Traffic was beginning to subside when the hunt began. Winston Harper wheeled the truck into the going-home press of metal and chrome. He aimed its wide hood at Stone Mountain. A sliver of moon sliced the night.
Harper cast quick looks at papers detailing his quarry: an ’01 Lexus, ’07 Chrysler 300, ’99 VW Jetta, ’04 Jeep Grand Cherokee. He’d need a quick eye, soft tread, firm voice. Maybe some luck, too.
He touched a gold cross around his neck, a reminder that he doesn’t hunt alone.
“Some use guns,” he said Thursday night. “I choose to take this instead of a gun.”
Harper is a repossession specialist for Atlanta Locators & Recovery Inc. of Tucker. You’d call him a repo man. He tracks down autos whose owners are delinquent in payments and seizes them for banks, finance companies and other lenders. He does most of his work at night, sliding into subdivisions and apartment complexes just as people are flicking off lights and going to sleep.
He’s 54, a member of a fraternity that lost one of its own this month. Repo man Brandon Thomas was shot and killed Nov. 12 after reclaiming a Mustang. His partner, Willie Thackston, also was shot, but survived. Police earlier this week arrested Justin Moore and charged him with the shootings.
The killing highlighted a chancy occupation that’s often practiced under cover of darkness, and not always in safe places. It also prompted some repo companies to assess their procedures to make sure their workers are safe.
For Harper, the shootings underscored what he already knows: It’s best to be polite, patient and persistent. If he doesn’t get the car one night, well, he knows where the owner lives.
“We’re stealing for a living,” he said. “But it’s legal.”
The lights of Stone Mountain Village shone in the gathering dark. The Ford F-450, a bobtailed machine with a boom held high as a rooster tail, turned right. Harper slowed, turned again, turned a third time, turned some more. A GPS system told him he’d arrived. The white truck crept into a subdivision where brick ranches were beginning to close yellow eyes for the night.
The target: a new Toyota Camry. Harper stopped, squinting at the shadows in a narrow driveway. Nothing.
Then, headlights. A new Camry, gleaming even in the dark, rolled around the corner. It slowed momentarily, then zipped past. Harper watched its red taillights flicker, then vanish. Was the owner spooked by the sight of a wrecker at his driveway?
“We’ll come back later,” Harper said. As the clock crept toward 10, he headed toward downtown.
Job ‘a little different’
It’s not like “Repo Man,” the goofy 1984 film about a handful of misanthropes who yank cars for a living. Nor does the business bear much resemblance to “Operation Repo,” a cable TV show in which the repo guys choke car owners while chasing their cars.
Repo people have rules. According to laws in Georgia and elsewhere, repo men cannot “breach the peace” in pursuit of a vehicle. They cannot remove one from a garage, for example, but can take one from a driveway. They cannot do anything without the proper paperwork, signed and authorized by the lender.
The rest, said Les McCook, executive director of the American Recovery Association, is open to interpretation. The nonprofit organization, based in Austin, Texas, comprises nearly 250 agencies across the nation. It recently wrapped up its annual convention in Nashville, where experts swapped safety tips, discussed the latest in repo technology and managed to share a few beers.
“We go to work every day, like most people, then we come home,” said McCook, who gave up a 30-year repo career to head the organization. “Our job is just a little different.”
A job that can be deadly. According to some estimates, two repo men are killed on the job each year. By that measure, this year has been a bloody one. Four recovery specialists have been killed in 2009, said Joe Taylor, an Ocala insurance agent who specializes in policies for repo companies. Two others have been shot and wounded, and two auto owners have been killed when recovery agents’ trucks ran over them, he said.
“I can’t even begin to tell the number that’s been shot at,” he said.
Like the ARA, Taylor supports statutes requiring all recovery firms to have special training to get a repo license. Most states, Georgia included, don’t require such a license.
The hazards aren’t limited to the United States, either. A German man used a chain saw and homemade gasoline bombs to chase off some repo guys who came to his home.
Most encounters, said McCook, are civil, so long as the repo man behaves properly.
