Night Moves Are the Right Moves for Repo Man Dave Wright, Collector of Cars for Unhappy Creditors

updated 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

It was 2 a.m. Most of Denver was bedded down beneath a three-inch blanket of freshly fallen snow, and Dave Wright was on the prowl. He and his men had their eyes on a church van in the driveway of a Baptist minister's house. But let Dave tell it: "We backed in, hooked up and towed it. No problem. Then we drove about three miles to a Chevron station and pulled in to phone the police and tell them we had it. What we didn't know was that the minister had heard us, jumped in his other car and followed our tracks in the snow. I didn't even see him pull up." Wham! Bam! No thank you, ma'am! Wright didn't even have time to mutter a prayer before the enraged cleric snatched a two-by-four off the back of the tow truck. "Next thing I knew, here's the whole side of the phone booth caved in," says Wright. "He was a little bitty guy, but hopping mad. Fortunately, I was already on the phone to the police."

For Wright, 37, a slender six-footer who favors tapered sideburns and tooled-leather cowboy boots, the Night of the Minister provided maybe a shade more excitement than he was looking for, but essentially it was just another night at the old stand, one more wee-hour ramble in search of collectibles. Wright is the owner and president of Credit Casualty Recovery, Inc. Which is to say he's a "repo man." People—bankers mostly—pay him to repossess cars, boats, even airplanes, from people who don't keep up the payments. It would cost the bankers about $1,000 to go through channels and get a court order. At $175 a pop, Wright is a bargain. He's also a bargain because, even though nine out of 10 commissions are straight tow-and-go, people can be reluctant to surrender their wheels.

Like the little old lady who ripped a branch off a tree and clouted Wright upside the head. Or, more harrowing still, the time he tried to take back a car from a guy who'd been in a shoot-out with the cops the night before. "They'd let him out on bail," says Wright. "He came out of the house with a pistol and confronted me with it across the back of the truck. Then he pulled the trigger. It went click-click-click-click-click-click, like that. It was empty because he'd never reloaded it. So he flings it in the backyard, and I'm still trying to get the car hooked up. Then he comes back out with an ax handle. He hits me three times, and the third one ruptures my kidney. The funny thing," says Wright, "was that he charged the police with brutality from the night before, and when he showed up in court he was in a wheelchair. I was happy to point out that he'd been rather active in the meantime."

Sometimes the repo business shapes up as a combination of Play Your Hunch and Beat the Clock. Like the time Dave tracked a Nebraska drug dealer into the mountains outside Silverthorne, Colo. He could see the guy cutting a deal in the basement of a small apartment building, and he knew the guy saw him. "This was a rough crowd," says Dave, "but we knew we could hook up and go before the guy could get down the hall and up the stairs." Wright towed the spanking new car to the local police, who confiscated a couple of joints from the glove compartment before releasing it to him. "Two days later, the guy calls and says he wants to come over and get his personal belongings out of it," Wright remembers. "He's very pleasant, super nice. Between the seats was a console. He raised the top, and it had a fake bottom. Out came a brown bag, contents unknown. You can speculate it probably wasn't a submarine sandwich."

Wright and his repo crew almost always work at night. One man, usually "skip-tracing" specialist Albert Morgan, who tracks down deadbeats, drives ahead in the "sneaker car," a radio-equipped Toyota wagon. Two more men follow in an innocuous-looking flatbed truck carrying a concealed hydraulic Stow-N-Tow unit with a custom sling for quick hookups. The sling can be equipped with special pegs that a skilled operator can position under a target car's bumper without ever leaving the rig.

Whenever possible, Dave uses the truck, but cars with locked steering columns, front-wheel-drive models and cars parked nose-in at the end of long driveways sometimes require other strategies. Thus, each of Wright's trucks is equipped with $3,000 worth of keys, picks and special tools. The repo crew can open most cars in seconds, pop the ignition, if necessary, and speed off into the night. Japanese cars and Rolls-Royces are like boxes of Cracker Jack, says Wright; BMWs and Mercedeses are the toughest to open. Sometimes skips get creative in foiling the repo men, but Wright says he's seldom confounded. Once, to silence an alarm in an old Corvette, he approached the car before he was ready to take it and shot hair spray into the keyway. "When the driver turned the key," he says, "the tumblers stuck. When he pulled his key out later, they didn't fall back down. Then, when we were ready to take the car, we just turned the keyway with a hairpin."

Over the years Wright figures he's repo'ed some 15,000 vehicles. Not bad for an out-of-work commercial artist who got into the business by answering a newspaper ad back in 1968. In the early days, to establish a rep Wright tried to keep a high profile, looking for the cases other repo men shunned. Now he's mellowed. More often than not he steers a desk instead of his truck, plotting his strikes from a single-story office building on a stockade-fenced, one-acre compound in southeast Denver. He sees himself as thoroughly professional and even goes so far as to speak out against "gorilla" tactics like smashing windshields with a crowbar. In short, the bounty hunter in him has been largely domesticated. No matter. After all these years, Dave Wright confesses that he still gets that old adrenaline jolt each time he takes a car. "It's the uncertainty that does it," he says. "We don't deal with Ward and June Cleaver all the time."

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