First Friday is supposed to be a night to celebrate culture in the downtown arts district, but it turned into a $305 headache and a near riot for 100 drivers when their cars were towed off two vacant lots they have used before.
The vehicle owners grew into an angry mob at the nearby storage yard, Tow Guys, where drivers were told they would need $305 in cash each to get their cars back.
A local filmmaker, Derek Stonebarger, caught the ruckus on video, filming a crying artist forced off the lot after trying to retrieve artwork from her car for a Saturday show.
At one point, a Tow Guys employee hits the camera, yelling, "Get the (expletive) out of here, dude. If you don't take that camera out of my face, I'm going to break the (expletive) thing."
Many of the vehicle owners have called the city of Las Vegas to complain and try to recoup their money, spokesman Jace Radke said, but the city wasn't involved in the towing. The two vacant lots, off Imperial Avenue at Main Street and Casino Center Boulevard, are privately owned.
State law allows landowners to hire tow companies to remove "any vehicle" parked there as long as a "sign is displayed in plain view declaring parking to be prohibited."
"It's unfortunate, but it happened," Radke said on Monday. "There are signs out there today."
However, vehicle owners contend the signs weren't there Friday.
"There were no signs in the lot, none at all," said Neil Gilfillan about the Main Street and Imperial Avenue lot, adding that he and others looked, finding an office-paper-sized sign facedown on the ground. "How would anybody be expected to see that?"
Erin Sullivan, another vehicle owner, confirmed Gilfillan's story.
The landowners, Shawn Lewinter and LV Blvd. Casino Center LLC, didn't returned calls seeking comment.
But Clark Whitney, general manager of Tow Guys, did comment.
"We very scrupulously follow the law for every tow," Whitney said, adding that none of the towing fee money is given to the landowner, which would be illegal. "People are never happy. There's no good reason to have your car towed, same as getting a parking ticket."
He said the landowners decided to no longer allow parking during First Fridays because of all the garbage left behind.
Whether there were signs "in plain view" or not on Friday is difficult to determine. Either way, vehicle owners contend it was an underhanded move earning Tow Guys $30,000 if all the drivers pay.
"They affected lots of lives for no good reason," said Gilfillan, who said he will never attend any more First Fridays.
Though city officials claim they have no authority here, it's not good news for Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman's goal of revitalizing downtown.
Bill Belot said he has been frequenting First Friday "religiously" for years.
"There's a lot of traffic," he said. "If people can fit a car there, they'll do it."
He said landowners should be lenient for the one night a month the event comes around, especially because it's for the good of the community. First Friday organizer Cindy Funkhouser said this is the first time she had heard of such a mass towing during First Friday.
Las Vegas police spokesman Jay Rivera said officers' hands are tied. He said vehicle owners could go to small claims court and argue the no-parking signs weren't in "plain view," as the law requires. They have a good chance of recouping their $305 each, he said.
"The fact that 50 people didn't see the signs indicates that they didn't ignore them," Rivera said.
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279.