ST. PETERSBURG, FL – Orlando attorney James "Skip" Fowler was blissfully asleep in his room at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort when a parking valet mistakenly handed over the keys to his $300,000 Ferrari to the wrong guy.
Fowler, 73, a senior partner at Fowler, O’Quinn, Feeney & Sneed, can joke about it now. But when he received the midnight phone call from the St. Petersburg police on July 28 reporting that his Ferrari had been recovered, Fowler admits his first response was hardly a chuckle.
On July 27, Fowler drove his prized bright yellow 2014 Ferrari 458 Italia Spider to the Vinoy to attend a work conference.
The sleek Spider hard-top convertible is among three Ferraris that Fowler owns. The Ferrari, he said, was his dream car long before he could afford to actually purchase one.
When he was ready to purchase his Italian sports car, he refused to buy it off a sales lot. Instead, he and his wife flew to the factory in Italy to personally pick up the car.
He said his initial reaction upon receiving the call from police informing him that his Ferrari had been stolen was bewilderment.
How could someone else get his hands on the keys to his treasured Ferrari? Fowler clearly remembered handing them to a valet at the 4-star luxury resort that prides itself on its service and security.
According to the police report, the valet admitted he began getting busy around midnight. As he rushed to serve customers, he didn’t think twice when a couple casually requested the keys to the Ferrari.
The man requesting the car didn’t even produce a ticket validating his right to the Ferrari, according to police reports. He simply told the valet that he’d left the ticket in the car and promised to retrieve it – once he had the keys.
"Luckily, they didn’t get very far," said Fowler.
The driver, Levi Miles, 28, of 175 2nd St. S, St. Petersburg, and his passenger, Chloe Rimmer, 24, were about to access the Interstate 275 ramp at 28th Street South about 12:30 a.m. when a police officer noticed that the car’s tail lights weren’t working and pulled them over.
In truth, said Fowler, the tail lights were just fine. He said Levi didn’t know how to operate the precision sports car.
"The Ferrari is a low-slung car so it takes some experience to drive it," said Fowler.
Crowned a "supercar" by Kelley Blue Book, the 458 Spider has a 562-horsepower V8 engine that can go from standstill to 60 mph in under 3.4 seconds. Its top speed is 202 mph.
When Fowler finally retrieved his car, he discovered about $10,000 damage to the undercarriage where the car had bottomed out in the hands of the inexperienced Ferrari driver.
The police officer confirmed that the driver seemed to have "difficulty" driving the car. That’s one reason he was suspicious of Levi’s claim to be the rightful owner of the Ferrari.
But lack of skill might not have been the only reason. The officer discovered about 2 grams of cocaine on the car’s console, the police report said.
Levi later told police he hadn’t intended to steal the Ferrari. He just wanted to "borrow" it for a few hours to impress his companion.
Additionally, he told police that it isn’t technically stealing if the valet freely hands over the keys. The police didn’t buy his argument. He was arrested and charged with grand theft auto and drug possession. He’s scheduled for a pre-trial hearing on Jan. 29.
As far as Fowler is concerned, the Vinoy’s parking valet was a bit too free with the Ferrari’s keys.
Earlier this month, Fowler filed a civil suit against the Vinoy’s owner, Marriott International, and the valet service employed by the Vinoy, Seven One Seven Parking Enterprises Inc., for gross negligence.
Although he’s no stranger to a courtroom, Fowler said his decision to sue was a last resort.
He submitted a claim for the damage to his car to the Vinoy’s insurance company. The claim was denied.
"If I was their lawyer, I’d settle out of court," Fowler said. "They have 20 days to respond to my suit. I’m hoping someone comes to their senses before then."
He added that he was partly motivated to sue by a desire to "teach them (the Vinoy) a lesson and make sure they’re more careful in the future."
Lest you get the impression that Fowler is just some rich guy who enjoys flaunting his wealth, in fact, Fowler said he enjoys putting his Ferrari collection to philanthropic use.
For the past three years, he’s been among more than 40 teams to participate in the annual Fireball Run, a 2,000-mile road race intent on spreading the word about the thousands of missing children in the country. Organizers credit the efforts of the Fireball Run participants with helping to locate more than 35 missing children.
He drove the Spider during the 10th and 11th Fireball Runs, but drove a different Ferrari last year.
"The Fireball Run is really an effort to locate missing children and, at the same time, have some great adventures and meet really interesting people across the United States," Fowler said.
Photos via James "Skip" Fowler