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The Repo Man

He's been shot at six times in the past 10 years, and if Bill Shipe were paid a dollar for every time someone pointed a gun at him, he would be a rich man.

Yet this 32-year-old former New Yorker isn't about to give up his lucrative nighttime calling as a repossession agent, where each captured vehicle brings in $200.

Shipe eats, breathes and sleeps repossessions.

Armed with little more than a gold chain around his turtleneck sweater, his hunt for vehicles begins after the sun goes down.

It's here in the shadows, while most people are sleeping, that the repossessor lives.

On a recent February night, the 6-foot-4 Shipe and his team of four co-workers scouted a wanted 1993 Pontiac Sunbird. The vehicle's owner had parked the car at a friend's home, hoping to avoid repossession.

But the trick did not dupe this modern-day "A-team," which relies on wireless Internet, laptops and global positioning systems to track down those who owe.

You would be surprised, for instance, what personal information a $50 bill will turn up, Shipe cracked. "Anybody who's in need of a dollar can be your worst enemy."

Even with high-tech gadgets and the cover of night, repossessions are anything but routine. Only about a third of repossessed cars are in the driveway the first time a repossessor shows up.

"He's been hiding the car for quite some time," Shipe said quietly as he positioned his truck for the seizure. "He never made one payment on the car."

Still, this capture proved easy. In less than 45 seconds and with no run-ins with people, the Sunbird was securely fastened to a hydraulic lift, known as the "sneaker," and on its way to one of three holding lots scattered across the valley.

Not all repossessions go so smoothly.

Five years ago, an irate Logan resident opened fire as Shipe towed the man's pickup. The bullets ended up hitting the retrieved truck.

Shipe was targeted in a separate encounter in a downtown Salt Lake neighborhood three years ago after he was caught snooping around a car. Fortunately for Shipe the bullets missed, instead hitting a nearby shed.

"People have guns everywhere. A lot of them are just warning shots in the air," Shipe said.

"You have to think of it this way: How many people actually will go get the gun? How many people will point a loaded gun? How many of them will shoot? Out of the ones that shoot, how many of them are accurate enough to hit you? Out of the ones that do hit you, how many of them are going to be fatal? Chances are pretty good you'll get away."

When he is not dodging bullets, Shipe can be found trying to win over growling dogs, turning down bribes or even resisting the advances of women dressed in nighties.

Then there are the single mothers and the elderly. Taking their only means of transportation leaves many in tears.

In spite of the situation, most incidents leave Shipe untouched.

"You have to put that aside," he said. "It used to bother me. I took a motor home, a Dodge Caravan and set of four-wheelers off a guy and he cried. He was probably 75 years old. That tweaked my heart for a second."

Other incidents prove humorous, like the time Shipe showed up at a doctor's home to repossess a boat.

"He was having a party. He didn't want to be embarrassed in front of all of his friends so he told me, 'Just go along with my story.' When I was pulling out of the driveway with the boat, he yelled and shook his fist and said, 'And fix it right this time.' "

Perhaps it is Shipe's barefaced approach that makes him so successful. In an average week, his company, Statewide Recovery & Investigations Inc., brings in about 30 vehicles.

"I always, always get the car," Shipe boasted. "I have 98 percent recovery rate within 48 hours."

Burgess Cline, senior vice president of Prime Acceptance Corp., a company that services auto loan contracts, said Shipe is his first choice when a loan goes bad.

"He's very good at what he does," Burgess said. "A lot of times we get the vehicle the very next night. And if it's somebody that I have no address to or don't have phone numbers, he does something to find out where they're at, and within a few days I usually get them."

Shipe's recoveries span the state, from St. George to Idaho and from Wendover to parts of Wyoming.

Repossession is a business that does well during both good and bad economic times, as financial institutions and court orders ensure a steady stream of new repossession requests. According to some estimates, between 1998 and 2002 the number of cars repossessed nationally doubled from 1.2 million to 2.5 million.

Shipe attributes the sharp rise to "second chance" financing, where credit-risky consumers buy into high interest rate loans, but eventually are unable to keep up the payments. Then it is time to hire the repossessor.

That means more business for repossessors like Shipe, who grossed more than $100,000 his first year after starting his company 10 years ago.

A large percentage of Statewide's revenues go toward upkeep of his three trucks, two equipped with $14,000 hydraulic lifts. In addition, insurance premiums on each of the vehicles runs roughly $900 a month, with an average of 200 miles logged on each truck every day.

Even so, Shipe has a knack for his job. His repo leanings began early. As a 15-year-old, he was introduced to the repossession business by his older brother, learning to comb the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

But repossessions in New York are a whole lot more dangerous, he said. Today Shipe is content to keep his searches confined to Utah.

Most recoveries slice through the state's economic strata, from million-dollar neighborhoods in Park City to more modest homes in Magna. A little bit of everything is taken, from Volkswagen Jettas to Jaguars.

As his midnight chase drags near an end, Shipe locates another wanted car, a 1995 Ford Probe. Visible from the driveway, the home's front window reveals a man sitting in his living room on a lawn chair while watching a television set propped up on a milk crate.

"This guy, he just looks like he has nothing to lose," Shipe said. "His house is also up for sale. It looks like he is about ready to lose that to foreclosure. This could very well be the straw that breaks the camel's back."

As Shipe backs his truck into the driveway and begins to attach the sneaker, the man comes out of the house.

Shipe explains the situation to the man, who calmly cooperates and eventually surrenders his key.

"He's being real mellow about it," Shipe said. "We give him a right to clean his stuff out of the car."

Mission accomplished.

By 1 a.m. Shipe has repossessed his last vehicle for the night, a 1995 Jeep Wrangler.

"Tonight was a good night. Everybody goes home."

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