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Ogemaw County towing rift leads to allegations, MSP probe

Insurance fraud investigation involving deputy awaiting prosecutor review
Published: Feb. 5, 2021 at 11:28 AM EST
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OGEMAW COUNTY, Mich. (WJRT) - Intentionally crashing an SUV into a tree with a deer strapped to it, threats over a gun sold by a deputy and promoting a fight supervised by a deputy.

These are just a few of the allegations coming out of what can be described as “a towing war” in Ogemaw County.

Law enforcement agencies have policies on which wrecker company is called to tow away a car after an accident or another incident. The person who needs the tow might have a preference, but it’s usually up to the law enforcement agency if they don’t.

They have a towing policy on which company to call in Ogemaw County, but one company says its not being followed.

“Closest proximity within the county,” is how D&N Garage co-owner Jake Francisco reads the policy.

He said the county hasn’t been doing that since sometime in 2019. His company, which is about seven miles south of West Branch, is one of the bigger tow companies in the county, and he said law enforcement agencies began to use another towing company about 13 miles away in Arenac County.

“Calls from the sheriff’s office all but went away completely -- oftentimes the following months down to zero calls from the sheriff’s office entirely,” Francisco said.

He believes the company was shunned by the sheriff’s department after Trista Smith-Spencer, a co-owner of D&N, divorced her husband Michael Spencer. He allegedly told his ex-wife there would be trouble.

“They are not going to call. They are going to run you out of business. You will never make it on your own employment,” Francisco claims.

Smith-Spencer has a 2020 assault conviction stemming from an incident involving her ex-husband. After they broke up, Michael Spencer started his own towing business in neighboring Arenac County.

Francisco said Spencer’s tow business was not properly licensed in the state. ABC12 did some checking and it turns out Spencer did not have license to work with law enforcement.

But the back of a business card from an Ogemaw County sheriff deputy has Spence Towing and Recovery written on it. The card was handed out to people in need of a tow.

Again, the Ogemaw County policy says the closest tow company should get preference, which would rarely be a truck in Arenac County. Officers are not permitted to recommend any particular wrecker service.

“The six months he towed illegally, he took the most calls from the sheriff’s department out of any company in the area. As an illegal entity, he was predominantly used by the Ogemaw County Sheriff’s Department,” Francisco said.

The Michigan State Police may have used Spencer’s new towing business for awhile, before the department was informed that he was operating without obtaining all the necessary licensing.

Michigan State Police issued the following statement about the situation: “Spence Wrecker was not on the no-preference list for the MSP West Branch post. If Spence Wrecker was ever used by MSP, it was used sparingly.”

Out of the towing dispute came allegations against some of the deputies. Deputy Brian Gilbert Jr., the son of current sheriff Brian Gilbert, was investigated for allegedly participating in an insurance fraud scheme in 2018, in which he had his personal SUV totaled.

Francisco said Spencer totaled the SUV for Gilbert while Spencer was still working for D&N.

“Brought it here, strapped a deer to one of the trees and then drove the Yukon into the deer. He had to put a pillow in front of him and gauze in the mouth, and intentionally wrecked this Yukon,” Francisco claimed.

A text message between Spencer and his ex-wife, Smith-Spencer, confirms Spencer crashed the Yukon for Gilbert Jr.

The Michigan State Police investigation has been forwarded to the Arenac County Prosecutor’s Office for a review to determine whether criminal charges will be filed. The Michigan Attorney General’s Office appointed the Arenac County prosecutor to handle the case after the Ogemaw County Prosecutor’s Office referred it to the state.

Another deputy sold the Spencers a department pistol in 2019 that was being replaced with a newer model.

But after the divorce, the deputy, once he found out it was in Trista’s possession, allegedly sent this a message, writing in a text message: “Listen, I want my gun back that you took. The gun is registered in my name. If it’s not returned, I will be filing it as stolen.”

Francisco also said another deputy wanted to set up a fight with Spencer.

“I was offered to have a fight out in the woods with Mike, if that’s what it came to -- a chaperoned fight by one of the deputies,” he claimed.

The fight never happened. Gilbert, who just won election as sheriff, had no comment on the towing issue, his son’s insurance fraud investigation, the gun issue or the proposed fight. Former Sheriff Howie Hanft also had no comment.

Gilbert Jr. could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, Duane Hadley, said the allegations against the deputy are baseless. Ogemaw County Administrator Tim Dolehanty said “the county is looking to review its towing policy.”

Spencer also could not be reached for comment. A check of state records shows Spencer now is licensed to tow for law enforcement agencies.

Francisco just wants his company to be treated fairly.

“I still love law enforcement, but I have a new understanding of how local law enforcement can act now,” he said.

Francisco and Smith-Spencer, who have filed a civil rights complaint, are planning a lawsuit against Ogemaw County.

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