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Repos Gone Bad: Are Big Lenders To Blame For Driveway Violence?

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REPO
Michael Faron Brown (left) in a photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections. A former repo man, Brown is serving a 20-year sentence for the death of Bill Jacobs. | Georgia DOC/Alamy

As auto repossessions go, the case of the 2004 Dodge Ram looked to be an easy one. The assignment was what industry insiders call a "voluntary repo," meaning the owner had agreed to give up his pickup truck without a fight. No sleuthing, no hide-and-seek. All the repo man had to do was show up at the appointed time, hook the Ram up to a tow truck and haul it away for the lender.

Nobody should have been hurt, let alone killed.

Three years ago, a repo company dispatched Michael Faron Brown, a 27-year-old South Carolina newlywed, on a rare trip across state lines into Georgia to return a few cars to debtors who were back in their lenders' good graces. Brown worked on contract for a subsidiary of a national repossession company called Renovo Services LLC, and his boss asked him to also handle a few repossessions for a colleague who had bailed on his assignments. That's how Brown picked up the account for Lidie "Joe" Clements.

Clements, a paint contractor near Augusta, Ga., was having a hard time finding jobs due to the sour economy, so he'd fallen behind on the payments for his Ram. He tried to work out a payment plan with his lender, Nuvell National Auto Finance, then a subsidiary of the massive home and auto lender GMAC. According to trial court records, once it became clear that Clements couldn't make good on his bills, he told Nuvell that he would voluntarily surrender his truck, which, as is custom, would likely be sold or auctioned off to cut Nuvell's losses.

Brown apparently showed up at Clements' home a day early for the scheduled repo -- with his pregnant wife, Victoria, in the passenger seat of the tow truck. According to court records, once they were outside Clements' house, the newlyweds called him on their cellphone. The conversation quickly turned combative. Clements said he wasn't home and demanded they not take his truck until the following day, once he'd had a chance to clear out his belongings. But Brown didn't leave.

Under the aggressive incentives that many financial institutions and their repo contractors now force on agents, industry veterans say a repo man like Brown would have been eager to get the truck right then and there. In a system that’s fast becoming industry standard, Brown was working on a flat-rate contingency basis: If he didn't repossess the vehicle, then nobody owed him a dime for his efforts. If he waited until the following day, he'd be sinking more time and gas money into the assignment.

In the topsy-turvy repo world, it was also in Brown's financial interests to have a reluctant target. According to his payment plan, Brown was earning $70 for each involuntary repo he completed and a mere $30 for each voluntary one. If Clements was no longer surrendering his truck by choice, then Brown stood to earn more money.

According to the version he later told in court, Brown called his office seeking advice. The woman handling the Clements account told him to proceed, he testified. "If you see the unit, get it," she allegedly told Brown.

It didn't matter that a friend of the Clements' had parked her van in the driveway behind the pickup, blocking it in almost entirely. As Brown would later say in court, "I was always up for a challenge." So he backed his truck into the Clements' driveway, maneuvering his tow in the narrow space between the van and the house.

Chaos ensued.

Joe Clements and his friend Bill Jacobs returned to the house just as Brown was trying to drive off with the pickup. According to Clements' version, Brown clipped the van repeatedly as he tried to thread the pickup between the van and the house. The van belonged to Jacobs and his wife, Pamela, who had been inside the house with Clements' wife, Cindy. Joe Clements would later tell police that he pleaded with Brown to stop damaging the van -- he was giving the truck up voluntarily, he said, and he just wanted to remove his tools first.

"Stop! You're hitting the van! Stop! We'll give it to you!" he allegedly said, according to court records.



Brown dropped the pickup from the tow. Bill Jacobs confronted him on the driver's side of the tow truck, while Cindy Clements confronted Victoria Brown on the passenger side, according to court documents. Brown later claimed Jacobs was acting overtly hostile. Whatever the case, Jacobs was knocked to the ground during the commotion, falling in front of the tow truck.

