Tormented Texas plumber sues dealership over 'jihad' truck

A year ago, Mark Oberholtzer was down in Corpus Christi, Texas, when his secretary called to tell him the news:

One of his old plumbing trucks had been hijacked by jihadists.

On social media, a Syrian rebel group had posted a photo showing a black 2005 Ford F-250 — except now the plumber's truck was thousands of miles away, armed with a large antiaircraft gun.

In the photo, an enormous flame burst from the muzzle as a rebel fired the gun from the bed. The words MARK-1 PLUMBING, plus the Texas City business' phone number, were still clearly visible on the side of the truck, looking as if Oberholtzer had placed a NASCAR-style endorsement on militants in Syria.

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"Originally, I really thought it was a Photoshop, one of my friends playing with me, and then [my secretary] sent me a picture, and I thought: 'No one has a picture of that truck,'" he said Monday.

"It was just shocking," said Oberholtzer, 62, who has been in the plumbing business for 32 years. "I had no idea how that truck got there."

Last week, Oberholtzer filed a lawsuit in Texas state court that might go down as one of the most bizarre documents to emerge from the horrific civil war in Syria, which has drawn thousands of aspiring Islamic militants from all over the world and sent millions of Syrians fleeing for safety abroad.

Caught in that global flow, it turns out, was Oberholtzer's F-250 — which Oberholtzer had last seen when he dropped it off at a dealership in Houston.

Oberholtzer's truck became a punch line on Twitter but the viral image earned him a torrent of abuse from hundreds of strangers who felt compelled to call and message him.

"Some of them, I don't know what the percentage would have been, a lot of them were very negative: 'You traitor ... you're selling to terrorists,'" Oberholtzer said, adding that "a lot" of the calls were in Arabic. "Of course, we don't know what they said, but they were screaming, yelling at the top of their lungs."

Oberholtzer said his office also received 10 to 15 death threats: "We're going to come down to Texas and kill you."

Oberholtzer's lawsuit against AutoNation Ford Gulf Freeway seeking $1 million in damages hinges in large part on an encounter at the Houston dealership on Oct. 23, 2013. That's when Oberholtzer traded in his 2005 F-250 as part of a deal for a newer 2012 F-250.

As Oberholtzer was waiting for the paperwork to go through, he tried to peel off the decals showing his business' name and phone number, but a dealership salesman told him to stop, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says the salesman didn't want Oberholtzer to damage the paint and told him that someone would professionally remove the decals.

"It's unfortunate that this happened to the customer," said Marc Cannon, a spokesman for AutoNation, adding that decals are typically removed between when the dealership sends a vehicle to auction and when a buyer purchases the vehicle. "We're investigating right now to see who said and did what."

Oberholtzer's old truck was sold at a Nov. 12, 2013, auction to Maz Auto, Cannon said, which appears to be a Houston used-car dealership. "We don't know what exactly happened when the car was sold to Maz Auto," Cannon said. (Maz Auto could not be reached for comment Monday.)

On Dec. 18, 2013, the lawsuit says, the truck was exported from Texas to Mersin, Turkey, where it probably joined the flow of arms and materials entering neighboring Syria.

The truck didn't resurface until a year later, when in mid-December 2014, photos of the jihadi-commandeered truck began circulating on social media, purportedly first posted by the rebel coalition group Jabhat Ansar al Din.

The jokes began not long after.

"Not the best advertising for Mark-1 Plumbing," one Twitter user remarked.

"Call Mark-1 Plumbing for all your antiaircraft needs," another added.

"Mark-1 Plumbing: Declaring jihad on clogs since 1997," tweeted a third.

Comedian Stephen Colbert piled on during his final "Colbert Report" show, which was his most-watched ever: "That country is going down the toilet, but for the first time, they know who to call to unclog it.... Although — pickup truck, desert, giant machine gun: That could still be Texas."

But the reaction for Oberholtzer was less funny after the photo hit the media, with the phone number on his truck in plain view.

His secretary soon called him in tears and went home as hundreds of phone calls poured in. Oberholtzer tried to talk to the first callers, but it soon became too overwhelming.

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He said police began stepping up patrols around his house, and officials from the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI warned him to protect himself. He began carrying a gun.

Oberholtzer thinks he lost business because of the errant truck, and every time bad news about Islamic State begins to circulate, the harassing calls return.

"It's affected me, it's affected my wife, it's affected my son — half owner of the company — his kids," he said.

And now a new wave of photos has emerged on social media.

"I think they're using — whoever has the truck — they're using it for their own gain," Oberholtzer said. "New pictures of the truck, new locations, and now it's starting all over again, it's just ridiculous."

On Monday, Oberholtzer said, his office got 81 calls from all over — New York, New Jersey, California, Colorado.

"Someone told me today, the Internet has no eraser," he said. "This is what I'm being known for rather than being in business for 32 years."

matt.pearce@latimes.com

Twitter: @MattDPearce

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A version of this article appeared in print on December 15, 2015, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "U.S. plumber sues after truck ends up in Syria rebel photo" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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