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.

"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.

But this is South Florida. Not everything he comes across is so innocent A like the 30 vials of crack cocaine in a Cadillac. "We called the police, and they said to just flush it down the toilet," Negron recalls. "I waited to see if the guy was ever going to stop by to claim his personal belongings, but he never did.

"Obviously we find all sorts of things in people's cars," he continues. "We've found rubbers, both used and unused. We've also recovered an assortment of sex toys. Usually the people don't come back for them. I guess they're too embarrassed. It's amazing what people keep in their cars."

If repossessing cars could be considered a science, the 31-year-old Negron would be a star professor. "I look at each car like a chess game," he says. "Sometimes I get checkmate in one or two moves; sometimes it takes me a lot longer."

In many cases, the lender or car dealer can provide Negron an address and even a duplicate set of keys. The trick in those situations is to pick up the car with as little fuss as possible. But often a great deal of fuss is involved.

For example, unknown or false addresses, which are not uncommon, force Negron to play detective. If his access to various Florida state computer banks fails to lead him to the "skip" (the repo term for someone who has moved but left no forwarding address), he must learn what he can about the individual's personal habits.

Maybe he discovers the skip is divorced and his ex-wife has custody of the children. Next Negron tries to find out what he can about visitation rights. Is the skip going to stop by on the children's birthdays? Perhaps he's likely to show up at his ex-wife's home on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day with presents for the little ones. Almost any heartwarming family affair can provide a great opportunity to repossess a car.

If the skip hasn't been married, he may be close to his mother or father. In that case, the answer may be to stake out the skip's parents' house on Mother's Day or Father's Day, or better still, on their wedding anniversary. "It's not that I like taking the car on a holiday," Negron confesses. "It's just that the holiday may be the only time I can find it. In plain English, if you are a scumbag and you don't pay your bills and you think you are going to get away with it, you're wrong. I'm going to get you. If they were trying to work out arrangements with the bank, that's one thing. But the people I'm talking about are hiding. They haven't made a payment in six months or a year. They've moved without telling the bank their new address. They've left their job. I don't feel sorry for them."

And where does Negron get the information he needs? Besides computer files and other public documents, he draws on such sources as alert neighbors or estranged relatives. For good tips, Negron might pay a source $50 or $100.

Of course, sometimes a repossession falls right into his lap. When he was first starting in the repo business five years ago, Negron picked up a car whose owner brought along a friend when she later stopped by the office to claim her personal belongings. Negron and the friend hit it off immediately and soon began dating. They had been seeing each other for several weeks when Negron was overcome with curiosity about his new girlfriend's car. (From time to time Negron randomly checks with a national computer system used by repo men to see if cars -- especially those with out-of-state plates -- are being sought for repossession.) Sure enough, when Negron checked his girlfriend's car, he found she was several months late on her payments. "The relationship wasn't really going anywhere, so I broke up with her a short time later," he recalls. "About a week after that I repossessed her car."

Maybe it was the movie Repo Man, the 1984 cult classic starring Emilio Estevez and Harry Dean Stanton, that forever branded recovery agents as bizarre characters. Estevez played Otto, a new-wave punk who learns the ins and outs of repo work from Bud, a bitter middle-age man who, thanks to liberal doses of pharmaceuticals, never sleeps and is constantly on the prowl for cars. Together they search for the ultimate repossession -- a beat-up old Chevy Malibu with four dead space aliens in the trunk. The bounty for the radioactive car: $20,000.

As they cruise the streets of Los Angeles, Bud solemnly recites to Otto: "'I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof, nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm.' That's what I call the repo code, kid. Don't forget it. Etch it in your brain. Not many people got a code to live by any more."

As they contemplate the oath at a stoplight, Bud notices a group of people milling about on the street corner. "Hey, look at that," he says. "Look at those assholes over there. Ordinary fuckin' people. I hate 'em. You see, an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. Repo man spends his life getting into tense situations."