Brown drove over Jacobs, through the yard and down the street. Brown would later say he never meant to run over Jacobs, that it was all an accident.

"Them tires don't have a conscience," he said in court.

When Pamela Jacobs came outside, her husband was lying in the street; she lay down with him. His pelvis and abdomen had been crushed by the truck tires, according to a doctor who later examined him. His ribcage had been fractured, his broken ribs puncturing his lungs. His chest and bowels were filling with blood. The 64-year-old would be pronounced dead an hour later.

As Jacobs lay dying, Michael and Victoria Brown fled the area. It isn’t clear whether the repo man knew he'd just killed someone -- although it wasn't long before the gravity of the situation set in, and the Browns realized they were fugitives. The following day, they wrote on the wall of their joint MySpace account, "ready to stop repoing. When you have to worry about criminal charges ... I say that is enough!"

"Stressing the f**k out," they wrote a short time later. "Why did we have to go to GA to repo yesterday?"

Wanted for murder, the Browns turned themselves in to the police five days later.

'WHERE THE RECESSION AND THE FINANCE WORLD COME RIGHT INTO THE FRONT YARD'

Clements lost his truck during a boom time for auto repossessions. Just like the housing market, the auto finance industry -- which ranges from big banks (like Bank of America and Santander) to major auto loan specialists (like Ford Motor Credit, Toyota Motor Credit, and Ally Financial, formerly GMAC) to thousands of smaller credit unions -- had experienced its own subprime-fueled credit binge during the last decade.

When the economy finally cratered, a record number of car owners were unable to pay their bills. Many borrowers had taken on more debt than they could handle or, like Clements, suddenly had a hard time finding steady work. In many cases, their auto loans had been securitized and sold off to investors, à la the mortgage debacle. More recently, the number of auto repossessions has fallen dramatically, due to tightening credit standards.

Of the estimated 1.3 million repossessions performed last year, the overwhelming majority ended peacefully. But plenty of repos have gone bad since the economy went south. According to the industry website CUCollector, which recently started tracking repo-related violence, press accounts indicated there were at least 16 shootings and five deaths stemming from repossessions in 2011. Often it was the repo man who was hurt. In 2009, the same year Jacobs died, two Alabama repo agents were shot and killed.

In some ugly cases, you might blame the ill will of debtors. In others, the carelessness of bad-apple agents. In many cases, however, industry insiders trace the problems back to decisions by lenders at the top. According to insurers, lawyers and longtime repo agents, the big-time financial institutions as a group are paying less than ever to have vehicles recovered in the event of default.

In the minds of many repo agents, the penny-pinching by lenders has pitted them against one another, as reputable firms struggle to do the job on thinner margins and less-reputable agents willingly take on the cheaper work.

"This is where the recession and the finance world come right into the front yard," says Kevin Armstrong, a former repo man who is now a collections manager and runs CUCollector on the side.

Mary Jane Hogan, president of the national trade group American Recovery Association, believes that lenders' push to cut costs at the expense of repo agents is ultimately lowering standards in her industry.

"I've been in this since the day the cars were hotwired, and the difference is just unbelievable -- the way things have changed, the way repossession agents are treated by clients," says Hogan. "The clients at this point in time, all they want to know is the price, who's the cheapest. They call for a quote, and they don’t care what the job involves. They want a flat rate."

The squeeze has been gradual over the past decade. One of the first things repo companies lost was reimbursement for mileage. Lenders used to cover the cost of travel, making long-distance repos more feasible. No more, agents say.

Lenders used to cover the repo agency's cost of holding onto a repossessed car until it could be auctioned off. Now all too often, the agencies are storing those cars for free.

Also gone are the payments many repo companies received for cutting keys for the cars they repossessed. Now, many lenders demand that the companies cut keys gratis -- even though modern electronic keys can run several hundred dollars apiece.

