Photo by Steve LoweryIt's 2 a.m., and I'm sitting in a truck deep in a Westminster residential neighborhood. There are no sounds save for the truck's idling engine.
Foo Dog is to my right, looking almost bored. Cowboy is in the driver's seat to my left, poring over a thrashed Thomas Guide.
"Planning your escape route?" I ask.
Cowboy nods. Then he drops the guide behind the bench and gets out of the cab. I glance around.
"He's rigging the tow hitch," says Foo Dog.
I lean back. A minute later, Cowboy jumps back into the cab and shuts the door quietly. "By the way," he asks me, "do you want a bulletproof vest?"
I stare at Cowboy for a moment. "You're kidding."
"Nope. You want one?"
I hesitate. There is a light on in the house. There are people in there. They could wake up. Chances are good someone will tear out of there as the guys are working.
"Are you wearing one?"
Cowboy shakes his head.
I look over at Foo Dog. "I think there are cobwebs on mine," he admits.
"I'm fine," I finally say.
"Okay," Cowboy says. Then he puts the truck in gear and backs down the street, toward the black Thunderbird he intends to steal. He backs the truck up the driveway and stops. He and Foo Dog get out, leaving the doors open and the engine running.
They hook the hitch under the rear bumper and chain it in two locations. As they work, I glance furiously from their backs to the house to their backs again.
Except for a slight rattling of chains, they make no sound. And there is no movement in the house.
Cowboy and Foo Dog finally get back in the truck. Seconds later, we are rolling into the street, the Thunderbird hooked to the back. There is still no sign from the house that anyone knows their Thunderbird has just been stolen. From start to finish, only a couple of minutes had elapsed.
"Okay, keep an eye out for . . . what, Anthony?" asks Cowboy.
I look at him, puzzled.
"What was the other car in the driveway?"
I think about it but can't remember. I finally tell him I was more concerned with watching the house for signs of life than paying attention to what else was parked in the driveway.
"Blue Jeep Cherokee," Cowboy says without hesitation. But we never see it.
A few minutes later, the Thunderbird is unhitched from the truck and sitting in a deserted liquor-store parking lot across town. Cowboy is in the car's front passenger seat, his feet resting on a pile of papers taken from the glove box. The Jimmy Eat World song "The Middle"—"Everything, everything will be just fine/Everything, everything will be all right"—is playing on the Thunderbird's radio. Foo Dog calls the cops and tells them what he and Cowboy have just done.
"You can really tell what kind of people had the car by what they kept inside," says Cowboy, who used one of his "try-out" keys to start the car. "We find a lot of marijuana and drug paraphernalia in the cars. A lot of pornography, too. I remember one car that had a ton of gay porn hidden under the trunk mat with the spare tire. Guys hide their porn in the cars so their wives won't find it."
Cowboy then begins tagging and bagging all the items in the car—including a stuffed animal, maps and a jacket up front; a copy of Orange Coast magazine; and two cans of refried beans in the trunk.
When they're done, Foo Dog gets behind the wheel of the Thunderbird and Cowboy gets back in his truck. He sits beneath a photo of his bikini-clad wife with the legend "I Love You." "It's there so if I get shot, it's the last thing I see," he says.
Cowboy and Foo Dog—who did not want us to use their real names—are repo men. "We're just peckerwood white guys," said Foo Dog. "Just homeboy white guys."
They drive all over the county, a thousand miles per week, Sunday through Thursday. They are bank agents hired to steal cars back from people who can't make their payments. Of course, it's not really stealing, since the cars they're taking belong to the banks that hire Cowboy and Foo Dog.
This is the story of one night's work.
I met them in Costa Mesa three hours before they went after the Thunderbird. They were quick to lay down the ground rules.
"Do you swear?" Foo Dog asks me.
"Fuck, yeah," I say.
"That's fine," says Cowboy, "but I don't wanna hear G-D."
"Yeah, my buddy's a real Bible-thumper," says Foo Dog.
Later, as they haul to auction a couple of cars from the previous night, Cowboy playfully taunts me.
"You have a truck like this," Cowboy says, referring to a Mazda he picked up the night before. Using a Slim Jim, he enters the truck in half the time it would take me to pull out my key and unlock the door.
"Those trucks are really easy to break into," says his partner. "But BMWs and Mercedes aren't. You can't break into a BMW. We took a hammer to the window, and it wouldn't break. No bullshit."
