Photograph by Scott Council
We are looking for trouble: bobtail tankers, two of them, made by Kenworth, operated by a trucker, and wanted by a bank.
Oddly, they have disappeared, and that is no small thing. Their tractors—cabs, doors, and engine hoods—are red. Their tanks are white. Their bumpers, wheels, and running boards gleam in the sun. Quentin Gutierrez figures the two trucks together are worth half a million dollars.
Quentin is a repo man. He is five feet eleven, as smart as two foxes, and as ballsy as Dirty Harry on angel dust. On this Tuesday afternoon we are in his Ford Crown Victoria P71, bought at a police auction. Quentin is on this quest at the behest of the bank, because the trucker is eight months behind on his payments. I’m riding shotgun. The phrase is apt, derived from the stagecoach days when drivers needed protection—except I’m smaller than Quentin and only half as smart as just one fox, or I wouldn’t be here.
This is the northwestern end of the San Fernando Valley. It is ranch country. Less than a mile up a rise stands a comely home surrounded by acreage, gates, and dogs. On a plateau, at maybe 40 feet, are the remains of a few trucks, some of them charred. Quentin has been here before. At that time the two Kenworths, almost brand-new, were on the hillside, blocked behind several other trucks. There were about 12 in all. He could not get at the Kenworths, but he can prove they were there. He took pictures of them. Now, it is plain to see, the Kenworths are gone.
“The guy has them stashed somewhere,” Quentin says. He is 48 but sounds younger, like Sean Penn in Colors. He shifts in his seat and runs a hand through his dark hair, cut high and tight and peppered with gray. His hard brown eyes stare straight ahead. Like the few trucks still on the hill, a gate at the bottom has been burned. It is open. We drive in and park. Quentin remembers a fire that swept across this edge of the Valley not long ago. “I was on my way home. We went to Oxnard to repossess a bulldozer. On the way back we saw the fire—that was it; that whole canyon caught fire.” The Kenworths obviously are not among the charred frames and fenders that remain on the slope. The trucker, Quentin thinks, must have gotten both of them out in time.
A man and a woman in an SUV drive down from the house. They pull up. The man lowers a window.
“You’re trespassing,” he says. “What the fuck are you doing!”
He opens his door and lumbers out. His teeth are clamped, his muscles tense. His eyes are riveted on Quentin. I am standing close by, frozen.
“You going to assault me?” Quentin says. “I don’t give a fuck. Do it, dude.”
Repo men are financial scavengers. When people don’t make the payments on their cars, trucks, mobile homes, even Caterpillar tractors, the repo men—there aren’t many women—hunt down the vehicles and take them away. Some they tow, others they haul, most often to impound lots where the vehicles can be redeemed if the owners are able to catch up on what they owe. Otherwise their wheels are sold at auction, and the price goes toward the payoff. People don’t like to lose their rides, which makes Quentin Gutierrez’s job tough, often dicey, occasionally dangerous. He is from East L.A., grew up around gangs, and has the street savvy of a survivor. There are times, though, when crises whirl out of control.
Once or twice Quentin has come close to being killed. He is a fast talker, salty, with an irreverent sense of humor, but he does not take confrontations lightly. When his life is at risk, he prays. Clearly, he earns his money. These days one might even think he is well off. After all, when the economy goes down, repossessions go up. Indeed, Quentin’s business has climbed. A growing number of people are losing their jobs, and many can no longer afford their cars, including some who bought them during Cash for Clunkers. For Quentin, however, there is a catch. Some of the banks, credit unions, and finance companies that hire him to retrieve vehicles for nonpayment don’t pay their own bills. One bank alone has stiffed him for $35,000, he says, and a finance company owes him $30,000. What’s more, it is risky to badger the auto lenders to pay up when they are the sources of his business. “You don’t want to piss somebody off,” he says. “It’s like accusing your girlfriend: ‘Is that Brut on you?’?”
