For Those in Debt, It Might Be 'Too Late'

If you've got debt, Kent Colpaert and Jeff Henderson have likely got your number — and they will find you.

"By the time I'm knocking on your door, it's too late," said Colpaert.

"I have a job to do, and I'm going to do it to the best of my ability, and when I show up at your door, I'm taking it," Henderson said.

Henderson and Colpaert are "repo men" who want what you owe. And until it's theirs, no amount of pleading, crying or bargaining will stop them.

"We hear all the stories and all the reasons why," said Colpaert. "The stories are sad, but primarily we have a job to do, and if I don't get it done, someone else will."

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Henderson repossesses boats, while Colpaert reclaims homes. In these hard economic times, banks have been handing them case after case.

"By the time they see me, the boat is going to be gone," Henderson said.

Boats and Banks

Henderson and Colpaert have had their share of ugly confrontations — Henderson says he's been shot at — but that's the exception, not the rule. The job is more of a cat-and-mouse game.

"Nightline" tagged along as Henderson confronted a woman who he says was chronically late on her boat payments.

"She has been late many, many times, several times over 30 days, four times over 60 days, and even twice over 90 days," Henderson said.

He wanted to know the location of the boat, but the woman told him the check was in the mail. Henderson gave her the benefit of the doubt … for the time being.

"Tomorrow morning I will contact the bank and talk to the adjuster over the phone," Henderson said. "I'll check to see if that payment has posted. Sometimes, it's the weekend and it may not, so I will give it another day."

In the meantime, there were plenty of other boats to grab. Henderson's repo targets have included CEOs, pro athletes, a Motown legend and a well-known televangelist.

His impound lot is so crowded that he had to rent more space. And if you think your closet's full, you should see Henderson's storage shed, which houses items people have never bothered to claim.

"We've picked up boats that have hockey goals or soccer goals on them sometimes," Henderson said. "One time, I picked up a boat that had a parrot. It was talking and stuff. It scared the hell out of me."

In addition to the increase in business, Colpaert and Henderson often have to make return visits when debtors don't cooperate. Henderson said that the bank never received a payment from the woman who told him the check was in the mail, so he headed back to her home.

Foreclosure Fallout

Henderson and Colpaert operate in the Detroit area, which has seen a perfect storm of economic folly. Layoffs in the auto industry and the subprime mortgage crisis have led to a tidal wave of foreclosed homes.

Colpaert has seen the foreclosure dominoes fall, even in nice neighborhoods.

"Those things tend to destroy a neighborhood one house at a time," he said. "You know, a neighbor down the street loses their home to foreclosure, and then by the time you got 10 homes on the block like that, the neighborhood's going down."

Even in a profession accustomed to shady characters, Colpaert's days leave him raw. He usually works alone and carries a gun, but has never fired it.

"It's always nerve-wracking," he said. "You've got to keep that edge."

Part of his job is to confront squatters in abandoned homes, who can strip a home of its value or ruin it completely. Colpaert showed "Nightline" a home where the hot water tank had been stolen. He said squatters find creative ways to enter homes.

"They'll send little kids in the smallest of basement windows first, stuff like that … they'll kick [the window] in and send a little kid in first to come and open the door for the rest of the way."

Colpaert said incentives often work better than force when it comes to getting people to comply, including a proven tactic called cash for keys. Colpaert offers the debtor money in exchange for a promise to keep the home in sellable condition before moving out.

"Everyone's happy," he said. "Well, I don't know how happy [the debtor] truly is, but he's got a nice check that'll help him maybe start a new life."

Bittersweet Success

Colpaert admits that his job is starting to get frustrating. "Every mile I have to drive and every moment I have to spend on this silly account I could be doing something else. But that's what they pay me for. So that's why I do what I do."

For Henderson, every repo is a victory, but victory isn't always sweet.

Take the case of Martin Lautner, a victim of cutbacks in the auto industry whose beloved vessel Seas the Dream is his no more.

"Well, when I bought the boat in 2003, it was 10 percent of our income, and we don't have any kids, and I love the water, so it seemed like a good choice. Now it's 60 percent of our income, and it's the boat or the house," Lautner said.

There's an old expression that the two best days in a boat owner's life are the day you buy it, and the day you get rid of it, but that wasn't true for Lautner.

As Seas the Dream sailed away, he took one final look. For Henderson, it was also a time to reflect.

"I hate to see it happen to people like that," he said. "That guy could have been your father, that could have been my father."

The repo man, it turns out, does have a heart. Just don't ever count on seeing it.

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