“When you show up at someone’s door, you’re dealing with people whose issues are unfathomable to you,” he said. “You don’t shame them in front of their family. You don’t shame them in front of their neighbors.”
It’s best to be safe — and be ready for the worst. “Dangerous people are out there,” he said. “It’s just a freak of nature.”
Knocking on doors
Harper stood in a small pool of light cast by a 100-watt bulb hanging above the front door of a sagging bungalow. Light shown from two closed windows near the rear. According to his paperwork, a man at this address was delinquent on payments for an ’07 Impala. It was nowhere in sight. He rang the doorbell.
Harper rang a second, third time. He knocked.
“Who is it?” A woman’s voice, clipped and angry, echoed from the other side of the door “What you want?”
Harper identified himself, then asked if the car owner lived in the bungalow.
Harper shrugged, returned to his truck and reached for a sheet of paper. “CONTACT US WITHIN 24 HOURS,” it commanded. He wrote his name and cellphone number on the paper, folded it, and stuck it in the door jamb. “People see that, they’ll usually call,” he said.
A cool wind scattered leaves from the live oaks on the street. Midnight was approaching. The truck’s boom rattled as it headed west.
Repos have slowed
This is big business. Manheim Auto Auctions, which sells more repossessed cars than any dealer in the nation, says repo men and women will reclaim 1.9 million cars, vans and trucks this year. Manheim, like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution a division of Cox Enterprises, estimates that 1.6 million of those vehicles will be sold at auction.
The repo company’s take? The ARA estimates that firms get $325-$400 for every vehicle they retrieve. Some agencies pay their drivers by the hour to hunt down vehicles. Others, such as Harper’s employer, pay on commission: You get paid when the car is in the lot.
The driver’s take? Harper, wheeling out of a QT, smiled. “There’s money in the business.”
The business has been good to his boss, Farrish Holbrook. The office of the self-described “redneck from Cumming” is crammed with UGA football photos. When he talks, it’s a voice so country you can hear a hound bay in the distance.
He began repossessing cars more than 20 years ago from a little place in Gwinnett County. Now he has four wreckers, two tilt-bed trucks and an office full of women who answer phones.
Once, said Holbrook, someone took a shot at him. Another time, a deputy told him to beat it: No one, said the deputy, would take voters’ cars in his county.
He was a lot busier two years ago than now, said Holbrook. When the economy tanked, it caught a lot of people by surprise. Suddenly, they couldn’t afford the notes on their cars, and so the repo trucks were busy at night. Holbrook figures his company took in about 115 vehicles every week.
Still, business is steady — “not that I’m getting rich.”
Coming up empty
Harper waited, the truck’s V-10 purring like a big cat. The wrecker stopped outside a gated Sandy Springs apartment complex. Inside, he hoped, was a Jeep Grand Cherokee that was on his list of possible seizures. When a young woman punched in the code and drove through the gate, he followed.
Harper took an inventory of parked SUVs as he drove: Chevy, Ford, Honda. Then — a Jeep ... the wrong Jeep.
He watched a woman enter an apartment, then leave moments later.
“Drug deal, probably.”
It was 4 a.m., maybe a little after. The night’s take, after more than 200 miles and stops in Stone Mountain, Chamblee, Doraville, Sandy Springs, Dunwoody and Atlanta: nothing. It was time to head east again.
The houses in the Stone Mountain subdivision were all dark when Harper returned to look for that new Camry. He guided his truck along the same road, past the same curves, stopping before reaching the narrow driveway.
This time, two cars hid in its shadows. He stepped carefully, avoiding the dried leaves on the sidewalk.
He aimed a flashlight the size of a nightstick at the cars. No new Camry. Zero again.
Harper sighed, retraced his steps, flicked off his flashlight. A brand-new Friday, blushing as if it had done something wrong, was peeking over Stone Mountain. Night was nearly done, and so was he. He drove back to Tucker.
Morning traffic was beginning to build when Harper wheeled the truck into the parking lot and walked into the office he’d left nearly 12 hours earlier. His efforts had not yielded him a dollar.
“I say I might sleep for a while,” he said. “Then go knock on some doors.”
That new Camry was out there somewhere.
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