Captain Hook

Meet the repo man. He wants to steal your car. He has a legal right to steal it. And you don't have a chance.

Though outnumbered and overmatched, Negron stopped his truck and got out to speak with the owner. "I told you if you didn't make the payment I'd have to take the car," he scolded. "I went out on a limb for you, and because you didn't pay, you made me look bad."

"I know," the man replied sheepishly.
"Is there anything inside the car you need before I take it away?" Negron asked. The man shook his head, reached in his pocket, and gave Negron the keys. Then he said he would be in later that day to clear up the amount past due and pick up the car. He never did.

Most of the time, however, that is exactly how people reclaim their cars. They catch up on what they owe and pay some sort of penalty, usually the amount that the bank or the car dealer paid the repo man to pick it up. But in some cases, depending on the terms of the purchase agreement, the bank or dealership can demand that the owner pay the full amount still owed on the car -- immediately. This became a popular tactic for some firms after Hurricane Andrew, according to Negron. For several months after the storm, most banks and car dealers put a moratorium on repossessions in the hardest-hit areas, while families struggled to put their lives back together. "But when those FEMA checks started rolling in," Negron recalls, "people went out and started buying things they couldn't really afford. Especially cars. They'd use the checks as a down payment, but then they couldn't keep up with the monthly payments. We repossessed a lot of cars that were like that."

Negron says it's not uncommon for him to repossess the same car repeatedly -- from different owners. A used-car dealer will sell a vehicle, collect a down payment of between $1000 and $2000, and when the owner falls behind in his payments, Negron is called in to retrieve it. The contract will call for full payment in such circumstances -- often in the neighborhood of $5000 to $10,000. When the owner can't pay in full, the dealer will sell the car to someone else, and the cycle will repeat itself, two or three times. "What a beautiful country we live in," Negron says sarcastically.

The real problem, as the repo man sees it, is that people are too eager to spend money they don't really have, regardless of their economic status. "What I love about this job," he says, "is I'm just as likely, in the same night, to have orders to repossess some doctor's Mercedes on Miami Beach and then a ten-year-old Lincoln in Overtown. And I will take just as much pleasure in picking up both."

Following the frustrating episode in Cooper City, Negron receives a radio call from Henry, who has just been stopped by two Metro-Dade cops for supposedly running a flashing red light near Joe Robbie Stadium. What's worse, the registration and proof of insurance are nowhere to be found. The evening's early euphoria is fast disappearing. "It's going to be one of those nights," he sighs.

Racing down University Drive, Negron is reminded of an earlier case. "About a year ago I grabbed a car near here, an RX-7. I've got the car on the hook and was heading down this road back to the office when I noticed this pickup truck following me," he remembers. "When I pulled up to a stop light, I saw the driver of the pickup get out and start running toward me. He was screaming, 'Hey that's my car!' He was pissed, so I took off. He ran back to his truck and started chasing me. I'm running red lights, he's running red lights. Meanwhile I'm on the phone to 911. I'm giving the 911 operator my position, and she's trying to get the Miramar cops out to help me.

"Then I tell her that I'm now approaching County Line Road, and she tells me I'd better make a U-turn so that I can stay in Miramar's jurisdiction, since they were already sending cars. I ask her why she just can't get Metro-Dade to meet us after we cross into Dade, but she says I'd be better off staying in Broward. So I make this U-turn and start driving back up University until about a dozen cop cars finally surrounded us.

"Nobody knew this until we were all stopped, but it turns out the guy who was chasing me, whose car I had just repossessed, was a Metro-Dade cop. So I was glad I did make the U-turn." And what about the car? "The car stayed on the hook," he says. "I wasn't giving up the car."

By the time Negron reaches Henry, the Metro cop has written a ticket for running the red light, no registration, and no proof of insurance. Negron tries to explain to the officer that the registration and insurance papers are in his office, but the cop isn't interested in excuses.

Undaunted, Negron tells Henry and Luis to follow him. Nearby is a 1980 Olds Cutlass he wants to grab on the way back to the office. Ten minutes later the Cutlass is being backed into the used-car lot that had requested it be repossessed. After a brief pit stop at the office, Negron checks his watch. It's almost 4:00 a.m. "Now it's prime time," Negron says. "Now it's time to get serious."

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