The black Ford F-250 started life as a truck for a Texas-based plumbing company, carrying pipes, toilets and their ilk. But then it was sold to a Ford dealership in Houston, and after that shepherded off to parts unknown. Until, that is, it appeared as the focal point of a tweet from a supposed jihadist last December.
The photo indicated that the truck no longer carried ceramic parts; emerging from its cargo bed were a black-cloaked figure and an anti-aircraft gun shooting fire into the distance. According to the tweet, the truck was being used by Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (or, the “Muhaijireen Brigade”), a jihadist group fighting against the Syrian government.
Yet, even with its function entirely transformed, the truck still bore the insignia of its past life, a decal that clearly read: “Mark-1 Plumbing.”
Underneath this large lettering was an equally clear label of the company’s phone number — a number which, after the photo went viral within days of posting — began ringing non-stop.
On the other end of these mostly caustic calls was Mark Oberholtzer, owner of Mark-1 Plumbing in Texas City, whose reputation rapidly went from small business owner to terrorist sympathizer. He wasn’t the latter, of course, but the widely-shared picture of his old truck spoke louder than his plaintive explanations.
“How it ended up in Syria, I’ll never know,” Oberholtzer told the Galveston County Daily News at the time. “I just want it to go away, to tell you the truth.”
Now Oberholtzer has filed a lawsuit against AutoNation Ford Gulf Freeway, the Houston dealership where he traded in the truck. According to the complaint filed last week, AutoNation misrepresented their intentions to remove the decal, causing Oberholtzer, his business and his family “severe harm.”
AutoNation did not immediately respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment Sunday evening. According to Courthouse News, the dealership’s sales manager did not respond to a phone message placed last week.
A spokesperson for the company told Huffington Post last December that “AutoNation was nothing but the pass-through for this vehicle” and had no involvement in its eventual arrival in the hands of Islamic militants.
The lawsuit claims that Oberholtzer started to peel the “Mark-1 Plumbing” decal off when a salesperson told him that doing so would blemish the paint on the vehicle. The salesperson, Edgar Velasquez, assured Oberholtzer that the dealership would remove the decal themselves using a tool that “works better.”
“At no time did Mr. Velasquez or any other agent, servant or employee of the Defendant tell Plaintiff that Defendant would leave the decals on the truck, which would be transferred in some fashion to international jihadists conducting warfare upon innocents in Syria,” the complaint reads, “and, Plaintiff was not in any conceivable way told, informed or placed on notice that precisely such an incomprehensible and horrific eventuality would actually occur.”
The horror of the truck’s ultimate destination was multiplied by the attention it received and, in turn, the attention that it drew to Oberholtzer’s business.
A few days after the photo of the truck surfaced on the Internet, Stephen Colbert featured the story as an opening item on his final show — the most watched episode in The Colbert Report’s history at 2.481 million viewers.
On his segment, Colbert joked that “[Syria] is going down the toilet, but for the first time, they know who to call to unclog it.”
Mark-1 Plumbing received over 1,000 phone calls from around the country just two days after the tweet was posted, Oberholtzer’s suit alleges. His entire family feared for their lives, and his secretary was too scared to return to the office. On the advice of agents from the Department of Homeland Security and FBI, Oberholtzer began carrying a handgun.
The complaint claims that AutoNation is guilty of, among other things, gross negligence, common law fraud, negligent misrepresentation and invasion of privacy by appropriation of name.
The most curious part of the story is perhaps how the truck reached jihadists in the first place.
An AutoNation spokesperson told the the Huffington Post that it was immediately sent to an auction house after Oberholtzer’s trade-in in October of 2013, which then sold it to a local used car dealer. According to the lawsuit, a vehicle history report details that the truck was imported to Mersin, Turkey on December 18, 2013.
The damaging tweet was sent out almost exactly a year later.
Oberholtzer’s Ford isn’t the only car being repurposed for terrorist use. The Islamic State is known for featuring Toyota trucks and SUVs in their graphic propaganda videos, prompting the U.S. government to ask the Japanese auto maker why so many of its products have landed in the militant group’s clutches.
“How could these brand new trucks..these four wheel drives, hundreds of them — where are they coming from?” Iraqi ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily told ABC News.
Toyota distributors in the region told ABC that they did not know how their vehicles reached the Islamic State.
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