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Photograph by Curtis Cartier
Roll Me Away: Bill Leach takes possession of a defaulted Kawasaki Vulcan while the owner's father looks on.

The Repo Diaries

Bill Leach is a Watsonville-based repo man. And business is booming.

By Curtis Cartier

PRESSED DEEP into the front seat cushion of an unmarked Chevy Silverado, Bill Leach grips the steering wheel with pudgy, calloused hands and checks the rearview mirror. In it, behind his doe-eyed wife smiling in the back, sways a wood and steel flatbed trailer loaded with a pair of motorcycles. Neither one belongs to him. Neither one belongs to the men who had them parked in their garages a couple of hours before, either. Both, in fact, belong to the bank, and the only one happy about that at this point is the man at the wheel. Leach is a repo man, and business is booming.

"I told you Saturday was a good day to catch 'em," he says with a lippy smile, accelerating onto Highway 1 and heading back to his home office in Watsonville. "I try and do the Lord's work. I'll listen to them, I'll be their friend, but they got themselves in this situation and I still gotta pick up their vehicle.'"

Leach--who is short and heavyset, with a frizzled white goatee, mesh hat and oily jeans--looks the part of a repo man, although he could just as easily pass for an auto mechanic or long haul trucker. Devoted Christian, husband of 27 years and father of five grown kids, he's been a tow truck driver for 24 years and a licensed California Repossession Agent since 2001. With his wife and business partner, Kathy, always riding shotgun, Leach still maintains Happy Hooker Towing, doing simple jobs for law enforcement and private customers on occasion.

His bread and butter these days, however, comes from the banks that fax him 20 to 25 requests each week to find folks who are two months late or more on their vehicle loan payments. His job is to take back the goods--everything from motorcycles and cars to jet skis, boats, ATVs and even, recently, a $125,000 road-paving machine. Leach has repo'd just about everything a person can purchase on credit.

Lately he's got all the business he can handle. Since 2007, he says, the number of bank repossessions he has averaged has nearly doubled. Indeed, though giving a slightly more modest estimate, spokesman Mike Stoller of GMAC Financial Services, the nation's top auto lender, says his company's repossessions have increased 22 percent in that time. That's a huge number for a lender that already repossessed about 70,000 vehicles per year before the current economic meltdown.

On this foggy Saturday, Leach has confiscated two motorcycles without incident. The first, a 2007 Suzuki "crotch rocket"-style street bike with a smashed front end and a sticker reading "unlucky" on the rear seat, was purchased by a Sand City cabinetmaker named Art Brost as a gift for his son A.J. and A.J.'s "douchebag" friend Eric Donwell. Brost knew Leach by name when he arrived, having met him a year earlier when he had come to collect a different motorcycle on which Art had defaulted. Both Art and A.J. said they were relieved to be rid of the machine.

"Get this stupid thing out of here," said A.J., a shirtless, swearing twentysomething as he wheeled out the damaged motorcycle from a covered garage.

"My buddy needed some help. My dad helped out and bought him a bike, put it in his name, you know, then he just flaked out, quit making payments, met up with some chick and took off on me. Fucker took it one night; he was all coked up and he crashed it. Trying to kill himself or something. I wish he had died. Never buy shit for your friends."

After loading up the bike with the help of his wife and making his standard "I hope I don't see you again" goodbye, Leach had set his Garmin GPS locater to an address in Salinas and hit the road again. There, he'd met an elderly Hispanic couple at their apartment, who, after some difficulty with the language barrier, opened a small garage and handed over their son's mint-condition Kawasaki Vulcan, a stunning midnight blue cruiser with barely 2,000 miles on the odometer. Making short but thorough work of tying down the bike and contacting the local sheriff's office to report the pickup--a step he's legally required to complete within an hour of repossession--Leach and his wife hit In-N-Out Burger, then set a course for home, their job completed.

And now, as Leach expertly backs up the trailer to a temporary holding pen where he'll unload his payload until the bank sends a diesel truck to pick it up, he lets out a satisfied chuckle and throws his truck into park.

"I love this job," he says. "I'm not their enemy. But people enter into a contract and they need to understand they have to hold up their end of it. Otherwise, they're gonna see me."

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