After dropping off the cars at the auction lot, the guys head to their first target: an F-150 pickup in downtown Anaheim. The company sheet on the car says it's at an apartment building, but they disagree. The case is too old. They illuminate a few trucks in the complex lot with their Maglites, but nothing looks right. After a few minutes, they pull the sheet from the clipboard and move on to the next one, a Chevy Cavalier in Santa Ana. Same deal.
In these cases, the guys become little more than intelligence gatherers. They will report back that the car wasn't at this address, and the search will have to continue another time.
Around 12:30 a.m., they go for food. At a corner not far from a Jack in the Box a homeless woman sits hunched over forward, sleeping soundly.
"We give bums unclaimed money and jackets we find in the cars," says Cowboy. "We're out of jackets right now. There are a lot of people living on the streets in Santa Ana. They're really hurting."
Then it's off to their empty office, located in a nondescript North County warehouse. While Foo Dog eats at a cluttered desk, Cowboy makes keys next to the "wall of shame"—a collection of personal photos taken from cars and never claimed. Most are of families, kids and loved ones. One was of two women lifting their tops for the camera. Another showed a woman in the water, wearing a nearly transparent swimsuit.
They are accustomed to the public's interest in their work. "All the time, people come up to us and say their buddy used to be a repo guy until he was shot," says Cowboy as he punches out key blanks. "And he was always shot with a shotgun—for some reason, the shotgun is very popular. The worst are people who come up to us and ask what we're doing. 'Better not be fuckin' stealing my car!' they say. It's all bullshit."
An old truck sits behind him, overflowing with trash bags filled with items taken from cars. And a Camaro, once driven by a tow-truck operator who fell behind on his payments; the Club he used to protect it is still locked to the steering wheel.
By 1:30 a.m., they are back out on the streets, looking for a Lexus. The sheet says it's probably parked outside a house, but once again, they can't find it. This isn't surprising. Once a sheet said they had to find a Suzuki Esteem when the target was actually a Suzuki Samurai.
A half-hour later, they head to a car dealership in Garden Grove to find a pickup truck driven by an employee there. The sheet instructs them to find a security guy who supposedly knows the truck's whereabouts.
As they park in front of the dealership, they see the security guy standing out front; he says he's waiting for a cab. Cowboy gets out and asks him about the truck, but he says he doesn't know where it is. All the security guy knows is that it isn't on the lot. The cab finally comes, and he leaves.
"I can't believe we ran into the right guy," says Cowboy. But he's not sure he believes the man. "You know, that truck's probably on the fucking roof."
A few minutes later, they're in Westminster for another search. This time, they're trying to find a car in a residential neighborhood. But the address on the sheet takes them to a small office park. "This is where the guy told the bank he 'garages' his car," says Cowboy. "People are such liars."
Next they grab the Thunderbird, secure it in storage, and head to Aliso Viejo on the empty 73 toll road. They encounter just one person, a tollbooth operator. As Cowboy drives off, he warns her, "Watch out for Sasquatch!"
Before he started repoing cars, Cowboy was a physical trainer. One of his clients was a repo guy. He showed Cowboy the ropes, and the rest is history. His partner has a slightly different story.
"I was a manager at Boeing," says Foo Dog. "I've got a business degree. I was in charge of scheduling all the work in the machine shop. I kept the shop schedule so everything came together at the same time. Then I got laid off. I could've had another job just like it, but I didn't bother. I hooked up with this guy, and I love it. I get to work with my buddy. I can provide a home for my son, and I'm there for him. I'm head coach for all his sports. Then again, my sleep pattern is screwed. Your body gets torn up pretty bad."
Their first South County target is a big black F-150 pickup. The sheet says it's at some cavernous apartment complex. They find the pickup in just a few minutes, parked facing a wall with cars on either side. They also find that the guy who drives the pickup lives in an apartment overlooking the parking space. Once again, even though it's 4 a.m., the dull blue light from a TV flickers in the apartment window.
Because of a large trailer hitch on the back of the pickup, Cowboy has to back in his tow truck at a 45-degree angle. After doing so, he and Foo Dog get out and start hooking up the hitch and chains.
For a while, the clanking chains are the only sound to be heard. Then the pickup's alarm shatters that silence.
But the apartment remains quiet. Somehow, the whole complex stays quiet. Cowboy and Foo Dog go on with their work.
The alarm doesn't stop. Once again, I find myself staring at the apartment, watching for the slightest movement. I see nothing.
