Preston Oates is no stranger to confrontation. His job driving a tow-truck offers ample opportunity for arguments with angry drivers.
One woman, Liliana Barriantos, still remembers her encounter with Oates four years ago. He towed the family pickup truck from an apartment complex on Hilton Head Island and kept it over the weekend until the family could come up with $320 plus a daily impound fee, she said.
The infraction: No valid parking sticker on the truck, said Barriantos.
To her, Oates’ tactics seemed “aggressive.”
Oates’ friends insist, however, that he is neither belligerent nor a hothead. Yet they also say his demeanor seemed to change after a serious motorcycle accident in 2004.
Oates, 27, is now in jail, following the Christmas Eve confrontation that left a Bluffton man dead. Oates, co-owner of Pro Tow towing company, was arrested Monday on charges of manslaughter and felony possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. The dead man, Carlos Alberto Olivera, 34, took six bullets — four in the back, one in the arm and one in the head — during a standoff over a boot Oates had clamped on Olivera’s minivan. The minivan was parked on the street in the Edgefield neighborhood, against the community’s rules.
The encounter turned deadly moments after Olivera showed the pistol he had tucked in his waist to Oates. Olivera didn’t discharge his gun, according to Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner.
‘LIVING MORE FREELY’
Cody Patterson, 26, of Savannah said he has known Oates since the two played field-hockey together on Hilton Head Island in middle school. They both graduated from Hilton Head High School — Oates in 2002 and Patterson in 2003 — but became closer after a 2004 motorcycle crash in which Patterson’s adopted sister and Oates were thrown from Oates’ motorcycle on U.S. 278 in Bluffton.
The crash left Patterson’s sister, 16 years old and dating Oates at the time, in intensive care for weeks. Oates remained in a coma for 45 days, Patterson said.
Patterson thinks Oates changed after the motorcycle accident.
“He had pretty substantial brain injuries and for a while he had to see a psychiatrist. He had some short-term memory loss,” Patterson said. “There were some aspects of his life that did change after that, but he didn’t become violent or aggressive or anything like that.”
The crash made Oates “live life more freely,” Patterson said.
“Preston tried to enjoy life as much as he could,” he said. “He wasn’t the best with his money after that. He kind of used (the accident) as an excuse to spend.”
During Oates’ recovery, his parents, Rita and Paul, and his older brother, Rod, helped manage Pro Tow, a business Oates founded when he was only 18 or 19, Patterson said.
Amber Simmons, who also has known Oates and his family since high school, said she had never seen him behaving aggressively toward anyone. She said she often reprimanded him for giving away his money.
Simmons said Oates was extremely generous after she experienced a tragedy similar to the Oliveras’. On Dec. 4, Simmons’ father was charged with shooting and killing her boyfriend, Alvin Sosa.
Simmons said Oates and his parents helped her and even paid for the funeral arrangements and cremation.
While Simmons said her heart goes out to Olivera’s widow and four children, she insisted Oates is not a “cold-blooded killer.”
She also doubts the shooting had anything to with Olivera being Hispanic: Oates, she said, was close friends with Sosa, who was Honduran.“I’ve never seen him be anything but good to people, never seen him raise a hand at anyone,” Simmons said. “I’ve seen situations where he could have but he always said, ‘I’m a lover not a fighter.’ ”
Patterson said he tagged along with Oates on numerous towing jobs.
“There are always people that get very angry when you tow their vehicle,” he said. “But nine times out of 10, Preston would talk to the person, and he always called police if it escalated.”
GOING TOO FAR?
Patterson said that when he accompanied Oates in the tow truck, he never knew Oates to carry a gun.
“I went with him more than a few times, and he often had pepper spray, just in case, but never a gun,” he said.
A gun did figure in a July 2008 incident at Roller’scq mobile home park on Hilton Head Island, however.
Oates had gone to the mobile home park to repossess a car. When three men approached him with sticks, beer bottles and a handgun, he allegedly fired at them. He was charged with three counts of assault with intent to kill, one count of unlawfully carrying a pistol and one count of discharging a firearm into a dwelling.
The charges ultimately were dropped, and one of the suspects was later charged with five counts of armed robbery, according to the Solicitor’s Office.
Patterson said Oates has had many contracts for towing with area neighborhoods over the years, such as Yacht Cove and The Oaks apartment complex on Hilton Head.
Attempts to reach property managers and property association members at the communities where Oates patrolled were unsuccessful Thursday.Liliana Barriantos, the woman whose pickup was towed from The Oaks parking lot by Oates, said he went too far.
“I came outside and the car was being pulled onto the truck, and he said I would have to pay $450 in cash if I wanted it,” Barriantos said. “We couldn’t pay that amount — it was too expensive — so he towed it.”
As was the case with her vehicle, she said Pro Tow usually checked the complex’s parking lot on Friday nights, meaning residents whose cars were towed had to wait until Monday to retrieve them from his impound lot.
“We couldn’t go ’til Monday and we figured we could talk to a manager about the cost, but we didn’t know he was the owner,” she said. “There were over 15 other cars there from The Oaks.”
The family had to pay $320 cash for the vehicle plus a per-day impound fee, Barriantos said.
In the Edgefield neighborhood, it is unclear whether the homeowner’s association still has a contract with Pro Tow.
John Mack, president of Edgefield’s homeowners’ association board of directors, has repeatedly declined to comment.
Craig A. Fenstermaker, a spokesman for IMC Resort Services Inc., the Hilton Head Island-based property management company that maintains Edgefield, said in an e-mail Monday that the company is not involved in hiring or supervising Edgefield’s towing contractor.
“All vendors chosen for Edgefield are selected and approved by the Edgefield HOA Board of Directors,” he wrote in the e-mail.