Most controversially, many repo agencies have taken work on a contingency basis, which has driven other agencies to work on contingency as well if they want to stay in business.

"It doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense," says Joe Taylor, a repo expert in Florida who developed one of the few certification programs for the industry. "It's bad enough to have these inherent risks associated with repossession. But then if I don't get this car, then I don't get paid. And then I don't feed my family. So you're willing to take chances that an intelligent person wouldn't take. The result is violence."

"It's turning good people into bad, making them do things they wouldn't normally do," says Debra Durham, owner of Midwest Adjusters, a repo outfit in Springfield, Mo.

Although there remain financial institutions that don't require repo contractors to work on contingency -- notably, many smaller credit unions -- it's becoming the rule rather than the exception, according to veteran repo agents and industry experts. It isn't always clear who's actually putting the work out on contingency -- the banks or the growing number of middlemen they contract with. Several lenders with large auto loan portfolios, including Bank of America, Santander, Ford Motor Credit and Toyota Motor Credit, declined to discuss how they carry out repossessions when contacted for this story.

Sometimes big lenders have wound up on the hook for repos gone awry. This past fall, Ford Motor Credit, a tow company and a private investigation firm agreed to pay a total of $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the widow of a debtor killed during a repo-turned-catastrophe in upstate New York in 2007.

According to press accounts, a repo man ran over Edward Kosloski, 44, in plain view of his three children. Kosloski had climbed onto the back of the flatbed truck that was hauling away his Ford Excursion in order to remove his tools, according to witnesses. The repo man apparently feared Kosloski might become hostile and tried to speed away, causing Kosloski to fall beneath the truck tires.

Joseph Granich, the lawyer who sued on behalf of the Kosloski family, can't comment directly on the case due to the settlement, but he describes the broader problem as poorly trained agents who aren't invested in the work -- and who are paid on contingency.

"It's my opinion, irrespective of this case, that that's the problem," he says. "You've got six-gun repo guys out there. The law goes out the window because they're not going to make seven attempts to get a car for 150 bucks."

"Something has to change," Granich says. "It's one of these cases where it will take a couple more high-profile deaths until one of these companies gets hit with an excessive verdict and then decides to change their internal policies."

'HE HAS A LICENSE TO STEAL AND WILL JACK YOUR S**T'

The bar to entry into the repo business is extremely low. Most states don't require special licensing or training to carry out a repossession, and states where licensing exists have set minimal certification requirements, according to an analysis by the National Consumer Law Center, a consumer advocacy group. Repo agents could be trained, for example, in dealing with hostile debtors and the finer points of debt collection law. But the certification programs offered by a handful of trade groups are, for the most part, voluntary. Certified veterans like Hogan and Taylor are frustrated that more agents don't bother with formal training, which, of course, requires time and money.

Judicial oversight of auto repossession is also minimal. In most cases, lenders don't need a court order to repossess a car, as they often do if they wanted to foreclose on a house. Hence the term "self-help repossession": When the borrower stops making payments, the lender simply helps itself to the car, via a repo agent.

In the Georgia case, the defendants named in a suit brought by Pamela Jacobs -- GMAC subsidiary Nuvell, Renovo and agent Brown -- were recently found liable for Bill Jacobs' death to the tune of $2.5 million. (The judgment has been appealed, and a lawsuit filed by the Clements family against the same parties has not yet been resolved.)

A spokesperson for GMAC successor Ally said the company "requires its third party repossession agencies to follow certain procedures and all applicable laws when recovering a vehicle. The safety of the parties involved is of the highest importance to Ally."

The Jacobs' lawyer was nonetheless able to convince the jury that Brown, Renovo and Nuvell had acted negligently and that Brown may have had no business repoing cars to begin with.