Negron doesn't much care for the movie because it makes repo men seem too weird. In truth, however, people like Negron are unusual. Essentially they are car thieves with a license to steal. While Negron won't deny that his type of work attracts unique personalities, his decision to cooperate in preparing this article was based in part on his desire to prove that not all repo men are freaks. (He is a normal family man with a wife and two young daughters.) In addition, the industry has adopted certain standards to promote professionalism and gain a little respect. Recovery agents, as repo men like to be called, must be licensed by the State of Florida, undergo an FBI criminal background check, and be properly insured.

Approximately 700 people in Florida are licensed to do the work. And for every person with a license, state officials estimate there are two more operating without one -- cowboys with a tow truck who work illegally and offer cut-rate prices, mainly to used-car dealers. Often they keep costs down by not purchasing insurance. Negron, for instance, spends more than $6000 per year on business insurance.

Efforts to contact several other repo men for comment as part of this article were unsuccessful -- either they would not return phone calls or flatly refused to participate in any sort of story about their trade. Even Joe Taylor, executive director of the Florida Association of Licensed Recovery Agents, the industry's advocacy group, refuses to answer questions. The media, he charges, consistently depict repo men as heartless vultures. "We have never had an article that has portrayed this industry accurately," he explains angrily. But what about the movie? Has he seen Repo Man? "Yeah," Taylor responds. "It stunk."

One recent night Negron receives orders to pick up sixteen cars, and the prospect excites him. (His previous record haul for a single evening: ten cars.) In addition to his assistant, Henry, he decides to enlist the help of two others, Luis and Emilio. While Emilio scouts for cars in South Dade, Luis and Henry search North Dade. Negron himself heads to Broward.

As Negron pulls off I-95 at the Stirling Road exit, his walkie-talkie crackles with good news. "We've got one!" Henry announces. "We're taking it right now." It is a little past 2:00 a.m., and Negron is pleased. "One for one," Negron answers back. "Good job."

With his spirits boosted, Negron becomes chatty. Driving past a corner of the Seminole Indian reservation, he points to his right, as if in the distance he can see the car, a Mustang, that prompts this story:

A year ago he contacted the owner of the Mustang to inform him he could either make his overdue payment or have the car repossessed. The owner told Negron to just take the car because he couldn't afford the payment.

So Negron happily obliged. He was nearly twenty miles away from the owner's home when he saw the flashing red lights of a reservation police officer in his rear-view mirror. Negron pulled over and told the officer he had the owner's permission to repossess the car. "But the cop told me the guy had changed his mind, that he wanted the car back," Negron recalls, adding that he had no choice but to return the Mustang. "Now, that's the true definition of an Indian giver." Negron laughs at his own joke.

But why return the car? If it had happened anyplace else, Negron says, he wouldn't have been so generous. But when a reservation cop tells you to do something, you do it and you don't ask any questions. Or as Negron phrases it: "You don't fuck around on the reservation. Period."

When he reaches the Cooper City neighborhood he's been searching for, he realizes the address is within a walled, private housing development, complete with security guards and gates. "Shit," he grumbles. "This is going to be a problem."

He pulls alongside the guard shack. "Good morning," he begins, sweet as can be. "Can you open the gate, please?"

"Who are you?" the guard asks.
"I'm a licensed recovery agent. Please open the gate."
"A what?"
"A licensed recovery agent."
"What?"

Negron begins tensing up. He goes into the hard sell in hopes of dazzling the guard. "I'm here to pick up mortgaged collateral that is being concealed here on the premises," he declares in his most authoritative voice. "Please, open the gate."

"You're what?" the guard asks, clearly confused.
Negron reaches into his back pocket, removes his wallet, and quickly flashes his credentials -- a laminated card, issued by the state, verifying that is he a licensed repo man.

"What the hell was that?" the guard asks.
"I'm licensed by the State of Florida to do repossessions," Negron finally offers. "We've got a major skip in there, and I need to take their cars. Please, open the gate."

