The Learjet repo man

Business has never been better for the fearless pilot who takes back millionaires' expensive toys.

Topics: Air Travel, U.S. Economy,

The Learjet repo man

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.

Then in 1975 he met two men named Toby Howard and Billy Day in Wichita while hanging with some mutual friends. A pair of hustlers, they had all kinds of ideas for how to get rich quick. Popovich followed them for six months, hawking faulty tire repair kits that would explode in winter and some multilevel marketing schemes. The contacts he’d make through Howard and Day led him into small-time arms dealing. Popovich bought out a Utah company that had been indicted for weapons violations and turned it into a thriving business. “We built .22 caliber weapons into briefcases with micro switches and laser sightings,” he says. He sold his guns to the Canadian Special Ops and maybe to a few places he shouldn’t have. He mentions something about being “in South America at the wrong time.” He also drops a hint about conducting business in Iraq.

Popovich became a Braniff pilot in 1976. But that was boring. So he quit. He wouldn’t find his true calling until 1979, when a banker friend asked for his help getting back a Cessna 310 from a small-time chartering business. “I flew down there, grabbed it and got paid for it. I didn’t think anything of it,” he says. “I dropped off the plane and the guy calls yelling his head off. He says, ‘You didn’t ask for enough money! Send me a new bill but multiply it by three!’”

A few days later, Popovich found $145,000 in his checking account. A super repo man had been born.

Sage-Popovich now has 65 super repos, ranging from former crop-dusters and commercial pilots to Marines and airport mechanics. One of Popovich’s aces, Ed Dearborn, flew for Air America, the CIA’s covert Vietnam-era airline, and even helped build landing strips in remote jungle outposts in Southeast Asia. A good year is five popped planes; Kevin Lacey, one of Popovich’s best men, grabs 10 when he’s on a roll.

Now that Popovich has worked with some of his guys for 20 years or more, he has learned to take good care of them. When Lacey was imprisoned while attempting to snatch a jet in Brazil a few years ago, Popovich made sure the local hotel shipped edible food to his cell until the legal mess could be cleared up. It was the least he could do, given the fact that Lacey had been dragged in humiliating fashion right through the passenger terminal in handcuffs. “The inmates in Brazilian jails have more guns than the police,” said Lacey. “It’s best to make friends with them quickly.”

Because Lacey is a master mechanic, he is an invaluable resource for lenders. If a plane is sitting on blocks, its windows cracked and its avionics blown out, Lacey can fix it and fly it out. He’s also pretended to be a mechanic on numerous occasions; it gets him inside the plane and up in the air a lot quicker. That plane in Brazil required the use of a “claw hammer and rusty pliers” for Lacey to fix it.

Like most super repo guys, Lacey works freelance and flies just about everything with two wings. He’s certified in eight types of aircraft. The Air Force would be lucky to have him, but the repo game is far more thrilling. And a lot more lucrative.

The money is pretty good, depending on the size of the plane and the complexity of the repo. But for Lacey, the job is its own reward, despite the fact that many pilots consider it an unseemly profession. “My tact and my diligence are my greatest weapons,” he says. “I have to think and react before someone else does, or I’m sunk. Often, they will be on the lookout for you, so you find yourself chasing something while someone else is chasing you.”

The super repo business is extremely time-sensitive; Popovich must calibrate his maneuvers with military precision or else the entire operation crumbles. The minute Popovich gets a call, he has his team prepare a “Repo Book,” which contains all of the relevant documentation necessary to take back a plane. An airport won’t let you fly off with a jumbo jet without all kinds of paperwork: lease terminations, powers of attorney, customs bonds and certificates of insurance. (There’s a reason Sage-Popovich has eight lawyers on retainer.) Within an hour of the initial contact, everything is accounted for, all the way down to the catering for the crew.

While the Repo Book is assembled, Popovich will get his scouts on the ground to figure out where the plane is. The company has people all over the globe who are more than happy to track down an item for him for a small fee. More often than not, the aircraft will turn up in a major airport or commercial hub, and from there it’s easy sailing: Show up, hand over the documentation, get in the cockpit and fly away. Popovich estimates that three-quarters of his jobs go off exactly that way.