Although Brown had worked for his father's repossession company before joining Renovo, his criminal history might have overshadowed his employment history in the jury's eyes. According to South Carolina records, Brown had been charged three separate times with criminal domestic violence, pleading guilty twice. He had also pleaded guilty to assault and battery in a separate case. On the MySpace page he kept with his wife, Brown's bio read in part, "HE IS THE REPO MAN AND SO IF YOU DONT PAY YOUR CAR PAYMENT HE HAS A LICENSE TO STEAL AND WILL JACK YOUR S**T :)"

Brown responded to a Craigslist ad and signed a contract with Renovo two months before the fatal incident, according to court documents. He later said he didn't realize it, but Brown, who didn't finish high school, wasn't working as a direct employee. He signed an agreement saying that he would carry his own insurance, although he didn't purchase coverage and later said in court that he didn't know it was his responsibility. His training consisted of a few days riding around with another agent, he said. He was leasing the truck he used from the company, paying it a fee for every car he repossessed.

Kevin Flynn, the chairman and chief executive of Renovo, says that the Georgia tragedy couldn't have been prevented by Renovo. Brown testified in court that Jacobs had acted like "Mr. Billy Bad Ass" and had "caused himself to get run over," a version of events to which Flynn ascribes as well. Flynn says that the agents with whom Renovo contracts are trained professionals, and he insists that the contingency payment system had nothing to do with Jacobs' death.

"I don't know what training or pricing or lenders' desire could have done to avoid that tragedy," says Flynn. "You do something two million times, the one-in-a-million thing is going to happen twice. All the prudence in the world isn't going to stop that. If we were talking about pizza delivery men, the danger is significantly greater."

'WANT TO BE A REPO MAN?'

It would seem that just about anyone can become a repo man -- like this reporter, for instance. Much like Michael Brown, I once responded to a job ad on the Internet that carried what I considered an irresistible subject line: "WANT TO BE A REPO MAN?"

I was working as a freelance writer at the time, and I figured repo work could give me some insight into a little-seen facet of the finance industry. I also badly needed money. My bank account empty, I hadn't had an interview for a journalism job in months. Unlike the many editors I'd emailed seeking employment, the repo guy responded to my query almost immediately. I met with him the following day.

I thought I'd get schooled in the hard times of the recession's debtors. Instead, I learned how difficult the repo man's job could be.

My boss, who I'll simply call "T," had come to the East Coast to open a new office for a repossession company. (Because I signed a non-disclosure agreement as a condition of employment, I won't be naming the firm.) T was an affable if slightly intimidating man who looked upon his job dispassionately, viewing himself as a necessary cog in the greater financial infrastructure: People default on their loans; they have to give up their rides, however sad their personal circumstances may be.

I liked T, and he seemed to like me -- particularly my background as a crime reporter, which meant I knew how to track people down. What industry types call "skip tracing" is the hallmark of a good repo agent. Still, T wondered if I had the requisite nerve to do the job. "You're either going to kick ass at this," he told me, "or you're going to fall on your face really, really fast."

My formal training was briefer than Michael Brown's was. It consisted of an afternoon on the road with T, making what I recall to be three stops. The first two yielded no vehicles and no useful information on the debtors. The third ended in a successful repossession, the sad sack watching from his front porch as his sedan was hooked up to the tow truck and hauled out of sight.

With that, I was part of the repo team. My job was to locate cars whose owners had fallen two months or more behind on their payments and then call our tow truck drivers to have the cars taken to the lot.

I can't remember whether I was walked through the details of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the federal law that lays out what's fair game and what's abusive as agencies pursue debtors and their assets. I had only a vague handle on what was legal and what wasn’t, although I was encouraged to be creative.

T told me he had a favorite ruse: Sometimes, when he was trying to confirm that a debtor lived at a certain address, he would knock on the door posing as a local pizzeria employee who was doling out free pies to lucky recipients. Even wary debtors, T told me, would let their guard down. I asked him why pizza. "Everyone loves free pizza," he shrugged.