When they finally finish, the guys get back in the truck and begin easing the massive pickup out of its parking space. Even with the alarm blaring, there's no sign of life in the apartment or anywhere else in the complex. Slowly, methodically, Cowboy negotiates the truck through the complex as the pickup's lights flash and the alarm screams.
"No matter how many times you jack cars," says Foo Dog as the truck rolls into the street, "it still gives you a rush."
Foo Dog knows about the rush. A month ago, he was driving a car they had just repoed when he lost control and crashed it into a freeway center divider. He broke his ankle, but he didn't skip a beat. Not only was he back at work the next night, but he even waited until he finished that night's work before going to the doctor.
"A big problem in the industry is that some guys just want excitement," says Cowboy. "They want to steal cars. They're hoods. They don't last, but they do give us a bad name. Most repossessors use drivers, but they're usually knuckleheads. They do all kinds of dumb shit—messing with the car radios, then BAM! Guys do that shit all the time. But Foo Dog is a pro. He's really my partner."
A few blocks from the Aliso Viejo apartment complex, a white van suddenly appears in the truck's rear-view mirror, hauling ass toward us.
"Here he comes," says Cowboy, slowing the F-150-encumbered truck way down and moving into the street's center lane. The van races alongside but never slows down. Neither do any of the three cars following it.
Cowboy drives around until he reaches a dead end at the Benny Hinn Ministries. There he turns the truck around so it's facing the street.
First they disable the Ford's alarm. This requires careful work. "We absolutely can't damage the cars," says Cowboy. "The state of California has one-time redemption, so these people could get their cars back. For that reason, we never use screwdrivers on ignitions."
When the guys finally open up the F-150, they find motocross gear, speakers, even an unopened box of expensive chocolates. Cowboy gets out his cell phone and calls the guy who drove it.
He tells the guy he has just repoed the car. He tells him there is a lot of stuff in the pickup, and if he wants it, they would come back and deliver it to him. He also says the pickup takes a special transponder ignition key, and he would like it. Cowboy says if this is too much, he'll just store the stuff, and the guy can get it later. But Cowboy adds that he doesn't want "the hassle" of making a new key, and he wants the original. Now.
The guy agrees to surrender the key.
"I expect you to be polite, okay?" says Cowboy as he ends the call.
You can never be too careful in this business. "A guy just last week threw a wrench at me from his balcony at 4 a.m.," says Cowboy, all trace of compassion drained from his voice. "If a guy gets violent, he probably won't get his car back. The bank gets bothered when violence is committed on one of their agents. Pushing around a repo man is like pushing around the mailman or UPS man. We're just out doing a job. It's nothing personal. But people freak out. I remember one woman, we let her get her stuff out of her car, and she poured antifreeze into it just to fuck with us."
Cowboy and Foo Dog finish their work on the pickup at 4:20 a.m., and we head back to the apartment complex.
"This is where he's way nicer than me," says Foo Dog as Cowboy goes over to the apartment. While Cowboy is a few yards away, Foo Dog keeps watch.
Eventually the guy comes out, smoking and dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. He gives Cowboy the key and tells him how he couldn't make the payments because he'd been laid off.
"We've all been laid off," says Foo Dog when Cowboy returns.
"I've been laid," says Cowboy as he starts the engine.
As they leave the apartment complex, Cowboy spots a small rabbit hopping around the shrubs.
"We see animals constantly," Foo Dog said earlier in the evening. "We've saved raccoons in Laguna Niguel. A baby raccoon was stuck in a trash can. The rest of the family was hissing at us, but we threw a blanket in there so he could climb out."
"I've got three dogs I brought home that we picked up," says Cowboy.
"He's an animal lover," says Foo Dog.
"Someone's gotta love 'em," Cowboy fires back.
As they drive through the empty streets, the tow truck's passenger door rattles incessantly. It's a big, white Chevy truck with an immensely powerful engine. But because it weighs less than 10,000 pounds, the Chevy is actually considered a "tow car."
In the back are a couple of caster-mounted jacks used to move cars that are parallel-parked, tools, and trash bags filled with stuff taken from cars. It has no tailgate and a black single-ram hydraulic hitch. "Power up, gravity down," Cowboy explains. "It comes right off. People don't really recognize it when they see it."
This is their backup truck; they blew the transmission on their main truck weeks ago. That's not surprising, since they put 60,000 miles on that truck last year alone.
They drive with the windows rolled down because they get in and out so often. The heaters don't work, so it gets cold. To keep from freezing they wear sweaters and knit caps. To pass the time on the road, they joke with each other and sometimes point out license plate sequences that don't seem to match the year of the car.
