Spirit of St. Louis – Pick Your Charity, Pick Your Car

Cars repeatedly abandoned at St. Louis Airport, racking up thousands in fines

ST. LOUIS – The Fox Files found cars abandoned for years in a place where you might least expect it – the airport. We began our investigation after Kansas City police found a dead person inside a car at its airport.

Family members reported the individual missing months earlier and wondered how no one would notice someone dead in the front seat of a car.

Fox 2/KPLR 11 looked at St. Louis-Lambert International Airport. You cannot wait around for even a few seconds before someone tells you to move your car. TSA doesn’t want someone leaving explosives. But in the parking lot just across from the pick-up and drop off zones, the Fox Files found car after car after car abandoned. They had flat tires, expired plates, some without plates, and dusty windows. We found one sitting so long the dust was thick and caked on.

Another had a message written in the dust: “move this.” An abandoned truck wasn’t even in a parking space. You can see the air traffic control tower from where a Honda Pilot was abandoned. It’s right above the pick-up zone where signs say “No parking: Violators will be towed.”

You can see on Google Earth maps just how long the truck has been abandoned. It shows up parked the same way, right on the white line, just as we found it. It’s on last year's map, then in 2015, 2014, 2013, and 2012. It does not show up on the map for 2011, which means it showed up about six years ago. Fox Files investigators found it’s connected to a collision repair company in Texas. We called them, but the company claimed to have no record of the vehicle.

Fox Files also tracked down the owner of a Ford Explorer who did remember the vehicle. The owner said he now lives in the Czech Republic. He left the truck “back in 2016” when it was supposed to be picked up by a relative. The owner of a Honda Civic is now in the Air Force. He wrote on Facebook that he left on a flight for Texas on August 9, 2014.

The man’s sister messaged us: “My brother sold that car to a buddy of his when he left...I guess the guy never went and got it.”

Then a Nissan pickup. It’s only been here six months, but it’s not even in a parking space. Fox Files tracked the owner, Michael Talignani, who lives in Los Angeles.

“I was shocked,” he said. “I was very happy to hear you found the truck.”

Talignani said his relative was supposed to get it, but couldn’t find it.

“There’s no way I thought the car would be there for that long,” he said. “Who knows how many other cars people could just ditch at the airport and they’ll just stick around. Who knows what any of the other cars could have in them. I definitely think it is a security risk.” St. Louis Airport Director Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge said it's not a security risk. She said airport security records show these three cars were all parked on their property last December.

Below is a transcript of a conversation between Fox Files investigator Chris Hayes and Hamm-Niebruegge:

Hayes: “We did some digging and we think they’re wrong on four occasions.”

Hamm-Niebruegge: “Okay?”

Hayes: “We found the first one on the list, the silver Honda Pilot, shows up on a Google Earth map from August 2012.”

Hamm-Niebruegge: “Well, that could’ve come and gone.”

Hayes: “One of the reasons we don’t think it’s come and gone is because it’s even parked on the line there. And in addition, the snapshots from Google Earth, starting in 2012, 2013, 14, 15, 16, 17, show the same position, show it on that line.”

Hamm-Niebruegge: “Okay, I mean we can go back and look at that again just to see, but as I said, we do nightly patrols of them…It is scanned on a nightly basis through everything and (December is) the first time it showed up on that.”

Hayes: “So that wasn’t a case where that technology was acquired in December 2016?”

Hamm-Niebruegge: “We’ve always had the technology. We did have a newer technology so it used to be a hand scanner.” The director said the airport acquired updated automated technology sometime last fall, about when the airport catalogued the vehicles we found abandoned for years. But Hamm-Niebruegge said there was still no danger because of nightly beat checks that sometimes include police K-9s. “But we don’t open the vehicle unless we’ve gotten to the point where we know we’re going to have to have them towed and sold,” she said. Is the airport ever concerned that something dangerous could be hidden in any of the trunks of the abandoned vehicles?

“Again, you look at the vehicles. You run the numbers. If it’s not been involved in a crime, if it’s not reported as stolen, you wouldn’t anticipate that there was a problem,” Hamm-Niebruegge said.

Meanwhile, Talignani asked his brother to try and get his truck. He was surprised the truck started. In his case, the airport was right in its assessment. It had been parked on the property parked six months ago. An attendant told Talignani’s brother it would cost $4,140 to move it off the lot, adding, “This lot is $23 per day and it’s been here since April 10.” His brother turned around to abandon the truck again. He parked it next to another abandoned car. “I’m very surprised they haven’t towed it,” the brother said. “I thought they’d do it after a month to three months, you know, especially that bad boy next to us taking up space. Someone could leave this vehicle with something dangerous in there.”

The Honda Pilot would cost more than $4,300 to drive out of the airport garage. The airport has now towed the cars we found. In a follow up response, a spokesman says these are a very small percentage of cars in their garages.

Read the airport’s post interview follow up response:

As we discussed in our interview, parking lot safety and security is a top priority and just one of our areas of focus in our overall airport security plan. The Airport’s parking operator (and its employees) and Airport Police patrol the garages and parking lots daily. Suspicious vehicles are reported for further investigation. The Airport has and will do visual vehicle checks, license plate checks and VIN# verification on suspected vehicles to determine if they are a threat or can be linked to any crimes or other serious matters. We have no information that any of the vehicles that you identified were deemed suspicious or a threat. This includes the Silver Honda Pilot on your inquiry list.

The Honda Pilot was not a security issue or threat. It was not stolen. It was not wanted by any law enforcement entity. It was not illegally parked. The parking operator and the Airport PD were working together as early as this spring to determine correct (titled) owner. Our records do not indicate the VIN# is associated with Tino’s Collision Repair in TX. Our records show the vehicle was last registered to individuals in Kissimee, Florida. The Airport has sent a certified letter notifying the Florida individuals about this abandoned vehicle. If the Airport gets no response, the vehicle will be sold, based on the Airport’s and City of St. Louis’ procedures on abandoned vehicles.

You also asked for a response regarding the systems in place during this time. Until fall of 2016, the Airport used a Parking Access Revenue Control System (PARCS) that utilized hand-held devices, with someone on foot patrol. The system was outdated and no longer reliable. The Airport switched over to a new PARCS in September of 2016. However, it took approximately one year to work with the vendor on installation, programming and operational issues. The system was fully approved by the Airport in August of 2017.

It was recently learned that within that one-year setup time, the new system was apparently clearing some electronic inventory data after ninety (90) days. The Airport since checked its backup archive data to confirm that one of your vehicles (Black Ford Explorer) did park in September 2016 (vs our electronic records of December 2016), which matches your information.

The Airport has many cases over the years of working to contact owners of abandoned vehicles. The Airport identified seven abandoned vehicles in parking garages and parking lots between 2013 and 2015. The Airport towed those vehicles to a central airport location until there was a certain mass where it was advantageous to begin the liquidation process. Four of the six vehicles listed in your inquiry were already being added to that original pool of vehicles before your inquiry. That pool of vehicles are now set to be towed off airport property and will be sold.

For reference, the Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 garages hold 3,006 spaces collectively. On average, the parking operator processes 892,000 transactions (In/Pay/Out) per year for the garages.