By almost any standard, my arrangement with the repo company was a crummy one. For starters, my contract stipulated that I wasn't an employee but an independent contractor -- the same arrangement Brown had with his firm. That way, I wasn't protected by the basic minimum wage and overtime laws that apply to most employees. Nor did the company provide me with health insurance benefits.

Rather than earn a set hourly wage, I was to be paid a flat fee of $75 per auto I recovered, earnings on which I would eventually have to pay taxes out of pocket. I had to borrow a Windows-based computer from a friend to access the company's network. I wouldn’t be reimbursed for gas and wasn't given a vehicle, meaning that on certain assignments I'd be lucky to break even -- assuming I actually found the debtor's car.

The way old-school repo agents see it, I was part of the new crop of fools who are willing to work for next to nothing, whose desperate need to complete the repo can endanger themselves as well as the debtors.

It wasn't easy work. Each morning the queue on my computer filled with cases of late-model cars that I found nearly impossible to track down on cluttered urban side streets. It didn't help that the banks' loan documents provided what was often outdated information on the debtor's whereabouts. Many times with a simple fee-paid database search -- I had access to Nexis at the time -- I was able to find more accurate address information than what was listed on the loan.

After two weeks on the job, I had netted no repossessions, and my own car was starting to break down. The last straw came when I successfully tracked down a Honda CR-V slated for repossession. Unfortunately, it was parked in a driveway next to an identical CR-V. The repo agency had been too cheap to pay to check the license plate number, so I didn't know which vehicle was the right one. The debtor drove away in one CR-V while I hung back with the other.

Once the agency finally ran the plate number, I found out I'd chosen the wrong CR-V.

When I told T how frustrated I was, he pleaded with me to keep trying. He had a hard time finding prospects who were willing to venture into more dangerous urban neighborhoods for a highly uncertain paycheck. Having lost money on my boondoggles, I told him I didn't understand how the work was supposed to be viable.

I quit without having made a single repo.

'A THINKING MAN'S GAME'

To find repo-related violence, Americans need look no further than cable television. Every Wednesday night at 9 p.m., Turner Broadcasting-owned truTV airs a program called "Operation Repo." Shot in the style of cinema verité, the program shows scripted scenes of California's delinquent borrowers losing their cars to a family-run repo agency and getting violent in the process. The documentary feel no doubt leaves some viewers with the impression that everything on the show is real and that most repossessions devolve into mayhem. Set props have included baseball bats, guns and pepper spray.

After lamenting lenders' shrinking payments, "Operation Repo" is often the next exhibit presented by repo agents making a case for their troubles. "They're a nightmare, the TV shows," says Hogan, the American Recovery Association president. "You go and you knock on the [borrower's] door and you're professional. They open the door and people have this horrified look on their face, like you're going to knock them out or drag them through the yard."

"Operation Repo" is the brainchild of Lou Pizarro, a repo agent and former Marine who years ago began shooting video of his assignments as a way to indemnify himself in cases where the debtor grew hostile. The show started out as "Operación Repo" on Spanish-language Telemundo, where it's been highly rated. Although most real-world repossessions end without incident, Pizarro makes no apologies for his show's sensationalism.

"The show is entertainment," Pizarro says, adding that the scenes are based on his own experiences. "The repossessors who say we're giving them a bad name -- maybe they need to work harder. ... This is a thinking man's game. It's not about brute strength. It's about being smarter than the next guy."

Though the show may unsettle debtors, it certainly seems to inspire would-be repo agents turned on by the excitement. "After each show, I get a flood of emails from people telling me, 'What do I need to do to get into the business?'" Pizarro says. "I tell them where to go, what to do, and I wish them well."

No entity has done comprehensive long-term tracking of injuries or violence within the repo industry, be it against debtors or agents, but one indicator of industry trends might be the cost of insurance for repo agencies. According to Ed Marcum, CEO of Recovery Specialist Insurance Group (provider of accidental death and dismemberment coverage, among other foreboding policies), insurance rates for repo agencies have shot up by about 70 percent over the last decade.

