The office of the Springfield, Southern Division, U.S. District Court. (Photo by Shannon Cay)

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The owner of Affordable Towing was sentenced to two years in federal prison Tuesday morning for leading a conspiracy to illegally tamper with the emissions controls of the company’s diesel towing vehicles.

Dennis Cleveland, 73, of Kirbyville was also ordered to pay $255,000 in fines.

Prior to sentencing Cleveland, U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Bough said he spent the morning watching recordings of Cleveland’s jailhouse video visits. Cleveland apparently spoke with at least two other people about moving assets and trusts between Affordable Towing and Cleveland’s ministry program.

Bough said he also reviewed an interview Cleveland gave KY3 in March. In that interview, Cleveland admitted to altering the trucks, said he didn’t “think it was a big deal,” and stated he doesn’t agree with the law but would comply with the law. He also complained that having to comply with the Clean Air Act was “bankrupting the whole trucking industry.”

Dennis Cleveland pleaded guilty in March to tampering with and disabling the emission-control devices on his diesel-powered tow trucks in order to cut costs. (Booking photo by Greene County Sheriff’s Office)

Cleveland appeared in court wearing handcuffs and the orange jumpsuit uniform of an inmate in Benton County, Missouri, where he is being detained. He pleaded guilty in March, but Judge David P. Rush initially allowed Cleveland to remain free with bond conditions. Cleveland violated those bond conditions and was arrested and jailed in July.

Bough reminded Cleveland that the federal government notified Cleveland in September 2022 that he was under investigation, but Cleveland continued to violate the law by operating the trucks. The judge also reminded Cleveland that he told the KY3 reporter that he believed having to follow emission regulations was destroying the trucking industry.

“If you had done what the  government told you to do in that target letter, you would not be here in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs,” Bough said. “If you had done what Judge Rush told you, sir, you would not be here in an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Carney, too, spoke about how Cleveland continued to violate the law after he was notified about the investigation, after he pleaded guilty to the charges and after he told the KY3 reporter he planned to stop. 

“He wanted to line his pockets at the expense of our community’s health,” Carney said. “His actions demonstrate a lack of respect for the law.

“It’s a big deal. It’s the law. Nobody is above it,” Carney said. “The defendant believed he was.”

With regards to Cleveland’s claims of being dedicated to his ministry to help felons and homeless people, Carney said: “The court is not buying what you are selling.”

Cleveland’s attorney Jason Coatney called his client a “simple person” who did not drive fancy cars.

“Every time he comes to my office, he is covered in grease,” Coatney said. “Mr. Cleveland is a stubborn man. He believed he is doing right.”

Coatney said he believed the 72 days Cleveland spent in jail and the fine are appropriate punishments. 

“And Mr. Cleveland perceives what happened to his reputation as punishment,” Coatney said.

Cleveland echoed his attorney’s statements.

“The destruction to me personally has been terrible,” Cleveland said. “I worked 21 years to establish Affordable Towing.

“I’m ashamed of what I’ve done. It’s destroyed a lot of aspects of my life,” he said. “I’m deeply sorry.”

Details about the case

Following the hearing, the Western District of Missouri sent a news release to media outlets. It read, in part: 

Cleveland is the owner of Affordable Towing, a roadside, recovery, hauling, and mobile repair provider for commercial and private automobiles and vehicles throughout southwest Missouri. Affordable Towing utilized heavy-duty, commercial diesel trucks to tow and haul away vehicles to repair facilities.

On March 9, 2023, Cleveland pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act and one count of tampering with a Clean Air Act monitoring device. Cleveland admitted that, since 2011, he has directed his employees to physically disable emissions control components on multiple heavy-duty diesel tow trucks.

Each one of Cleveland’s 12 illegally altered tow trucks was responsible for releasing the equivalent pollution of 1,140 legally operating tow trucks, according to court documents. If each of these illegally modified tow trucks operated only once a day (which the investigation revealed occurred far more frequently) that would be the equivalent of 13,200 tow trucks that have legal emission systems being operated every day.

Even after being contacted by law enforcement in September 2022, Cleveland continued operating his illegally modified fleet of tow trucks. After pleading guilty, and being warned by the court that continuing such operations would violate federal law as well as his plea agreement, Cleveland never stopped using his illegally modified tow trucks. As a result, Cleveland’s bond was revoked on July 20, 2023, and he has since been detained in federal custody.

Cleveland conspired with Robert Dyche, 67, of Springfield, the owner and operator of Full Flash Tuning, which specializes in illegally tampering with the on-board diagnostic systems on these vehicles. Cleveland caused the Affordable Towing trucks to be tampered with to save money by avoiding maintenance expenses on emissions control systems and by spending less money on fuel.

This tampering is frequently referred to as “tuning” or “flashing” an on-board diagnostic system. One purpose for “tuning” is to allow the vehicles to continue to seemingly operate normally while the emissions control system is disabled, rather than forcing the vehicle’s engine into a state known as “limp mode,” which greatly limits the maximum speed of the vehicle, incentivizing the driver or owner to repair the malfunction. The use of “tuning” thereby serves to reduce the high costs associated with maintaining or repairing components of the emissions control systems on heavy-duty diesel trucks.

As a consequence of “tuning,” tampered vehicles spew substantially more deleterious pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (Nox), carbon monoxide (CO), non-methane hydrocarbons (NMHC), and particulate matter (PM) into the air, presenting a risk to the environment and public health.

Cleveland, through Affordable Towing, contracted with Dyche on multiple occasions to “tune” or “flash” the emissions control systems of Affordable Towing vehicles, thereby causing multiple fleet vehicles to be altered in such a way that the vehicles released pollutants into the air that far exceeded the legally allowable amounts under the Clean Air Act. Each diesel truck would continue to operate normally, as if the vehicle were operating in accord with existing Clean Air Act restrictions, rather than go into limp mode.

In addition to personally tuning Affordable Towing vehicles, Dyche, on multiple occasions, would take the vehicles to an unidentified entity in Rogersville, Mo., to “tune” the vehicles, for which he was compensated by Affordable Towing.

Dyche pleaded guilty on March 13, 2023, to one count of conspiracy to violate the Clean Air Act and awaits sentencing.

Jackie Rehwald

Jackie Rehwald is a reporter at the Springfield Daily Citizen. She covers public safety, the courts, homelessness, domestic violence and other social issues. Her office line is 417-837-3659. More by Jackie Rehwald