"Oh," the guard says in recognition, "you're a repo man." Negron cringes at the term. "Well, I can't let you in there," the guard continues. "If you take somebody's car, they're going to be mad." He suggests Negron try the gate at the other end of the development. "Maybe the guard there will let you in," he says, adding that if the other guard calls the Cooper City police, the cops could act as Negron's escort. If the owner of the car later complains, the guards can blame the police.

Negron drives off shaking his head. "Security guards," he groans, "are a general pain in my ass." When he reaches the second guard shack, a female security guard steps out. Negron goes through his routine, but once again it leaves him on the wrong side of the gate. The guard says she'll call the police to see if they will take responsibility for letting Negron pass.

He smiles. "Let me see if I can bullshit my way in," he says under his breath. "Okay, look," he shouts at the guard, "I'll pull in here and wait for the cops." Negron motions toward the far side of the gate. "If she opens the gate," Negron whispers, "we're going in." But the guard is suspicious and refuses.

Just then a resident pulls up. When Negron sees the gate about to open, he perks up. "I wonder how long that gate is going to stay open," he says to himself as he revs his engine slightly.

At that instant a police car arrives. Then another, and another, until five patrol cars -- the entire Cooper City force on duty that night A crowd around the guard shack.

"We've got repo men," the guard says to the officers with palpable disgust. She points toward Negron, who is now back in his smiling, friendly mode. "Morning, officers," he chirps.

While he explains his predicament to one patrolman, the other cops mingle nearby. "We're curious," says a female officer. "We don't see too many repo men up here."

By now Negron has been told that the cops will not escort him into the development; it's up to the security company to make a decision. So as everyone stands around waiting for a security company supervisor to arrive, Negron holds court, amusing the officers with tales from the front.

They ask how long it will take him to snag the car he's looking for once he spots it. "I can be out of there in 30 seconds with the Jeep Cherokee," Negron answers.

"How easy is a Camaro to grab?" one officer asks.
"Even easier," Negron boasts. "And forget about The Club. The Club is a joke. I can get through that in seconds."

"Geez, that's comforting to know if I'm ever late on a payment," the officer laughs.

"The cars that are a real pain in the ass to get inside of are the Mercedes and the Volvos," Negron explains. The Volvos have vacuum-pressure locks, and the newer Mercedes feature specially designed doors -- each making it almost impossible to break in using a Slim Jim."

"That's nice, but I can't really afford a Mercedes," another cop shrugs.
The security supervisor drives up, confers with the female security guard, then walks over to Negron, who, for the fourth time, explains what he's doing. "From what I understand," the supervisor says, "you may have tried to run the gate."

Negron is incredulous. "What?!" he barks. "How am I going to run the gate? That's just ridiculous."

The supervisor tells Negron he's not going to let him past the gate. In response, Negron demands the supervisor's name and dutifully writes it down. "I don't expect that much from people who make six dollars an hour," he condescendingly sniffs. "And you know what? I make more on one car than you do in a week."

As the repo man departs he begins shouting and cursing to himself. "The fucking asshole!" he cries. "Wasting my time. Fuck!" He takes a deep breath. "Oh well," he says, regaining his composure but lapsing into a string of strange little adages: "He who laughs last, laughs best. What you lose in the bananas you make up for in the peaches." Negron is jolly again, but he turns serious one last time. "I swear to God I'm going to find out if those cars are there," he vows.

Two days later, posing as an interested homebuyer, Negron returned to the guarded development and was given a VIP pass. "I searched the area pretty well," he says. "The cars weren't in there."

It's impossible to predict how people will react when they discover their car has been repossessed. Negron has been threatened with guns, though no one yet has pulled the trigger. More often, according to Negron, the car owner's anger quickly changes to quiet resignation and shame.

