Repo Man

An eerie haze has settled over Salem. The sky is a depressing gray, there's a bone-chilling damp to the air, and a biting northeast wind is hurling litter and dead leaves around like a commercial blower. As we drive the narrow back roads, stone gargoyles and other devilish lawn creatures stare from front yards. They resemble tombstones in a cemetery. I'm riding shotgun with the Repo Man — Rollie Davis of Witch City Repo — and we're on a search and seizure mission.

On the seat next to the chain-smoking Davis is a stack of repossession tickets, his marching orders from various creditors to commandeer luxury cars, high-end boats, and expensive motor homes from owners behind on their payments. A growing number of these owners are white-collar professionals who were victims of relentless downsizing. Former vice presidents, marketing managers, financial officers — people like you and me.

Davis steals for a living. But it's all perfectly legal. Thirty years in the business, Davis can pop a lock quicker than he can say, “Gotcha!” But his job is not without an element of danger. You never know what to expect. Davis has been pushed, shoved, knocked down, run over twice, and had a gun pointed at his head, all in the line of duty. “Sure I feel bad for some of these people,” the stocky 59-year-old says in a throaty voice that grinds more than the engine of the Ford 450 wrecker he uses on his biggest jobs. “You gotta be decent, but, hey, I got a job to do.” As we talk, a tape of Patsy Cline's Heartaches wails through the cab.

It used to be that the province of the repo man was limited to scam artists and the poor. Today in Massachusetts, where upper and middle management are being trimmed like overweight fiftysomethings on the Atkins Diet, Davis's territory runs the demographic gamut from Dorchester to Scituate to the newly down and out in Beverly Farms. In spite of the reported uptick in the national economy, the number of Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases filed in Massachusetts rose 10 percent last year, and the state has shed 150,000 jobs — many of them high paying — one of the worst performances in the nation. The number of jobs lost for good has more than tripled in the last three years.

“My repossession business with middle- and upper-income people has increased more than 50 percent in the last 18 months,” says Davis, checking a supple, well-worn road map for his next pickup — a 22-foot Bayliner with a Mercury Cruiser V-6 inboard-outboard engine. “Corporate America is cutting back. People with $200,000 and $300,000 incomes, big homes, and fancy cars are losing their jobs and can't replace their incomes. It's a tough situation. When you think about it, we're all just one paycheck away.”

In the last year, Davis, who works for himself, has snatched an assortment of pricey sailboats, motorboats, $250,000 motor homes, full-dress Harleys, ATVs, and lavish cars, including Mercedes-Benzes, Lexuses, BMWs, Porsches, Lincolns, Saabs, Audis — even a new Viper with $63,000 in overdue payments.

Today, as we head out of Salem, Davis — dressed in a black sweatshirt, jeans, white socks, work boots, and a diamond stud in his left ear — is driving his dark-green Dodge pickup, which has 185,000 miles on it and a rusted trailer hitch. Within

minutes, we're in a stately North Shore neighborhood of antique Capes, Colonials, and Dutch gambrels with manicured lawns that look like fairways out of Golf Digest. Davis is window-shopping — slowly plying the side roads and working his cell phone. His partner, wife Ruthanne, a licensed private investigator, is back in their home office sitting with her Dell computer, surfing MapQuest and other online databases to direct him like an air traffic controller.

“Gotcha!” Davis suddenly shouts. There, on the side of a stately clapboard home near the edge of a tear-shaped freshwater pond, sits the Bayliner, resting in the cradle of its trailer. Davis says the owner, a victim of downsizing, owes more than $5,000 on the boat and won't return the bank's calls. In nice neighborhoods like this one, Davis sometimes talks to the owner to explain what he's doing, but in this case, as the law allows, he gets right down to business. He backs up his truck past a three-foot high statue of Jesus Christ with open arms. A bit nervous, I consider this a sign from God: Okay to take the boat!

“Can you give me a hand?” Davis barks, trying to lift the heavy trailer tongue onto the hitch. It doesn't budge.

“Can you push it from the back?” he yells.

I race to the stern and grunt forward. No luck.

“Drive the truck back a few feet,” he orders. Adrenaline pumping, I hop into the cab, throw the engine into reverse, and frantically tap the brakes like I'm sending Morse Code — SOS.

“Okay, we're there,” he shouts, locking the trailer into place.

We jump back into the truck — this time with Davis in the driver's seat — and pull away. A crease of satisfaction crosses his face as we head to his Salem storage garage where the Bayliner will sit, by law, for 20 days to give its owner time to make good at the bank. If he doesn't, the boat goes to auction. (The owner never pays.)