The guy on the hillside won’t back off. Quentin uses the word assault deliberately. Petrified as I am, I take note of it.
Quentin is thinking: It’s going to go down, so if you’re going to hit me, hit me. I’m not going to hit back. He can beat my ass, I’ll just put him in jail. Then I’ll sue him for assault and battery.
The man is a cherry bomb, and Quentin has lit the fuse. Now he waits for the explosion. Whatever it’s gonna do, it’s gonna do, he figures. He thinks the guy will swing, maybe pull something out of the SUV to swing with. In the silence it occurs to Quentin: This guy has a beautiful view up here. He had a good business. The problem is that he wanted newer trucks. Who in the hell goes into half a million dollars’ worth of debt when he has ten other trucks working fine?
“If you gonna do it, then do it,” Quentin says. “If you’re gonna assault me, assault me. If not, then get outta here.”
The man hesitates. The woman sits in the SUV.
Quentin stays cool.
“Who the fuck is your friend?” the man asks.
Somehow I stay cool.
“Where’s the trucks?” Quentin asks.
The county took them, the man says. He speaks indistinctly; maybe he says city.
That makes no sense; a bank wants the Kenworths, not government officials—of any kind.
“Your wife owns the property, right?”
The man flares again. “Oh, hey. Oh. Uh…”
Quentin knows too much for comfort. The bank does, too. It has already gone to court and served the guy. But the service was invalid. At the house on the hill are the dogs, a closed gate, and a mailbox. Quentin guesses that the process server put the papers in the mailbox. They must be served in person. There has been no opportunity to have them redelivered, so it’s up to Quentin to get the Kenworths.
The man must know. Quentin can see it in his eyes. His anger is growing. He tells the woman to drive the SUV in front of the gate to block it.
He might hold us captive.
Quentin keeps talking—about the trucks, not about us. Keep the focus on the trucks.
The man will not concede that he has them. Here or anywhere. He keeps trying to say that they have been hauled off. Why would anyone but us take them? It still makes no sense.
Quentin is thinking: The guy has them tucked away somewhere. Brand-new trucks. How the fuck do you live like that, bro? Running and hiding…
The woman has trouble handling the SUV. She backs it up and manages to get it only halfway across the gate.
From behind us comes a shriek. “Move your car!”
A lady who lives nearby and shares the access road is honking and screaming. “Move that car!”
The woman in the SUV does the neighborly thing. She moves it—just enough.
Quentin and I are back in his car. He sees daylight. He guns it.
We race through the gate ahead of the lady, and we are gone.
“If he’s gonna follow us, then he’s gonna follow us,” Quentin says. “If there’s any gunshots, duck.” He grins. “Just don’t duck into my lap.”
There are no gunshots.
We have failed to find the Kenworths. Whether Quentin tries again or not, this run will go down in the annals of Quentin the repo man. “That was a good one, huh?” he says. “You felt the love from the customer.”
Quentin Gutierrez’s first name used to be Daniel. He was the youngest of five boys born in East Los Angeles to Quentin Gutierrez and his wife, Trine. By the time Daniel was in the first grade, it had become clear there would be no sixth son and that his father would have no one named after him. So his parents changed Daniel’s name to Quentin, and he became a junior.
His dad owned an auto shop, and Quentin ditched school to hang out with him. Quentin spent hours at the shop. In addition to the five boys, the Gutierrezes had three girls. They owned their home and another house, which they rented out. With such a big family, however, much of their furniture came from Goodwill, and dinner sometimes was powdered milk and macaroni and cheese.
His brother Joe joined a gang. A neighbor taught Joe to box and was coaxing him out of the gang when five rivals jumped him and cut his throat. Joe bled to death. Quentin was 11. He remembers a deputy sheriff coming to the house. Quentin was sleeping on the couch. He heard the deputy tell his mother, “Your son died.” Quentin began to cry, weeping under a blanket, trying to be strong because he was a boy, and his older brothers had instilled in him: Boys don’t cry. Now he had lost one of his brothers, and he loved him and missed him. “You’re angry,” Quentin says. “You want to get revenge, so you turn to the gang as your backup.”
