Like a Thief in the Night

The repo man does his best work alone in the dark. No good can come of a confrontation.
Crickets at three in the morning on Chica­mauga Avenue in West Atlanta and the fog had lifted enough so that Ken could see the blue BMW naked in the driveway and he figured he could snatch it if he moved fast. He parked his truck on the fractured asphalt and walked toward a shotgun house with brick-red shutters and geraniums along the front walk. When he reached the BMW he saw a small red light above the dash, flashing like a firefly, warning of an alarm to wake the dead. And through the flood of adrenaline, Ken the repo man felt something like fear.
Photograph by Gregory Miller

This strange transaction would ramify through several economies. Sleeping at their home in Suwanee, Ken Lynam’s wife and five young children were relying on him for their sustenance. In turn, the nation’s slumbering financial system rested on men like him. Without the threat of repossession to cajole the debtor into making payments, there could be no car loans. And without car loans, hardly anyone would buy a new car. A legitimate industry depended on legal theft.

The repo man’s fear had little to do with the physical work. The work was not so hard. His strong hands could pop a Lexus without a key and coax it into neutral with a pocketknife. He could take a Chevy from a country double-wide and escape by driving backward up a winding hill in the dark. He had at least three tricks for breaching gated communities, including a metal sheet that fooled the gate into swinging open. These were all mechanical problems, soluble with a known set of rules.

But those rules would go out the window if the debtor showed his face.

Ken peered inside the BMW, gathering information. The debtor had left a trail of mundane evidence: a CD near the stereo that said Mix 7/2009 in black marker, a Styrofoam cup in the cupholder, an open bag of chips on the floor, a white apron and a black bow tie on the backseat, a round metal restaurant name tag that said Darell. Ken had no inclination to imagine Darell as a real person who ate and drank and listened to music and would wake up later that morning with no ride to work. Over time he had been inoculated against stories of loss or personal hardship. This was one reason he didn’t like facing the debtor: It was, at best, a waste of time for everyone.

He remembered the woman who asked him, with a certain implication, “Is there anything I can do for you? Anything? I mean, anything?” There was not. He remembered the woman who told him, “Please don’t take my car. I’ll miss my chemotherapy appointment.” He doubted she had cancer, because she looked utterly healthy, but it didn’t matter. He would have taken the car either way. She came to the lot after squaring up her accounts and she got the car back. About three months later, the car came up for repossession again. There was a note on the order. It said Debtor is deceased.

For what it was worth—nothing, as it turned out—Ken believed most of the debtors’ stories. He had been one of them. The repo man came for his family minivan and Ken went outside and played the trump card most debtors don’t even know they have. He told the repo man to get off his land, and the repo man did.

Now debtors everywhere were getting smarter and more desperate. They were burying cars in dirt and snow, chaining them to telephone poles. National statistics said repossessions were at an all-time high, but company owners around the city said business had fallen. Farrish Holbrook, Ken’s boss at Atlanta Locators and Recovery in Tucker, said the banks had gone soft, because they already had too much bad debt on their books, and they were begging debtors to make their payments. Repossession was like a nuclear bomb: Neither side wanted to see it go off.

On a good night, Ken could snatch five cars and bring home roughly $250. This had been an awful night. In seven hours he had gone after ten cars and found none, despite searching entire neighborhoods, which meant he had made no money for groceries or rent. He had actually lost money, if you counted the $7.90 for the large Baconator combo with a small barrel of Coke to keep his eyes open.

Beyond the red firefly on the dash, what concerned Ken right now was the temperature of the BMW’s hood—still warm—and the indeterminate light coming from the shotgun house. Was someone watching? He made sure the steering wheel was locked, so the wheels would stay straight as he towed the car. He checked the emergency brake. Good. It was off. He checked the VIN and compared it with the number on the repossession order. Good. They matched. He checked the BMW’s model number. 525i. Good. It was not an all-wheel drive, which carries its own set of nightmares. This BMW was a rear-wheel drive, which was perfect, because the car was parked facing the house: When he picked it up by the rear wheels, the front wheels would roll free. Now he just had to hook it up.

There are innumerable ways for a debtor confrontation to go wrong. First off, repo men are often confused with common thieves. And why not? They sneak around in the middle of the night, taking stuff. Plus you have the men who pose as repo men but are, in fact, thieves. Finally there are actual repo men who are also actual thieves, or worse. Only three states require professional licensing for repo men, and Georgia is not among them. Sometimes the robber works for the bank.

