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It was snowing hard when the bank called Nick Popovich. They needed to grab a Gulfstream in South Carolina now. Not tomorrow. Tonight.
All commercial and private planes were grounded, but Nick Popovich wasn’t one to turn down a job. So he waited for the storm to clear long enough to charter a Hawker jet from Chicago into South Carolina. There was just one detail: No one had told Popovich about the heavily armed white supremacist militia that would be guarding the aircraft when he arrived.
But then again, no one had told the militia about Popovich, a brawny and intimidating man who has been jailed and shot at and has faced down more angry men than a prison warden. When Popovich and two of his colleagues arrived that evening at a South Carolina airfield, they were met by a bunch of nasty-looking thugs with cocked shotguns. “They had someone in the parking lot with binoculars,” Popovich says, recalling the incident. “When we went to grab the plane, one of them came out with his weapon drawn and tells us we better get out of there.” Undeterred, Popovich continued toward the plane until he felt a gun resting on his temple.
“You move another inch and I’ll blow your fucking head off,” the gravel-and-nicotine voice told Popovich.
“Well, you better go ahead and shoot, ’cause I’m grabbing that plane.”
A shot was discharged in the air.
The gravel-and-nicotine voice again. “I’m not kidding.”
“Then do it already.”
Popovich’s first rule of firearms is pretty simple: The man who tells you he’s going to shoot you will not shoot you. So without so much as looking back, he got on the plane and flew it right to Chicago. “My job is to grab that plane,” Popovich says. “And if you haven’t paid for it, then it’s mine. And I don’t like to lose.”
Nick Popovich is a repo man, but not the kind that spirits away Hyundais from suburban driveways. Popovich is a super repo man, one of a handful of specialists who get the call when a bank wants back its Gulfstream II jet from, say, a small army of neo-Nazi freaks.
For the past three decades, Popovich has been one of a secret tribe of big game hunters who specialize in stealing jets from the jungle hideouts of corrupt landowners in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil and swiping go-fast boats from Wall Street titans in Miami and East Hampton. Super repos have been known to hire swat teams, hijack supertankers and fly off with eastern bloc military helicopters. For a cut of the overall value, they’ll repossess anything.
But Popovich is the most renowned of them all — the Ernest Hemingway of super repo men. “Nick is the best of the best,” says Doug Lipke, head of the bankruptcy group for the law firm Vedder Price, who has called Popovich on numerous occasions to retrieve jumbo jets from fat cats with thinning balance sheets. One time, Lipke needed a plane repo-ed from Michigan and flown to Chicago. “All the electrical went out on the plane and Nick was flying at night,” he says. “He flew that plane back with zero electricity — no lights, nothing. There aren’t many guys that would be able to do that.”
Today Popovich, 56, is co-partner of Sage-Popovich. a repossession firm. (Sage is his ex-wife, Pat, formerly the firm’s president.) Their clients include Citibank, Transamerica and Credit Suisse, and the firm annually earns, Popovich says, “into the low-to-mid seven figures.” That estimate isn’t ridiculous when you consider that the most difficult jobs can net Popovich anywhere from $600,000 to $900,000. Popovich’s specialty is big planes, jumbo jets, mostly; he’s repo-ed 1,300 of them in his career. And that’s just the solo gigs. Throw in the 65 repo men who work for him, and the number reaches closer to 2,000.
His mandate is simple. Someone misses a few payments. The bank wants to recover its plane. There will be an attempt to set up some kind of debt payment plan. Failing that, collateral has to be ponied up. If there is none, then an account executive reaches out to Popovich. But Jumbo Jets are expensive — a 747 will run you anywhere from $125 million to $260 million — and people who try to acquire such toys are loath to give them back. If the deadbeat gets wind that the bank is sniffing around his plane, he’s likely to spirit it away before anyone has a chance to grab it, and then it becomes a cat-and-rat game that can take months to complete.
And times have never been better. When lenders opened the sluice gates of easy credit throughout the last decade, high rollers went out and splurged on Gulfstreams and yachts. When the job goes away, the bonuses dry up and the stock market tanks, it’s a long and nasty downward spiral that leads to Popovich’s door. “Oh, those guys are a real piece of work,” says Popovich of the fallen Masters of the Universe. “We’ve had to fly halfway around the world just to find a plane we were told would be in Dallas. You have to think like a crook to find them.”