Another of his brothers, Jimmy, was hit by a bullet. “He was sitting in the car, parked in the driveway across from our house. They shot several times. I ducked, and when I got up, I saw my brother bleeding.” Quentin drove him to an emergency room. “They said they didn’t do head injuries. I said, ‘Give him oxygen! Do something!’?” Jimmy died. Quentin was 16. The shots had come from a car. “I saw the car,” Quentin says, “but the cops said, ‘Did you see [the shooter]?’ I couldn’t lie. I didn’t see him. I wish I could have said I saw him…. It really puts a scar on you.”
Quentin got into a lot of trouble. He says he smoked a little of this, snorted a little of that, and was caught trespassing. “The cops beat the shit out of me,” he says. He went through the windshield of a car, crashed in a van, and got into a motorcycle accident, which broke his back in three places. “All the pain I felt…it’s like God saying ‘You’ve got to straighten your shit up.’ It was like getting another chance.” So was support from his godparents. They ran In Jesus Sí Se Puede, an afterschool program for troubled kids, in East L.A. While he was still a teenager, they took Quentin in and had him baptized. “They believed in me and prayed,” Quentin says. “They put their hands on me. ‘In the name of the Lord, please take any badness out of him.’ It’s funny—you’re smart, and you grow older. One day I just quit it all.”
By then Quentin had watched countless people pay to have their cars towed to his father’s shop to be repaired. He asked himself, Why can’t I make the money? When he was 17, he sold a motorcycle and bought a beat-up truck with a yellow fender, a blue fender, a black door, but no engine. He installed a motor and drove on bald tires until he could afford new ones. He used the truck to begin towing cars. Because he was working for his father’s business, he did not need a commercial license. He spent hours on the freeways bird-dogging people who needed help. When a prospect said AAA was on its way, Quentin pointed out that the auto service would begin charging after only a few free miles—and that he would charge less. It was his little hustle.
Some nights he bird-dogged until 3 or 4 a.m. and came home with $300 to $400. One day he picked up a car for a man from a finance company. “It didn’t dawn on me until later that he had given me a repo. I only charged him for a tow. He was burning me, but I wanted to work, and I was excited. He said, ‘We’re paying you $150.’ Nobody told me the rate was $300 to $325. In one night I would pick up five to eight cars—times $150. I couldn’t complain.”
With that, Quentin became a repo man. During his twenties and thirties, he repossessed cars and trucks at an enviable clip. Before long he was hiring help. “I had a guy with one arm, used to pick up 15, 20 cars a week,” he says. At one point he hired a young man named Mike. “He was always mad. We called him Mad Mike.”
Quentin paid his men on commission. “I had Buster, Lefty, me, Chuy, four or five guys. It was good.”
From the annals of Quentin the repo man:
“Some stuff’s easy, bro. They leave it on the street, and you just back up to it,” he says. Some repos are even fun. One was a Batmobile used at the premiere of Batman. He put on a Batman suit to pick it up. “When I was coming down the freeway, every kid in a car was glued to the window, like, ‘Batman! Batman!’ We all need heroes, man.” Other repos can be heart wrenching, and Quentin has a soft spot. He retrieved a Chevy pickup that belonged to a woman on dialysis. She cried. “If you take my car,” she said, “how am I going to go see the doctor?” Not long before, Quentin had gotten a good deal from a friend on a Chrysler Cordova, and he gave it to her.
Many repos are tricky. As he hooked a pickup in South-Central, a man charged him with a trash can. “He was screaming: ‘Motherfucker, aaargh! Why did you do this to me?’?” On another occasion, also in South-Central, Quentin jumped into another pickup. “It didn’t want to start. Finally it did, and a guy dived out of the kitchen window in his underwear, a young little gangster. He grabs a sledgehammer, and he’s chasing me up the street in his underwear, trying to throw the sledgehammer into a window.” In San Pedro one day, a woman and her son accosted one of his drivers, broke a window in the driver’s tow truck with a baseball bat—and then all the windows in the car he was taking.
“It’s like a bank robber,” Quentin says. “He’s either going to get away, get killed, or get put in jail. A repossessor, you’re either going to get away and make money, get your ass kicked—or get killed. You run across cops, and they tell you, ‘Man, you’ve got a dangerous job.’?” Indeed, Quentin has been shot at. “Right off of Fair Oaks, off the 210 freeway,” he says. “We scoped out the car about three o’clock in the morning. These guys pop out of a house and start shooting. We were being followed by these guys shooting at us. They were chasing us in the damn car.”
While Quentin was repossessing cars, he also did some acting. A friend in the Screen Actors Guild steered him into it. Quentin played in commercials for 7-Eleven stores, Budweiser, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, appeared in the soap opera General Hospital, and portrayed a drug lord’s brother in The Killing Zone, a 1991 low-budget thriller. He supplied cars for the 1984 cult movie Repo Man, in which he was a tow truck driver, and he gave actor Harry Dean Stanton one of his lines: “I’m going to buy myself a tow truck, a couple of pit bulls, and run a yard.”
During 1979 and the early 1980s, Quentin chauffeured comics for Mitzi Shore, owner of the Comedy Store in West Hollywood. “Howie Mandel, when he was nobody. Dice [Clay], when he was nobody. [Sam] Kinison, when he was nobody. Bob Saget. Arsenio Hall. Paul Mooney. You ever see him live? Just yell out ‘Repo!’ and he’ll say, ‘Where’s my Mexican friend Quentin?’?” Quentin maintained Shore’s V-12 Jaguar and sold her son, the comic Pauly Shore, who now runs the club, his first car—a repossessed station wagon. At one point Quentin produced and hosted a Comedy Store variety show, did stand-up, and performed sketches.
After a brief marriage and the birth of two daughters, Quentin divorced. He won custody of the children. “I walked away from comedy and acting because I needed to raise my kids,” he says. In addition to recovering cars, he got a job repossessing furniture and appliances. “I couldn’t do it.” That soft spot again. “I didn’t have the heart. You walk in and see a kid’s bunk beds. They wanted us to take the bunk beds, somebody’s refrigerator. It’s just not right.” Even today, Quentin buys homeless people breakfast whenever he sees them at McDonald’s. He and his ex-wife are friends. His daughters are still a big part of his life, but now that they are grown and training to become nurses, Quentin uses some of his time speaking at programs like the one his godmother ran. “I talk about the things I did,” he says. “?‘Hey, when I was younger, I used to get high and get drunk. I belonged to a gang.’ ‘No, homes, you don’t look like that.’ I show my gang pictures. I talk about how I changed. It means something to those kids.”
He is also a sheriff’s volunteer. Quentin has a Superman streak. In 1994, he and a buddy were returning from a New Year’s Eve party when they spotted a Buick Regal going the wrong way on the 10 freeway. Quentin pulled his Porsche to the center divider, stopped, and hit the flashers. “What the fuck are you doing, dude?” his friend said. The errant driver was not going fast. “I’m going to jump in the car,” Quentin said. He leaped, opened a door, and maneuvered the car to the shoulder. A Highway Patrol officer arrived, siren blaring, lights flashing. “She was a female sergeant,” Quentin says. “She thanked me. ‘Are you going to give me a hero letter?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll take care of you.’?”
“Fuck it, might as well document your life.” The letter of commendation is on a wall of his Bell Gardens office, not far from his home.
