ATLANTA (FOX 5 Atlanta) - If you got a letter from the city of Atlanta warning your business had no permit and should stop immediately, you'd probably take it seriously. That is, unless you run an unlawful valet company.
These are the guys who park your car when you pull up to a restaurant or nightclub. If you're required to pay more than just a tip, they're supposed to have a special park-for-hire permit from the city. The city's aim is not just to protect your car. But protect lives.
Like what happened to Ebony McCrae-Curley.
She was in town to celebrate the recent marriage of some friends. On April 15, 2017, she stood outside Joe's on Juniper waiting along with others for the valet to bring up their car. As the surveillance video showed, the valet had trouble putting a Mercedes into park. Instead of hitting the brake, he accidentally pressed the accelerator. The car suddenly sped forward into the waiting crowd of customers, pushing several into another parked car. Ebony was crushed to death. Several others had to be hospitalized.
Turns out the valet service, which wasn't owned by the restaurant, had no city permit to operate there. The location had never been inspected.
“She was not left with an appropriately safe place to stand in the event something like that happens," explained attorney Alex Hoffspiegel as he stood across the street from the restaurant on the two-year anniversary of the accident. He's suing on behalf of Ebony's father.
A few months after the accident the parking company applied for a valet permit. The city turned them down, citing "significant safety concerns" with the location's layout. But the valet operation continued.
In September 2018 the city issued violations to the restaurant and parking company along with a Cease and Desist order. But two years after the accident, a valet service still operates on the same spot.
Midtown residents want to know why.
“It saddens me that the city of Atlanta won't protect the citizens better than they are," said neighbor Bill Gentry.
The valet service hired by Joe's on Juniper no longer charges a fee. If they don't charge, they don't need a permit. They've also marked off a place along the sidewalk for patrons to stand while waiting for their car. It's unclear whether the city's "significant safety concerns" listed in the C&D were ever addressed, whether it's enough to prevent another tragedy.
Neighbors point to a larger problem: other valet companies continuing to park cars... years after the city issued cease and desist orders telling them to stop.
Surveillance video recorded outside the Boogalou Lounge on Ponce shows the valet service parking customer cars in the handicapped spots across the street. That's not allowed. In fact, their drop off location blocks one lane of a busy public road -- Ponce de Leon Avenue -- something the city of Atlanta said in a Cease and Desist order you can't do even if you have a permit. The video showed one customer opening his door while parked in the right lane, just as another car sped by. The driver's door took a direct hit, smashing the window.
"You have no security that you're safe," complained Gentry.
The videos reviewed by the FOX 5 I-Team were recorded two years after the city sent Boogalou a Cease and Desist Order for their valet operation. The nightclub does have a permitted lot across the street, but not in front of the club where the valets operate. In an email, Boogalou would not answer our question about why it continues to block traffic on a state road, but said they're asking the state give them a clearance letter that will help them qualify for a city permit. They say they’re hoping the city will work them to find a solution.
So what's the city doing about the overall problem of unlawful valets? Lately, not much.
Last summer, the city Public Works office compiled a list of 15 “illegal parking facilities” and asked Atlanta police to help “address these issues.”
We checked out one on Piedmont Avenue. They're still charging money to valet your car. The issues have not been addressed.
In fact, Atlanta Police could show us no evidence they've taken any action on that list.
In a statement, APD said our questions prompted a meeting with Public Works to review that list. “We have identified several locations throughout the City in need of enforcement,” a spokesman said.
Mark Hoerster knows where they can start.
From his 15th floor condo, Hoerster has a big picture view of the problem.
In 2017, the city ticketed the valet company on Peachtree Place for operating without a license.
In 2018, Mark shot video of a valet company set up in the middle of Peachtree Place to park cars, sometimes causing huge traffic backups.
In 2019, the FOX 5 I-Team saw it for ourselves.
Even worse, the illegal activity goes on in front of off-duty officers working extra jobs at the clubs.
"It happens right under their eyes," he complained. "And they see it happening."
Mark sent his video to the city. In May, 2018, Public Works issued a Cease and Desist order.
One year later, not much has ceased.
"They've instructed them to leave," Hoerster explained. "But they come back. I think it really boils down to a lack of persistent enforcement.”
Midtown residents hoped the two-year anniversary of Ebony McCrae-Curley's tragic death would spur the city to take action. They gathered on the spot of the accident to say a prayer.
“Dear God, please be with Ebony," said Gentry. "And be with her family as they go through these tough times.”
Her divorced parents have each filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the restaurant operator and valet company for what happened in April 2017. The restaurant responded by denying any wrongdoing including the lack of any "reasonable safety precautions." They've asked for a jury trial.