Missouri business owner sentenced to 2-years in prison for illegally tampering with emissions controls

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The owner of a Kirbyville, Mo., towing company was sentenced in federal court for leading a conspiracy to illegally tamper with the emissions controls of the company’s diesel towing vehicles.

“This business owner intentionally polluted the air in southwest Missouri for more than a decade with massive amounts of cancer-causing toxins in violation of federal law,” said U.S. Attorney Teresa Moore. “He pursued personal profit at the expense of the environment and the health of his neighbors. And he brazenly continued dumping dangerous pollutants into the air, and ultimately into the lungs of everyone in the community, even after pleading guilty and being admonished by the court.”

Dennis Cleveland, 73, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Bough to two years in federal prison without parole. The court also ordered Cleveland to pay a $255,000 fine.

“The defendant in this case conspired to bypass and disable the emission control equipment on heavy-duty diesel engines,” said Special Agent in Charge Lance Ehrig of EPA’s criminal investigation program in Missouri. “This sentencing demonstrates that EPA will vigorously prosecute those who violate laws designed to protect our communities from harmful air pollution.”

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.

These cases are being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Patrick Carney. They were investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency.