Pastor Reflects on Past as a Repo Man
“I pull over, roll down my window, put my hands on the steering wheel where they can be seen, and call out, ‘Good evening, officer. How are you? This is a repossession’,” he says.
Getting ready to make off with someone’s car, isn’t the only time Warren feels that adrenaline rush.
“I feel the same way right before I preach on Sunday mornings,” he said.
Rev. Rex Warren is the pastor of Fairview UMC (Bolivar) and First UMC (Buffalo). He’s a lifelong Methodist who had never foreseen himself becoming a pastor, but he also never thought he’d be a repo man. Warren and his wife Diane started their life together as dairy farmers, milking 40-45 cows on their Polk farm near Bolivar. But eventually, there came a time when the profit margins kept getting thinner despite scaling up in size and technology. Taking the government up on the dairy farmer buyout program in 1986 seemed the only reasonable thing to do. But that left them without a job. Rex had a friend in the recovery business in Kansas City that could use some help. In this case, recovery didn’t mean 12-steps to beating addiction. It meant reclaiming property that had not been paid for.
“Being a farm boy, I could drive anything, so I went to work for him,” Warren said. “The hard part was finding my way around the city.”
At first, Warren had reservations about the repo work and being considered a bad guy, likening himself to Snidely Whiplash from the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. But he soon learned most of the property he was going after was in possession of fraudsters – people who didn’t live where they said they did, didn’t work where they said they did, and did not intend to pay for the vehicle they were driving.
He started with cars, his mainstay, but he branched into heavy equipment. Over time, he bought out his employer and expanded his business. Initially, the primary method was to break into a car, compromise the ignition and drive it away.
“I could be driving off in a locked Toyota pickup in under 20 seconds,” Warren said.
When anti-theft technology started challenging that job, they shifted to using tow trucks. They could also be gone in about 20 seconds.
“You would see someone eating dinner through the window and be gone before they could get outside,” Warren said.
He tried to get out of there quickly just to avoid the conversation that was to come – because when he did get caught, the story was always the same: the person claimed not to be late on payments and that there must be some mistake with the bank.
With the expansion of the business, Warren found himself driving about 70,000 miles a year. He decided to make things easier on himself by learning to fly and buying a plane.
“That turned a five-hour drive to Wichita into an hour and a half,” he said.
The flying skills turned out to be handy, as he got jobs repossessing planes in Orlando, Dallas and Des Moines. They ranged from small, older single-engine planes to a new Cirrus SR22 worth several hundred thousand dollars.
He said a secret to getting the planes was recognizing that someone who wasn’t making the payment on his plane probably wasn’t paying any of his other bills, either. “I would meet with the airport manager and offer to pay off the bills in arrears, like the hanger bill, fuel bill and inspection bill. Then, they had to have the plane fueled up and ready to go out on the tarmac. This usually worked,” Warren said.
At the peak, their business was repossessing about 3,000 cars a year. Eight people were working in the office. One person’s full-time job was to write up condition reports on the vehicles.
“On a good night, we might take in 15 cars,” Diane said.
Warren’s daughter generated the repo assignments from the computer. However, Diane did skip tracing – tracking people down.
Warren did not make it a practice of notifying local police before doing a repossession out of caution that someone in the police department would tip the person off.
Throughout his career, he has been behind the wheel of a diversity of rolling stock. Cars have included two Deloreans, a 57 Cadillac, Bentleys, tour buses, custom cars and motorcycles. Four-wheelers were often repossessed in the Ozarks. Sometimes he would come back with a trailer full of them.
At Lake of the Ozarks, boat repossession was also a thing. Sometimes the banker would go around the lake in his boat, the spot where the boat in default of the loan was moored, then ask Warren to get it. He would usually just deliver it to a marina, which would take it from there, typically dry docking it and then selling it.
Sometimes the jobs were large. For example, they did a repossession on a trucking company with 25 road tractors and 30 trailers. In addition, they once shut down a shipping company nationwide, striking at 1 a.m.
“It was a cool night. No one slept,” Warren said. “We worked straight through for about 36 hours.”
All the excitement did have its downsides. He was shot once while repossessing a small boat on a trailer. The bullet hit him in the back and passed through his shoulder. The shooter was prosecuted, and although the facts of the case weren’t disputed, he was found not guilty.
“When the prosecutor asked one of the jurors why he voted not guilty, the juror said that although he shouldn’t have shot him, he was a repo man.”
Warren fully recovered and described the shooting as a non-event.
“I’ve been hurt worse working cattle,” he said.
He has even repossessed a house trailer.
“We went in with a few guys when he wasn’t home, took the skirting off, set the breakables down on the floor, and took off with it,” he said. “The person came home to an empty lot.”
After Warren’s dad died, he backed out of the property recovery business and returned to the farm. He said it was time. The business was shifting toward used car lots that sold cars they financed to people at outrageous interest rates who didn’t understand the terms.
“It’s a predatory business practice, and I didn’t want to be tainted by it,” he said.
Although he’s no longer prowling around snatching property, Warren still sports the “Huntin U” license plate on his truck. He now applies the slogan to his role as a pastor, as he’s huntin for people who need to find their way to Jesus.
Warren took a lay speaking class when he was getting out of the recovery business. Then his District Superintendent asked him if he could help with a little country church for a few months. The District Superintendent started to give him directions, and he explained he could see the church from his house, which was built on the farm that had been in his family for 150 years. This July will mark ten years that he has been pastor at Fairview, and he got First Buffalo added to his charge two years ago.
Warren recently published a book, Huntn U: Theological Reflections of a Repo Man. In it, he shares anecdotes of his adventures and connects them to scripture and his spiritual insight and growth. It is available on Amazon.