Earlier this year Negron received an assignment to repossess a plumber's van. The only information he had was the man's beeper number, so Negron paged him and then pretended to need help with a broken toilet at his office. When the plumber arrived (not realizing it was a repo office), he immediately set to work checking the water lines leading to the bathroom. As the plumber toiled inside, Negron slipped out the back door, got in his truck, and towed the plumber's van to his secret storage lot a few blocks away.

Negron then walked back to his office and broke the news to the plumber. "He actually took it pretty well," Negron recalls. "He knew there was nothing he could do about it."

Just a couple weeks ago Negron was assigned to pick up a Volvo. He called the owner with a warning: If overdue payments weren't made by Tuesday, he'd come looking for the car. By the following Thursday the owner still hadn't paid up, so Negron and Henry drove to his place of work, spotted the Volvo, and hooked it up. As they were pulling away, the owner came running. He was taller and in much better shape than Negron and if he had wanted to, he probably could have done serious damage to the repo man. The threat was only enhanced by the fact that several of the man's co-workers ran to his side, thinking their friend's car was being stolen.

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."

With Henry and Luis in the back of the tow truck, Negron begins cruising for several cars at once, all in the area of 79th Street and NW 18th Avenue. After checking on three different cars and not locating any of them, he successfully tracks down his final target in the neighborhood A a 1976 Jeep. Using the keys he was given, Negron opens the Jeep and sees that the steering wheel is on the right-hand side. This once must have been a mailman's Jeep, sold at auction to a used-car dealer, who in turn sold it to the people in whose driveway Negron, Henry, Luis are now standing.

State law allows repo men to take a car from a private driveway as long as the driveway isn't fenced in. Open carports are also fair game, as are garages with the door open.

Negron doesn't need to worry about any of those considerations because the driveway is open. But he does have a more pressing problem. With a car this old, he doesn't want to try starting the engine for fear it might be noisy and awaken everyone in the house. "Let's push it," he says. Amid giggles and jokes, the Jeep is shoved down the street about half a block, where Luis cranks the ignition. The motor starts up nice and quiet. "Well," Negron says, almost apologetically, "it's good practice to sneak a car out every once in a while."

After dropping the car at a nearby dealership, the crew heads over the 79th Street Causeway to Miami Beach, where they find a 1985 Dodge station wagon. As with the Jeep, they have keys for this car, but the Dodge is potentially even trickier because it is parked on the sidewalk, directly under the owner's ground-floor bedroom window. "Don't start it here," Negron whispers to Henry. "Push it out." But before Negron can finish his thought, Henry has started the engine with a big roar and drives off.

Startled, Negron quickly runs back to the tow truck. He looks over his shoulder to see if lights come on in the apartment. They don't. Negron seems amazed: "I can't believe the guy didn't wake up."

It is now after 5:00 a.m., and Negron wants to make a quick run through South Beach. "I pick up cars here all the time," he says. With Henry and Luis following behind in the station wagon, Negron checks on several addresses in search of a white Camaro. With the sun beginning to rise and the Camaro nowhere in sight, Negron tells Henry to head back to the office with the station wagon while he checks an address in Miami. "I'm looking for a 1986 Ford Bronco," Negron explains. "The guy hasn't paid a cent on it for more than a year." He's recently been given a new address where the owner might be staying. Sure enough, he spots the Bronco -- with two flat rear tires. Negron quickly backs up his truck to the Bronco, lifts it by the rear wheels, and pulls away. "Perfect," he says.

When he finishes with the Bronco, it will be time for him to go home and drive his six-year-old daughter to school. Then it will be back to the office for a couple of hours of paperwork, then out on the street again to check a few job sites for wanted cars. He'll call it quits around 5:00 p.m., be asleep by 7:00, and then start over again at 2:00 the next morning.

But now, driving up Biscayne Boulevard with a Bronco on the hook, Negron couldn't be more content. "God, it makes me feel good," he says with a smile. And the ordinary people, those just leaving their homes and apartments to start another humdrum day, can only watch and wonder as Negron passes them by.

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