells the Voice. "It's pathetic. I mean, this guy is trying to shake down two old ladies, who'd done nothing except pay their bills!"
Bilello's car, like Katz's, was being held hostage at Ajaco for "nonpayment." In some ways, Bilello was worse off than Katz: Her 2008 Honda Civic was not yet paid off. And in the part of Long Island where she lives, there is no Access-a-Ride for seniors. Bilello had to rent a car, and Ajaco told her it was charging her parking fees since she was "refusing" (as she says they put it) to pay up and pick up her vehicle.
So she was making car payments on a vehicle she couldn't use, being charged for parking by the company that wouldn't give it to her, and renting a separate vehicle, with money she couldn't afford to spend, to get around.
Marie spoke to Katz's family in the Midwest and compared notes. Growing impatient with both Sclafani (who was being conspicuously polite, but totally unhelpful) and Cleffi (who, she says, was growing more surly every day), she finally persuaded Cuomo's office in mid-April to call Ajaco. But she says Cleffi subsequently told her, "I don't have to deal with them! I'm Jersey." That's when Marie got on the horn to the New Jersey AG's office and also started pestering the FBI, the federal Department of Transportation, and Cleffi's insurer.