From the annals of Quentin the repo man:
Some recoveries drive him to prayer. Once he repossessed a BMW, locked, alarmed, and parked in a driveway. “A guy sticks his head out of the window of a little duplex. He’s screaming. He rolls back, gets a gun, a silver revolver. He sticks his hand out through the window and says, ‘Freeze, motherfucker, I’m going to fucking kill you. Put my car down.’ He comes out, gets me on my knees. He’s got me execution style with a gun behind my head. I’m negotiating with the guy. ‘I’m sorry, I’m doing my job, the bank ordered it, I’m just doing my job.’ He’s cussing me out, saying, ‘I’m gonna kill you.’ I’m talking to God in my head. ‘Well, I’m going to get killed tonight, I’m going to get shot, I’m going to die.’ I ain’t ashamed to say it: The man with the gun is always right, unless I’ve got one—but in this business you cannot have one. We’re a Barney Fife repo company. Finally the guy lets me up, and I unhook the Beemer. The guy says, ‘Get the fuck out of my driveway!’ I pull out, looking in the mirrors in case he starts letting off some rounds, so I’ll be ready to duck.” Out of sight, Quentin called 911. The LAPD arrived, raided the duplex, and found drugs and more guns. Under police protection, Quentin hooked up the BMW a second time and towed it away.
More recently a bank sent Quentin to repossess a man’s car at a Chevron station where the man worked. Quentin told the bank: “We have to stake him out and catch him later. ‘No, no, get him now!’ So we get the car, and we get chased down. The guy comes up to me with a Glock. He had a neck the size of your head and a gangster jacket. He’s going sideways with the Glock to my face. I had a bulletproof vest under my shirt, so I’m thinking, I’m going to grab the gun and put it to my chest. Right there, that day, I was praying to God, saying, ‘Fuck, what did I do wrong?’ As the guy got closer, I started saying, ‘Forgive me for my sins. I’m sorry.’ Whatever happens, you just have to deal with it. I started talking, defusing him. A detective had busted his brother. He started telling me about it. ‘No,’ I said, ‘that wasn’t right….’ Then I heard tires squealing. It was the LAPD coming to rescue me.”
If Quentin can’t find a car with information from a bank, he calls it a dry run. He tries computer programs that offer ways to search for people as well as the post office and credit bureaus that provide new addresses. He even calls 411 and knocks on doors. If the owner surrenders the car, Quentin calls it a laydown, or a gravy job. Otherwise it becomes a hook and book. “You want to hook it and get the hell out of there without being confronted,” he says. “I’m best at night. Basically, I’m a professional car thief. I’m licensed to steal.” He tries to be invisible. “The art to repossessing is being sneaky and never being caught.” If a car is blocked in a driveway or locked in a garage, he waits, then follows the driver to wherever the car becomes accessible—at a parking lot, for instance. Quentin crawls beneath it. “Every car has a linkage to put it in neutral. My guy Lefty got smart. He started making a little book. He would write down which size wrench went for each car. Then he would write a diagram—what it looked like under there. Einstein said, ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.’ And that’s what he was doing. If the car is in a driveway, you push it out, because then you’re away from the house, so you’re quieter, you’re sneakier—more stealthy.”
In some cases he can have a locksmith make a key based on a car’s vehicle identification number. Some vehicles, however, have computer chips that foil these keys. Then towing is the only option. “There’s times when you go in there and hook up and make all this noise—and nobody wakes up, bro. And you’re laughing. That’s your rush.” Some repo men get too anxious and damage property. “It’s all liability. I’m not going to do something aggressive. Two million dollars bond, wrongful repo; a million-dollar dishonesty bond—I’d run myself over to sue myself. There was a repossessor, he takes a car with a lady in it. This is the story they tell us at the seminar we have to go to every other year to get recertified. The guy tows the car back to the yard with the freakin’ person in it. By law, if you move somebody against their will for over a foot, it can be considered kidnapping. So he tows her back to his yard and tells her, ‘Lady, get out of the car,’ and she doesn’t. He closes the yard gate and locks her in and lets the dogs loose.” She sued. “Cut a fence, pick a lock, and when you are caught, you get busted for grand theft, burglary. It’s not repossessing anymore. It becomes a crime.”