These days, Popovich is fielding assignments as fast as he can handle them. “We’ve got a lot of business right now,” he says. “We recently recovered planes from Okun and Nadel.” Popovich
is referring to Edward Okun and Arthur G. Nadel, two Bernie Madoff-manqués that have been accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from unsuspecting clients who thought they were safely investing their money ($300 million in Nadel’s case, the largest alleged hedge fund fraud in Florida history). Among the booty that Popovich was hired to return were two Gulfstream IIs and a Learjet.
A good super repo man has a skill set that’s some mad hybrid of cat burglar, F.B.I. agent and con artist. And there’s real danger that comes with the job, not just ticked-off homeowners wielding baseball bats. According to the American Recovery Association, there are, on average, one or two repo-related deaths a year.
In 2006, a Czechoslovakian-made Albatross L-39 combat jet lifted off from Sitka, Alaska, and crashed into a trailer park in the small community of Ketchikan, Alaska. The pilot was found dead 100 yards from the destruction, still strapped into his seat. He had no identification on him. His profession was listed as repo man. In Minnesota, a boat repo specialist named Kim Zarbinksi was repelled when the angry owner of a 40-foot yacht refused to give him his boat. So Zarbinksi resorted to sterner measures. He hired a SWAT team to help him grab the rotten booty.
You want stories? Popovich has volumes. And tells them without a note of bragging or conceit. On a recent warm afternoon, the unfailingly polite repo man and I are strolling through his cavernous warehouse in Gary, Ind. It feels like browsing a Costco run by the Pentagon. There are airplane parts as far as the eye can see — jet engines sit on shelves next to wheel casings and propellers. The detritus of a recent job sits in gigantic vats — hundreds of headphones in one, telephones in another.
Right now the warehouse is overflowing thanks to his most ambitious job to date: “stealing” a fleet of 240 corporate helicopters from a chain of flight schools for a tidy six-figure fee. Nevada-based Silver State was one of the country’s fastest growing companies, mainly because its owner Jerry Airola was constructing a pyramid scheme as tall as the Cheops. When everything collapsed, Popovich was hired to retrieve 240 copters from 51 locations around the country. In 24 hours, Nick and his 125-member crew had to change the locks at all 51 Silver Star schools, then move in 125 flatbeds to haul not only the copters but everything else they could carry — furniture, spare parts, computers, simulators.
“The copters were a mess,” says Popovich. “Some of them hadn’t been flown in months. Once we shipped them all back to the warehouse, we stripped the worst ones for parts for the bank. I figured that at least we were putting them to good use that way.”
Inside his 120-acre, ranch-style compound in rural Valparaiso, Ind. Popovich recalls some of his most notorious adventures in disarmingly soft-spoken and courtly tones. There was the time in the ’80s when he was thrown into a Haitian jail cell. Jail stints came with the job, but this time was different.
Inside the cell, Haitian cops had turned Popovich’s face inside out. The pain was ungodly. His shoes were gone. He was starving. And Popovich was sitting in a cage surrounded by 35 prisoners spitting epithets in his face. His only priority was to avoid getting hurt any worse than he already was. In his experience, that meant behaving like a total maniac, lashing out at the nearest prisoners and threatening to kill anyone that came near him.
The charge was the attempted theft of a 707 jet and he was facing 20 years to life. The jet in question belonged to a Caribbean tour company that went bust. After a few missed payments, the bank had called Popovich, who had tracked the plane from the Dominican Republic to Haiti. The gig promised to be simple. Popovich even spotted the battered silver-and-blue jet on the tarmac as he taxied into Port Au Prince’s Toussaint L’Ouverture airport on a sweltering February afternoon. All he needed was an hour to check the avionics, an open runway and a flight plan. It hadn’t worked out that way.
By the third day of his imprisonment — sometime after the American embassy politely informed him that the bank employing him wouldn’t put up $100,000 in bail — details started to come back. The tracer fire pinging the plane’s wings like popcorn kernels. Men with bayonets slamming on the fuselage. A police cruiser skidding to a halt right in front of the jet, blocking the runway and preventing Nick from taking off. The cops beating him senseless and throwing him in Penitentier National prison. And now, here he was.
On the seventh day of his incarceration, Haitian President Baby Doc Duvalier was overthrown and the rioting masses swung open all of the cell doors. Bruised, bloody and sleepless, Popovich hobbled out of his cell. As he taxied down the runway for the second time. he couldn’t help thinking that what they said was true: Flying home is always the easy part.
Reared in Hammond, Ind. — just a few miles from his current Valparaiso home base — Popovich got his pilot license when he was 16 because his father thought it might be useful some day. It was the only time he ever said “yes” to Dad. He tried Indiana University for a semester but it didn’t take.