"I think there's a lot more violence toward the repossessor than there was years ago. Ten years ago, you heard of two or three in a year, and that was a lot. Now it's three or four or five or six a month," says Marcum.

A former repo agency owner and insurance investigator, Marcum, too, attributes many of the recent mishaps and disasters -- and, ultimately, the rising insurance premiums -- to the narrowing profit margins for repo operators and the accompanying pressures.

"A lot of the violence is strictly due to the fact that they have to get cars," he said. "There's a lot more risk. You have guys out here now, if they're not successful, they don’t eat. There's no doubt in my mind that the contingency adds a lot of liability. So they're paying for it more."

A 2010 report from the National Consumer Law Center detailed a rash of repo-related violence that it attributed to the financial pressures applied by lenders and the light regulations governing the industry. In the three years leading up to the report, at least six people had been killed, dozens had been injured or arrested, and three children under the age of nine had been hauled away in repossessed cars.

The way the National Consumer Law Center sees it, state laws protecting automobile owners haven't evolved to reflect the importance of cars, and too few states require certification to repossess. Debtors facing repossession are often in dire financial straits. Even a highly professional repo agent might incite a borrower whose livelihood depends on his car. "With most repossessions occurring without the involvement of law enforcement, parties often assert their rights in a sort of vigilante justice," the report noted. "The current system, unfair to families subject to repossession, also endangers repo agents."

Smaller, independent repo agencies bemoan the recent rise of large "forwarding" companies within the industry. Forwarding companies essentially act as middlemen, picking up large numbers of accounts from lenders and then distributing them, often on a contingency basis, to repo agencies, some of which may be subsidiaries of the forwarding companies themselves. Big lenders like the system because it's convenient: They can unload all their accounts to a one-stop shop that takes care of finding agents and, in some cases, even auctions off the repossessed autos, all at a low price.

Which is why long-time repossession pros like to blame forwarding houses for depressing wages in the business. Many independent agencies that used to deal directly with lenders now find themselves picking up jobs from the forwarders instead.

"They all hate it, every one of them," says Marcum, the insurance group CEO. "I know guys who've been in the business 50 years, and they're having to take the work from forwarders. Why? They say, 'I have to have income.'

"It really shows you how the little man basically gets manhandled by the large corporations, all for investor dollars," he says.

"This business model endangers consumers. I truly believe it does," says Patrick Altes, a repo agency owner and private investigator in Florida. "If you don't pay an agent for anything but getting the car, it liberates you from having to provide good information. There's nothing that motivates them. They can assign it to five or six agents, pull up a credit report and assign it to a whole bunch of them. It’s a free-for-all, and the only one who gets paid is the one who comes up with the car."

'DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO PICK UP MORE CARS'

The focus of many critics' ire is Chicago-based forwarding company Renovo, whose subsidiary had a contract with Brown, the agent involved in the Georgia death. On its website, Renovo calls itself the repo world's "most fully integrated single source solution to the financial services industry." With its growth in the last few years, it has all but revolutionized the repo industry and now finds itself competing with similar companies that have adopted its one-stop-shop model.

Flynn, Renovo's CEO, was in the casino business before shaking up the repo world. He says that Renovo has won such a large share of the market because it was willing to "standardize and professionalize and build a national brand that it seemed the lenders were really looking for." He also says the idea that Renovo has been driving down prices and abetting the spread of contingency work is nonsense. Renovo, too, has struggled as lenders have come to expect more for less, he says.

"I've had eight of our largest 10 customers reduce price in the last two years," Flynn says. "Lenders are really driving the pricing. Our margins have been squeezed tremendously. ... Lenders expect more efficiency than ever now."

