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"We're in stealth mode." William Negron cruises down a darkened street, lights off, looking for a 1985 white Mercedes. "There it is," he says. He pulls past it, parks half a block away, jumps out of his tow truck, and walks nonchalantly back toward the car, which is parked in the driveway of a one-story house in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Delray Beach. It's almost 3:00 in the morning, and there isn't another soul around.
Reaching the Mercedes, Negron shines a flashlight on the left corner of the dashboard and reads the vehicle identification number. Satisfied that this is the right car, he trots back up the street. "Show time!" he announces before throwing the truck in reverse. Negron's rig intentionally bears little resemblance to a tow truck; it's a converted pickup with a low profile. He has no identifying marks painted on its sides. And from inside the specially designed cab, he can operate all towing devices. He flips one switch, and a forklift-like metal arm lowers to street level. As the arm slips under the Mercedes, Negron flips a second switch, and two joints on the arm swing out and around the Mercedes's tires, locking them in a metal frame. As this step is accomplished, Negron hits a third switch on his control box, and the rear of the car is lifted off the ground. Simultaneously he begins driving away.
Elapsed time from the moment he began backing into the driveway until he's bounding down the street with the Mercedes: 22 seconds.
"They don't always go that easy," Negron chuckles as he turns the corner.
His assistant, Henry Pinto, nods in agreement. "That's one of the easiest repossessions you're ever going to see," he adds.
They should know. Between them they estimate they have snagged more than 2500 vehicles in their careers as repo men. "Basically we're bounty hunters," Negron says, "but instead of people, we go after property -- cars, boats, motor homes. We're private detectives with a tow truck."
After he is about five blocks from the house, Negron pulls to the side of the road. He knows that the owner of the Mercedes is an elderly gentleman, which is one reason he made this the first stop of the night. "The old people, you've got to hit them before 5:00 a.m., because for some reason they get up really early," he explains. In this case, Negron is also concerned that the Mercedes owner may have left some sort of prescription medicine in the car.
So as Henry secures the rear wheels with straps for the drive back to Dade, Negron wiggles a thin strip of metal known as a Slim Jim down the front passenger window and quickly pops open the door. "Just because I repo his car doesn't mean he shouldn't have his medication," Negron says while searching the glove box. He doesn't find anything. "If I had, we would have called the police and asked them to return it to him."
The call, it turns out, wouldn't have been necessary. As Negron steps out of the car, two police cruisers converge on the tow truck. Apparently a suspicious neighbor had called to report a car had been stolen. "Good morning, officers!" Negron bellows.
"Where are you boys coming from?" one of the officers asks. Negron provides the address. "It's a repossession," he explains as he hands over paperwork from the bank that hired him to recover the Mercedes. Nearly all Negron's work comes from banks, finance companies, and used-car dealers -- an ever-growing network of institutions he has personally persuaded to use his company, Advanced Auto Recovery.
Negron won't reveal how much he is paid -- privileged information, he says, because if his competitors find out, they'll contact his regular clients and try to undercut his price. But it's a safe guess that the Mercedes he picked up in Delray Beach brought him a reward of $400 to $500.
The fee for repossessing a car can run anywhere from $175 up to $1000, the most Negron has ever received for a single vehicle. Legend has it, though, that the highest bounty ever offered in the South Florida area was $10,000 for a Rolls-Royce. The fees increase based on the value of the car and the difficulty locating it. "In a job like this, you have to enjoy the hunt," Negron says, "and I love the hunt."
After inspecting the car and the paperwork, the officer seems satisfied. "All right, guys," he says. "Just make sure you call it in."
State law requires repo men to notify local police departments within two hours of repossessing a car. When the owner discovers his car missing and reports a theft, police generally are prepared to give him the bad news: repossessed, not stolen. In addition, within 72 hours of taking the car, Negron will send the owner a letter informing him of its repossession and explaining where he can pick up any personal property left inside the vehicle.
Once back at his North Miami office, Negron will gather up whatever he finds in the car, place it in a large plastic garbage bag, and store it in a back room that is usually filled with such bags, as well as with children's car seats, baby strollers, dolls, playpens, and other wholesome family items.