Ken stood in the driveway of the shotgun house, looking like the man you would call to repair your computer. He wore beat-up white sneakers and glasses with squarish lenses. He was very pale from sleeping all day. He carried no weapon. Who carries weapons? The debtors. Guns in particular. Debtors had threatened him with guns many times. Ken was fortunate in this department. Other repo men had it much worse. They had been punched, stomped, kicked with steel-toed boots, bludgeoned in the face with tire irons. They had been struck by the very cars they were trying to snatch and taken for spontaneous rides while clutching the hood. They had been shot. They had been killed. Last November in South Fulton, two repo men were shot, one fatally, as they tried to snatch a Ford Mustang. In Texas a debtor shot a repo man through the neck and lungs with a .30-30 rifle and got away with it. The grand jury believed him when he said he thought he was shooting a thief.

Ken hurried back to his snatch truck, a red Dodge Ram with a thrumming diesel engine. On the back was a steel apparatus that vaguely resembled the cross of crucifixion: a Vulcan 810 Intruder hydraulic lift, capable of pivoting ninety degrees horizontally so that even cars parallel-parked in a tight space could be snatched. Ken backed up the Vulcan to the BMW and pushed a button to unfold the cross and another button to slide it under the rear wheels. There was a noise of rumbling and scraping.

Here is a surprising paradox about automobile repossession. The best possible outcome for the repo man—a clean getaway with no meeting—is arguably the best possible outcome for the debtor. If confrontations are dangerous for the repo man, they may be even worse for the debtor, because the debtor has a harder time staying calm. One minute you lose your car; the next minute it’s your marbles. The history is rich and disturbing. A man runs naked out of his house and grabs the repo man by his coat. A man lies down in his driveway to block the repo man’s truck. A woman holding a baby stands in the path of the snatch truck and refuses to move. A woman prevents her car from being taken by running outside and literally throwing her baby into the backseat.

This is to say nothing of the hotheaded repo man, the armed repo man, the repo man who dares you to take the first swing. There are, of course, plenty of those. They will run over arms and feet, perhaps by accident, perhaps not. They will fire guns, perhaps second, perhaps first; perhaps into the air, perhaps into the flesh. Sometimes they come for no good reason.

Sixteen years ago in Stone Mountain, two repo men came for a silver Mercury Cougar. The car had been a birthday gift four years earlier from Nabil Malouf to his wife, Salwa. Just a few days before the incident, he told her it had been paid off. Had it been paid off? There were complications involving insurance and possible internal confusion at the bank. The case was settled for a million dollars before a judge could decide. Anyway, Nabil Malouf told the men to get off his property, and he called the police to make sure they did. Repo men are forbidden from breaching the peace. Early the next morning, Nabil took the Cougar to work for safekeeping. “Don’t worry,” he told his wife. “There is a mistake.” He would go to the bank when it opened and work out the issue and return the Cougar to his wife in time for a proper Jordanian breakfast. No, he wouldn’t. The repo men followed him to work, and when he went inside they took the Cougar. This could have been the end of the story. In fact, Nabil’s son Baseem later recovered the Cougar prior to auction simply by writing a check. But someone at Nabil’s workplace told him the car was being taken. Nabil was fifty-eight years old. He was not going to let these men get away with his wife’s birthday present. He ran outside to stop them.

As best a police detective could gather, this is what happened next. Nabil saw the Cougar hooked up to the tow truck. He ran to the passenger door and tried to climb inside. One of the repo men pushed him away. Nabil tried to climb on the tow truck again. He slipped off and fell to the ground. The right rear wheel crushed his chest. At the hospital he was seen smiling before he died. His wife was so overcome with grief that she nearly killed herself. She got the Cougar back and drove it until the transmission failed, and then she traded it for a Toyota Camry.

Ken pushed a button. The Vulcan lifted the BMW by the rear wheels. He pushed the accelerator and towed the car onto Chicamauga Avenue. The red firefly kept flashing, but no alarm sounded. No one came out of the shotgun house.

“Lucky I got this one,” he said, feeling a wave of relief.

Ken had earned $45 in almost eight hours. He would drop the BMW at the repossession lot and drive home to Suwanee and sneak into his own house, like a thief in the night, trying hard not to wake his sleeping two-year-old. He wanted no part of that confrontation.