TEXAS CITY — All Mark Oberholtzer wanted to do was upgrade his ride. What he got instead was a world of trouble from half a world away.
The Texas City, Texas, plumbing company owner is suing a Ford dealership for more than $1 million in financial losses and damages to his company’s reputation after a pickup truck he once owned ended up with Islamic militants fighting in Syria’s civil war.
A photo of the truck, with his Mark-1 Plumbing decals still attached, went viral, leading to thousands of harassing phone calls.
“By the end of the day, Mark-1’s office, Mark-1’s business phone, and Mark’s personal cell had received over 1,000 phone calls from around the nation,” Oberholzer’s lawyer wrote in the lawsuit, filed December 9 in Harris County, Texas. “These phone calls were in large part harassing and contained countless threats of violence, property harm, injury and even death.”
Oberholtzer said this wouldn’t have happened if the dealership had just removed the decals before the truck was resold.
Tracing terror trucks
The issue of Western vehicles flowing into the Middle East and into the hands of militants has attracted global attention.
For instance, the U.S. Treasury Department has asked Toyota how so many of its vehicles have wound up in militant hands.
Toyota pickups seem to be the preferred vehicle of militants in the Middle East, said Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“Toyota is the truck that jihadists use when they want to go to war,” he told CNN in October.
But jihadists aren’t tied exclusively to the Japanese brand. Other brands also appear on the battlefield, including Ford — which made Oberholtzer’s F-250 pickup.
Trading up to a newer F-250
Just how the truck ended up in the hands of militants is a bit of a mystery.
In October 2013, Oberholtzer took the truck to AutoNation Ford Gulf Freeway in Houston for a trade-in, according to the lawsuit.
He got a 2012 Ford F-250 and said goodbye to his old truck.
He started to peel off the company’s decals from the truck’s doors but a salesman stopped him, according to the lawsuit. The man told Oberholtzer that peeling off the decal would damage the paint on the truck, according to the lawsuit.
Oberholtzer said the salesman told him that AutoNation would remove the decals before the truck was resold.
CNN requested comment from the dealership and its corporate headquarters. Neither had responded as of Monday afternoon.
The truck was auctioned off in November 2013. The next month, it was shipped from Houston to Mersin, Turkey, according to the lawsuit.
About a year later, the truck popped up in a tweet posted by Caleb Weiss, a contributor to the Long War Journal. It showed militants firing a heavy weapon from the bed of a truck with the Mark-1 company name on the front door.
Threats and losses
The photo went viral, was picked up by news outlets and led to thousands of phone calls to Oberholtzer’s business and personal phones, according to the lawsuit.
Most of the calls were harassing and threatened violence and included the “yelling (of) expletives at whomever answered the phone,” the “singing in Arabic for the duration of the phone call” and “threats of injury or death” made against Oberholtzer’s family and employees.
Oberholtzer had to temporarily shut down his business and leave town, according to the lawsuit, resulting in financial losses. He’s also had visits from Homeland Security and the FBI.
And he still has to deal with phone calls, which continue to come in a year after the photo first appeared.
He now carries a gun for protection, according to the lawsuit.