Another way to get into trouble is by stealing personal property from repossessed cars. Most of what Quentin finds is trash. “Pigsty, everything’s a mess,” he says. “You try to bag it, tag it, inventory it.” Dog treats. Gas cans. Jumper cables. Cheap floor mats. Dirty baby seats. Air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors. Chicken bones. Hamburger wrappers. “I could do a survey of junk food, what sells the most. It’s either Burger King or McDonald’s.” Repossessors must hold the personal property for 30 days. Quentin has held valuable items for up to eight months. The most money he ever found was $25,000 in cash. “The temptation’s always there,” he says. “But if it catches up to you, you lose everything that you’ve worked for.” In another story told at the recertification seminar, a woman’s family Bible was stolen from her car. “She sued the repo company for loss of property, and I think she got maybe $300,000 for the Bible, a family heirloom.
“I got this lady one time whose friend called to say she wanted her Christmas presents. I don’t see any Christmas presents in this Benz. She’d been chased down by the police, a high-speed chase. She was under house arrest. There were no presents in the car. Her friend kept bugging me, called the bank, reported me. I kind of peek into this box, a FedEx box, and it’s a block of weed, compressed and wrapped in plastic. They were shipping drugs through FedEx.” Quentin gave it to the police. “The lady comes to pick up her property…. ‘Hi, ma’am. Your property’s here—except for your FedEx.’ The lady walked out. Never heard from her again.”
From the annals of Quentin the repo man:
“In Beverly Hills a high roller cusses out the guy at the bank. I think the bank guy had treated him like shit, so the multimillionaire calls the bank guy an asshole: ‘Who the hell do you think I am, you piece of shit? I’ll pay you when I pay you.’ So we went to get his car. Every mansion we’d go to was being remodeled. He owned four or five. I think it was Lefty, he tailed the guy to the airport, and the guy takes off in a plane, so Lefty snags the car. The guy comes back to town. He’s down eight, nine grand on a Mercedes-Benz V-12 convertible. This guy’s gonna rip me a new asshole. I have to deal with him. The guy pays me in cash—$9,000-something plus my storage and repo—and he goes, ‘I’m impressed. You did a hell of a job. You got me.’ He shook my hand, and he gave me a fucking $100 tip.”
Quentin and I are at his favorite haunt, Don Cuco’s in Burbank. He knows its staff and most of the regulars. A Cadillac margarita and a large bowl of tortilla soup, with extra onions, are on their way before he sits down. After dinner, we take a walk.
“What,” I ask, “do you get out of being a repo man?”
“Basically, you get good money,” he says. “If you know what you’re doing and you’ve learned from your mistakes, it flows.”
“Yeah, but what about spiritually?”
He thinks for a few seconds, an eternity for him. I remember something he said one day when we were searching for a car. “Some people, I feel bad taking their stuff, because they’ve hit hard times. Some repo men say, ‘They deserve it.’ Some people, granted, do deserve it. But I know we all screw up, and some people fall into a hard time: The husband who lost his job, or the lady living in the hotel with the dialysis. There’s some good people out there, real good people. And there’s people you respect, because they’ll come out and say, ‘Here, take it, I’m sorry.’ You try to make them feel comfortable. It happens to everybody.”
Now, in the nippy air outside Don Cuco’s, Quentin Gutierrez says, “Ernest Hemingway said it the best. ‘There is no hunting like the hunting of man.’ I guess that’s my high. Tracking people.”
He pauses for another small eternity. “Twenty-nine years as a repo man, and I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. I believe the more bad you do, the more bad you’re going to get. The more good you do, don’t expect anything back, but the road gets a little easier.”
And before he reaches the end of that road?
“I’m hustling it. A hustler’s always gonna come out on top. That’s how it works.”