Halsell, Ala. Alone in his mobile home off a winding dirt road, Jimmy Tanks heard a commotion at 2:30 a.m. just outside his bedroom window: Somebody was messing with his car.
The 67-year-old railroad retiree grabbed a gun, walked out the back door and confronted not a thief but a repo man and two helpers trying to tow off the Chrysler Sebring. Shots were fired, and Tanks wound up dead, a bullet in his chest.
The man who came to repossess the car, Kenneth Alvin Smith, is awaiting trial on a murder charge in a state considered a Wild West territory even by the standards of an industry that’s largely unregulated nationally. Since Tanks’ death last June, two other repo men from the same company Smith worked for were shot, one fatally.
“It’s gotten to where it’s a crazy world out there,” said Smith, 50, an ex-Marine who preaches part-time and sings gospel music. Smith said Thursday that he fired in self-defense after Tanks fired a shot.
With the U.S. dealing with an economic slide that has cost millions of jobs, the number of vehicle repossessions is expected to rise 5 percent this year. That’s after it jumped 12 percent to 1.67 million nationally in 2008, said Tom Webb, chief economist with Manheim Consulting, an automotive marketing firm. That followed a 9 percent increase in 2007, creating more opportunities for bad outcomes in an industry where armed confrontations and threats happen every day.
Joe Taylor, whose Florida-based company insures repossession companies, said licensing and training is the answer to avoiding such violence.
“If a guy is just put right on the street without training, the potential for violence is very, very high,” said Taylor, who runs Insurance Services USA.
Federal law says workers can’t “breach the peace” while repossessing items, but it doesn’t go further to state just what that means, leaving definitions up to courts.
All three Alabama shootings were in the middle of the night, which an industry leader said was a sign of a problem.
The three states that actively license and monitor recovery agents — California, Florida and Louisiana — report less violence than other states, Taylor said. But most state legislatures aren’t interested in repossession law until people start dying, he said.
“You don’t find many state legislators who have had a car repossessed. They are just unfamiliar with that world,” Taylor said.