Relieving the owner of his boat has taken precisely 48 seconds. Less than a minute.

The words “repo man” may conjure images of Emilio Estevez in the 1984 cult movie of the same name set in the barrios of Los Angeles. “The ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations,” Bud, a stereotypical, living-on-the-edge repo man, tells Estevez's character, the gullible Otto. “A repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.” The movie, a farfetched plot about chasing down a 1964 Chevy thought to have dead aliens in the trunk, is filled with the kind of classic street dialogue some repo men love. Lines like: “I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”

Davis has seen the movie and shakes his head. “You can't go in like gangbusters, especially if you're dealing with a laid-off vice president of some company,” he says. “You can't have an attitude.” Then he thinks about it for a minute. “There are a lot of guys who do it just like the movie, and some get away with it.”

Quite a lot, actually, in this virtually unregulated industry. There are an estimated 3,000 repo companies nationwide, and “about 500 of them are reputable and professionally run,” says Ray Crocker, former head of the national trade organization of what he prefers to call repossession agents. “Most repo men are guys without proper training who pump gas, wash cars, or drive dump trucks during the day, and go out at night as mercenaries to pick off cars,” says Crocker.

Repo men are perhaps the only people in America who can repossess personal property without a warrant. Only two states — California and Florida — require them to be licensed. In Massachusetts, all they need is a repossession order from a creditor. They also have to tell police whenever they have seized a vehicle or boat.

Often scorned as the Rodney Dangerfields of the collection industry, outriggers of economic catastrophe, the frontline soldiers of capitalism, repo men can earn $60,000 to $70,000 a year — at least, if they work 15 hours a day, seven days a week, like Davis. Pickup fees range from $150 to $400, depending on the level of difficulty. A good repo man can do five a day. Davis's record is seven.

The only hitch is that you can't “breach the peace,” says Crocker. “If an owner objects to a car or boat being towed, you can't take it — unless the truck has cleared the area and is headed to the storage yard. And you'd better make sure you've correctly matched the VIN [vehicle identification number] or you'll risk a wrongful repossession lawsuit.”

Crocker says salesmanship is key, especially with the increase in “first-time repos” — middle- and upper-class consumers who have fallen on hard times. A model of diplomacy, Davis claims a 95 percent success rate repossessing boats and vehicles, though he admits that only 15 percent of the owners voluntarily surrender their possessions. Often he has to play hide and seek. Some downsized executives in the Boston area, he says, hide their vehicles at summer homes on Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard. Davis's tow truck has become as much a fixture on the Steamship Authority ferry as a cargo of T-shirts. But many delinquents willingly give up the ghost.

“These people are embarrassed,” Davis says. “They've never been in financial trouble before. Many of them ask me if they can drive the car or boat down the street so their immediate neighbors don't see a tow truck hauling it away.”

The tow truck is “a great leveler,” says Sean Rodden, a manager with the New England Adjustment Bureau, a repo firm that covers Greater Boston, the North Shore, and the South Shore. “Once the tow truck shows up, many wealthy people voluntarily give up their cars,” says Rodden, who has repossessed BMWs, Mercedeses, Porsches, and Corvettes of late. “Some give you the key and ask you to come back later to drive the car away without the stigma of a tow truck.”

Repossessing a car, particularly a car that's a status symbol, can be like repossessing someone's identity — someone's soul — says Ron Brown, one of the nation's foremost authorities on repo men and the author of the book Manhunt, a guide to tracking missing people and their assets. “A lot of hard-working people in Massachusetts have fallen on hard times in this economy,” says Brown, who is also a private detective. “These people have lost their recreational vehicles and their secondary cars and, for some, their primary cars.”

It's a long fall from the executive perch. “We try to be sympathetic,” says Rodden, “but to tell you the truth, everybody is just a vehicle. A VIN number. That's what we're paid to do.”

Sometimes it gets ugly. Rodden has had guns pointed at him and has been chased around his truck. “I just tell people that we're the messenger. As long as you try to understand where they're coming from, and they understand where you are coming from, usually nine out of ten times you can talk yourself out of anything.”

It's that one in ten that keeps the repo men awake at night. Davis still remembers his encounter about two years ago in Reading with a tough, upper-middle-class entrepreneur behind on the payments on his Mercedes SUV. “We got into a little shoving match,” says Davis. “He told me to fuck myself and that I was an asshole. I told him I'd been called worse, and that pissed him off even more. He pushed me, and I pushed him back.” Davis then tried unsuccessfully to stop the man from getting into his car. “So I stood in front of the car,” Davis says. “He just started up the vehicle and knocked me down. He didn't care.” Davis hit the pavement and rolled to the side as the Mercedes sped away.

