By Sam Levin
By Jessica Lussenhop
By Sam Levin
By Timothy Lane
By Sam Levin
By Dennis Brown
By Chris Parker
By Sam Levin
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.
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city