With Foo Dog driving the pickup and Cowboy in his truck, they set out for their next target: a Hyundai, also allegedly parked in an Aliso Viejo apartment complex. Finding the complex isn't easy, but once there, they locate the car with no problem. But the license plate on the car is different from the one on the sheet, so Cowboy checks the Vehicle Identification Number. It's a match. Foo Dog parks the pickup near the entrance of the complex, and both men hook up the Hyundai. By now, the morning sky is overcast, with sunrise just an hour away.
"We're going to make contact on this one," says Cowboy when they finish. They hunt around for the apartment and knock on the door. No one responds to repeated knocks, so they return to the truck and call her.
"Nope, we can't take money in the field," Cowboy tells her. He also asks her for the key. It takes a few minutes before the woman comes out to empty the car. Cowboy helps her carry some of it.
"She had two baby seats in the back," says Cowboy. "That's why we knocked."
Cowboy and Foo Dog once had to repossess a car belonging to a guy named Alberto or something like that. When they finally found the car, a woman was driving it. This didn't seem to be a problem, as the woman was hot. She was also cooperative—so much so that they let her get her stuff out of the car before they hauled it away.
Oh, and they wanted to know where they might find Alberto or whatever his name was.
"Uh, I'm Alberto," she said in a suddenly male voice.
This unnerved the guys. Still, they were impressed.
"That girl had a smokin'-hot ass," says Cowboy, recalling the incident. "I still think about that ass."
Being around so many people burned by the inability to make monthly payments has given Cowboy and Foo Dog a real hatred of financing.
"I don't finance anything," says Cowboy while driving through the now-sunny streets of Laguna Hills. "I pay for everything up front or I don't buy it. If you miss three payments, then we show up. And this can happen to anyone. Anyone. We've repoed preachers' cars. We've taken cars belonging to cops. We've taken cars from out front of million-dollar homes. Orange County is a place where a lot of people live beyond their means.
"Most people think missing three payments means being three months behind in paying, but because you pay on the first of the month, you're only two months behind when you miss your third payment," he says. "These people think it's the worst thing that has happened to them. But for some, it's the best thing because it straightens them out. The best you can do is voluntarily surrender the car."
"Yeah, but less than 10 percent of the people do that," says Foo Dog disgustedly.
Their last target is not one of those 10 percent. It's a Ford minivan belonging to a guy living in Laguna Hills. A little after 6 a.m., we find the van parked in a driveway in front of a very nice house.
"This guy's an attorney," says Cowboy as he slowly drives by. "I just know he's going to be a prick."
Heading down a side street, Foo Dog parks the F-150 as Cowboy unhitches the Hyundai, which he plans to stash there until he can collect it later in the day. Cowboy then readies the tow hitch. As they roll back around the corner to the house, they notice the attorney standing in his driveway.
"Oh, shit!" they yell as Cowboy hurriedly backs the truck out of sight.
After waiting a few minutes, they roll forward again. This time, he's gone. It's daylight now, and a few neighbors are out doing their morning power walks.
Cowboy backs up to the van. He and Foo Dog hook it up just like before. Its odometer shows less than 6,000 miles. But once again, there's a lot of stuff in it, and Cowboy doesn't want the hassle of making a key. So he and Foo Dog knock on the door.
When the attorney answers, Cowboy tells him they're repossessing his car.
"Which one?" he asks. He has three.
After a few moments, they come back, and the attorney starts cleaning out the van.
"He's kind of a nice guy," says Cowboy.
"Yeah, I almost feel sorry for him," says Foo Dog.
When the guy's finished, they meet at the Hyundai and get their stuff together. The eastern sky is a bright orange.
"Shit, we loaded 'em up tonight," says Foo Dog. "It's time to go home."
Their cut is $500—$125 for each car. "That's typical," says Cowboy. "Then again, we may get zero tomorrow night."
Foo Dog drives the F-150 back. Cowboy drives the van. On the 5 freeway headed back to Costa Mesa, we pass a tow truck on the shoulder.
"Now that's a crazy job," says Cowboy. "So dangerous. Guys get hit on the freeway all the time. The most dangerous part of the job is towing on the freeway. It's murderous out there."
Around 6:30 a.m., they drop me off at my car.
"So do you own your car or do you finance?" asks Cowboy as I get out.
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I finance it.
I give him the bank's name.
"Oh, yeah," he says, smiling. "We've done work for them."