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Pittsburgh International Airport logs license plate numbers

Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
Grant Oliver Corp.'s Mark Parker, 50, of the North Side, walks through an extended-parking lot at e Pittsburgh International Airport as he logs license plates on Thursday evening, Aug. 16, 2013.

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Parking at PIT

Tips for remembering where you parked at Pittsburgh International Airport:

• Use your phone to take a picture of your plate. Employees can find your car in minutes.

• Write parking lot information on your parking ticket. People often remember their ticket but forget where they parked.

• Don't back into parking spots. It makes it difficult for parking employees to record and find license plates.

• If all else fails, flag down a Grant Oliver truck. Someone will drive you around the entire lot until you find your car.

Source: Grant Oliver Corp.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Friday, Aug. 16, 2013, 11:03 p.m.

Standing at the edge of the extended-term parking lot at Pittsburgh International Airport on Thursday night, Mark Parker glanced at a license plate, keyed it into his handheld computer and moved to the next one.

Without breaking stride, he walked from car to car recording plates. Elsewhere among more than 13,000 parking spots at the airport, Dennis Blanc was doing the same.

“We go by every car in this lot each night,” said Blanc, 41, of Weirton, W.Va., an employee of Grant Oliver Corp., the company that manages the parking lots at the airport. A team of three can do the job in two to five hours.

That night, 8,106 cars, trucks and vans were parked at Pittsburgh International Airport. Parker and Blanc know. They entered the plates of every one into a database their company maintains.

The database helps travelers find misplaced cars, and police use it to crack unsolved crimes. Some travelers said they didn't realize license plates were logged each night while they're out of town on vacation or business.

“It doesn't bother me,” Erin Brown, 20, of Morgantown, W.Va., said of the airport tracking her license plate. “But I can understand how people could be wary.”

Fred Miller, 55, of North Versailles was skeptical about the effort's effectiveness. If they do not remember where they parked, chances are good they do not remember their license plate numbers.

“Who else do they share (the information) with?” he asked.

Dave Paga, Grant Oliver's manager, said that outside of law enforcement agencies, the database is rarely shared. Someone has to prove in person they own the car before details are shared, Paga said.

“We've found cars out there. I'm not going to deny that we did,” Allegheny County police Inspector David Walsh said. “We have found vehicles from kids that have run away from home. We've found vehicles that have been used in the commission of a crime. And we've found stolen vehicles.”

Company cars have been abandoned in the lot by employees who drove to the airport to catch a flight to a new job with no intention of returning. One man left his car in short-term parking for a year. His parking fee topped $2,000, and he paid it, said Dave Knight, a night supervisor with Grant Oliver.

“A lot of times they don't know their car is here,” Knight said. “Their wife recently left them, and she took off from here.”

The practice is common at airports across the country. Airports in Cleveland, St. Louis, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Baltimore and Tampa record license plate numbers. Some use video cameras.

In Pittsburgh, Grant Oliver uses the data to help travelers locate their vehicles or determine how long they parked and how much they owe if they lose their tickets, Paga said.

“We're sort of unsung heroes,” said Parker, 50, of the North Side. “The data we collect each night is pretty valuable.”

Vehicles left in the lot for 45 days are reported to county police, who check to find out whether they're stolen. Grant Oliver and police try to contact the owners when that time is reached.

Walsh said crime at the airport's parking lots is rare and so is connecting parked cars to crimes.

Dan Amman, 51, of Dormont, a Grant Oliver maintenance worker, recalled when police found $500,000 in the trunk of a car used by an ATM thief who fled Pittsburgh from the airport. He apparently could not take all his cash with him, Amman said.

The bullet-riddled body of Joseph DeMarco, a racketeer under investigation for his involvement in a massage parlor connected to prostitution and drug activities, was found in 1979 stuffed into the trunk of a car parked at the old Greater Pittsburgh International Airport. Airport police became suspicious of the car because it remained parked in short-term parking for several days, according to news reports.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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