The rest are stickier affairs — starring angry owners, armed security, even intransigent airport workers, who will be out tens of thousands of dollars in unpaid fuel, landing fees and maintenance costs if a plane suddenly goes missing. In that case, half the game for Popovich is sneaking on to the aircraft and flying it out before anyone’s hip to what he’s doing. “That’s why you never, ever use the plane’s two-way radio,” says Popovich with a laugh. “People might get wind of your plans before you even have a chance to secure your seat belt. If you need to file a flight plan, you use your cell phone to call the tower.”

One time, he pretended to be a limo driver picking up a client. When airport security turned its back, Popovich slipped off his black overcoat and eight-point chauffeur cap and finagled his way onto the plane.

Aircraft on a runway is a lot easier to grab, but the walk to the cockpit is longer than the Bataan Death March. You might as well radio the tower before walking up to a vacant jet without permission, because you’re inevitably going to get busted. For a repo job in Miami, Popovich commandeered a catering truck from a friendly driver and the crew let him on board unbidden. On numerous occasions he has loaded his guys into a baggage cart, dropped the curtain and driven up to the cargo hold. From there, it’s a slinky stretch on hands and knees from the luggage compartment into the cockpit.

Really tough targets require sterner measures. In 1998, Popovich was hired to repo two jets in the possession of Francois Arpels, scion of the Van Cleef and Arpels jewelry empire. Arpels had leased two Boeing MD-81s for a charter service he started called Fairlines, but failed to make his payments.

“I landed in Paris and contacted Arpels to see if we could work something out,” says Popovich. “Arpels tells me, ‘I’m Francois Arpels and this is Paris. You will never find the planes.’ I looked him right in the eye and told him, ‘Frankie, they are all but gone. Trust me.’ He hated the fact that I called him Frankie. That really got under his skin.”

Using his European scouts, Popovich tracked one plane in Milan; the other was sitting on the tarmac near Terminal One at Charles DeGaulle Airport. The MD-81 was covered in official-looking documentation written in French, so Popovich just ripped everything off and hopped in. Big mistake. The airport cops stopped him as he was taxiing and threw him in a cell overnight. The next day, a French magistrate had handcuffs slapped on Popovich and ordered him returned to Chicago. “I was more determined than ever to grab those damn planes,” he says. “You push me, I push back harder.”

A few weeks later he snuck back into the country, convinced a captain with an Air Afrique fuel bus to fill up Arpel’s Boeing and flew it out. But the Milan plane was trickier. The engine was behaving erratically, and no sane person should fly a bird with a hinky engine. Popovich had a replacement engine in Munich (engine-swapping is a common occurrence in the business) and the only way to get it would be to make the 50 minute flight and pray.

As his pilot Ed Dearborn climbed to altitude, Popovich remembers sitting in the back, furtively stealing looks at that shaky equipment. “The whole time I sat there thinking, ‘If that engine lets go, I’m fucked.’” When they got to Germany and opened it up, the mechanics estimated that another couple of hours of airtime and the thing would have melted down. Along with Nick and his guys.

Popovich even met Sage on a repo. He was casing an exotic car company in Chicago when a leonine blond walked in to the dealership. “We all looked at each other and said, ‘A hundred bucks for the first guy that nails her,’” he says. “Twenty million dollars in business together later, here we are.” (They have subsequently divorced.) The couple’s two boys, Zachary, 18 and Max, 20, work for Sage-Popovich when they can. Zachary attends college and does repos in his spare time.

Popovich’s daredevil days are behind him for the most part; now he’s working with a new generation to do the job. He would like his two sons to go about it a little differently than he did. Maybe a bit more cautiously, for starters. He wants his son Zach to take over the business one day, but “he wants to open a bar in Sun Valley instead.” He has in mind an exit strategy, though he’s not sure when, if ever, he’ll implement it. Life is too good to stop now. Just pick up the paper — every day word breaks of another investor, another pyramid scheme, another crook who has a date with Popovich.

Tooling around Valparaiso in his Bentley, with Bob Dylan playing softly in the background, Popovich tries to put into words just how great it feels to pull off a big repo job. “It’s like a giant chess game, and the stakes can be your life,” he says. “It’s always a different challenge, a test of how smart you are. Can you outfox someone else? There’s always going to be some covert action involved. And you throw a big payoff in there, well, it’s just intoxicating.” He pauses. “Repossessing a giant, gleaming multimillion dollar plane is kind of like courting a beautiful woman. Sometimes the chase is better than the catch.” And the chase is never complete.

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