“I've made a key for it,” he says with satisfaction. “Next time I see the car, I'll just drive it away. I won't even talk to him — just charge him for towing and storage.”

Payback can be sweet in the repo business.

Despite the danger that comes with his line of work, Davis doesn't wear a bullet-proof vest or carry a gun. “That's TV stuff,” he says. “If they're going to shoot you, they're going to shoot you.”

The wind is still howling late in the day on this ominous Thursday. The sky is threatening, and Davis is out knocking on doors. He's spent the morning casing neighborhoods in Marblehead, Boston, and East Boston, working from a most-wanted list compiled by his wife, the private investigator. They're in constant communication via cell phone or a laptop and printer that Davis keeps in the truck. “Can you hear me now?” they seem to be saying to the 500 delinquents on Davis's repossession list, an inventory from banks and credit companies. Among the debtors: business owners, middle managers, sales reps, even a dentist. The economy hasn't been their friend. In spite of an impressive third quarter and 7.2 percent expansion in the gross domestic product — the best since 1984 — the U.S. economy has jettisoned more than

3 million jobs in the worst showing since the Great Depression. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Massachusetts, where the average duration of unemployment is the third-longest in the nation, just behind Mississippi and New York.

Once-trendy zero-percent financing of cars, boats, and other items has proven to have been a bad idea for buyers whose eyes proved bigger than their resources. At Ford Credit, the financing division of Ford Motor Company, the number of loans requiring repossession is up 30 percent in the last three years. “With low or no interest rates, consumers have bought beyond their means — fancy cars that look good in their driveways,” says Paul Grossi, president and CEO of Diversified Credit Services, a Lexington collection agency. “It's free money. People with good salaries or those with promotions buy high-end cars, then some of them lose their jobs and have no income for nine months or longer.”

Grossi has experienced this pain himself: He was laid off three times in five years as a middle manager with large corporate credit companies. In 1991, he started his own firm. “A lot of businesses that did well in the high-flying '90s have gone belly up,” he says. And now we're seeing a recycling of the anguish.

On a side street in East Boston, a nurse late on her car payments is feeling the pinch. Davis's tow truck is parked outside her front door. He tells her she's behind by $3,800 on her Lexus, and he has to take the car. Quickly, she produces some receipts that seem to satisfy Davis for the moment. He tells her he'll check with the bank. The next day the bank tells Davis the receipts were for earlier payments; the loan is still in default. That afternoon we return. No one's home. The car is there.

Davis swings his truck into the driveway and hops out with a long, thin red plastic tool kit. Inside is an assortment of window wedges, steel rods, and Slim Jims — flexible, spatula-type strips of aluminum for picking locks. In six seconds, he pops the door, then slides over to the console and with a narrow screwdriver releases the “override switch” concealed behind a small nub of black plastic. He shifts it into neutral. Another seven seconds pass. He locks the steering wheel into place and hooks the car to his wrecker, working the boom like an extension of his body. Gone in 60 seconds. Just like the movie.

If he has to, Davis can cut a key on the road by matching the VIN number with a book of thousands of codes. Some luxury cars require a $5,000 computer to break a code. So far Davis hasn't needed one. He carries master keys on his belt with 180 different combinations.

Later in the day, back in his modest office on the first floor of his two-story, vinyl-sided home on a hill overlooking a quiet Salem neighborhood, Davis and his wife, Ruthanne, discuss the thrill of the chase. “It's like a manhunt,” he says. “Always a challenge. It's a thrill, a rush. You have to find the owner, then you have to try to reason with them. But if they push you, you push them back, or they will step all over you. If someone starts to get angry, then I'll get angry. And they don't want that.”

“The harder the better,” adds Ruthanne, who sometimes rides with Davis. “I love the challenge, especially when I hear a case is impossible. I don't give up. I'll never give up. That's just me. I just find them.”

These words are something to chew on as I drive home. In some ways I fit the profile of Davis's hit list. I scratched an itch last summer and bought a Porsche. Not as impressive as it sounds — a 1998 used silver Boxster with a black convertible top and 19,000 miles. I paid $27,000 for it. Looks good in my driveway. I owe the bank $565 a month. So far, so good. But I stare more at the rearview mirror these days.

Rollie Davis knows where I live.