Renovo's detractors point to a handful of incidents in which its contractors have wound up in the police blotter. In addition to the Georgia death, an agent working for a Renovo-owned firm shot and killed an Alabama debtor whose car he was repossessing in the middle of the night in 2008. Jimmy Tanks apparently came outside with a gun as the agent, Kenneth Alvin Smith, was trying to make off with his Chrysler Sebring, but the agent had a gun of his own.

In other cases, Renovo's contractors have landed the company in court after less disastrous repossessions. Preston Shaw of Nashville, Tenn., sued Renovo and Toyota Financial Services after an agent allegedly dragged Shaw's Lexus out of his garage without his permission. Shaw said in court filings that he was in bankruptcy proceedings at the time and that the lender had no right to reclaim the car.

Shaw's two young daughters, one of whom is blind, were home alone during the commotion. The girls ran upstairs after a repo agent began banging on the door, according to Shaw. "It freaked them out, especially my blind child. For a while, we couldn't leave my oldest daughter home alone," the 41-year-old Shaw says. "There were drag marks going out of the garage and into the driveway and into the street. You can still see them."

Shaw's case was settled for an undisclosed sum.

Renovo has also squared off in court with its own employees. In a 2007 class action, a group of repo agents sued Renovo for allegedly misclassifying them as independent contractors rather than employees and violating overtime laws. In an email that surfaced in the lawsuit, one manager told agents, "The trucks simply need to roll more hours, and pick up more units. Each of you have the ability to do WHATEVER it takes to pick up more cars. Having an 'Apprentice' or two or three is the best way." The case was also settled for an undisclosed sum.

Flynn says a lot of the criticism leveled at Renovo is little more than sour grapes coming from smaller competitors who are losing their market share. Those firms, he says, need to accept the industry's new paradigm.

"I understand there are detractors, but I can tell you we run a professional operation," he says. "I think that everyone is going to have to get efficient. I'm not sure economics will allow it to go any other way. The most efficient and progressive companies will remain in business, the ones who adapt to market conditions. You can complain or you can adapt."

'HE BLAMED HIMSELF FOR BILL'S DEATH'

Shortly after Bill Jacobs died in Georgia, Michael and Victoria Brown were charged in his death. Michael pleaded guilty to first-degree vehicular homicide and criminal property damage, receiving a prison sentence of 20 years. Victoria pleaded guilty to reduced charges of property damage and simple battery, receiving two years in prison and another four years of probation.

In a civil trial, Pamela Jacobs tried to explain what she'd lost with her husband. "He still took very good care of me and really was in love with me, and I really loved him," she said. "And I miss him very much."

Devastated by Bill Jacobs' death, Joe Clements didn’t live much longer than his friend. Just six weeks after the fatal incident, Clements died of an undisclosed illness. In the lawsuit filed by Cindy Clements against Renovo and Nuvell, his family blamed the horror in his front yard for the quick unraveling of Joe Clements' health.

"From the time of the incident until his death, Mr. Clements began a severe downward spiral to depression," having witnessed "the traumatic death of his friend and work colleague," the complaint read.

According to Cindy Clements, her husband held himself partially accountable for what had happened to his close friend. After all, Brown was there on a repo assignment only because Clements could no longer make the payments on his truck.

"He would just sit and think," Cindy Clements said in a deposition, describing her husband's behavior after the tragedy. "He blamed himself for Bill's death. And it just ate on him."

The Clements had been married since 1975. According to court filings, Cindy Clements moved out of the house she had shared with her husband, saying it was too emotionally difficult to stay there after he died. She bounced around to different addresses and different jobs. She could not be reached to comment for this story.

Pamela Jacobs still lives in the Augusta house she shared with her husband. When I showed up unannounced on her porch recently, she apologized and said she wouldn't be able to talk about his death. She explained that she wasn't comfortable commenting because of all the litigation.

All she would say, as she choked back tears, was that it was a shame so many lives were destroyed over $70.

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