In Oct. 2013, Mark Oberholtzer traded his truck to Charlie Thomas Ford Ltd. of AutoNation Ford Gulf Freeway, an auto dealer tucked along I-45 in Houston, Tex.
Oberholtzer was a plumber, and his truck—a dark colored 2005 Ford F-250 Super Cab—was a plumber’s truck. It had his company’s name on the side: “Mark-1” and his phone number on the door, Galveston area code and all.
A little more than a year later, Oberholtzer would see his truck again but this time things were a little different. It wasn’t idling at the red light next to him, nor parked at his local Walmart. Instead Oberholtzer’s truck—his phone number still emblazoned on the door—had gone viral. His truck was in Syria. It was covered in dust and someone had put a 23mm twin-barreled anti-aircraft gun in the back and was apparently firing at somebody.
The tweet hit the Internet on Dec. 15, 2014. Caleb Weiss tweeted the picture from a Jabhat Ansar al-Din Facebook account, and from there the Internet did what the Internet does best. Jabhat Ansar al-Din is one of the dozens of groups fighting in northern Syria against the Islamic State and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops, and Weiss tweeted the picture with the caption “Chechen Jaish al Muhajireen wal Ansar using plumbing truck against regime in #Aleppo.”
— Caleb Weiss (@Weissenberg7) December 15, 2014
There was Oberholtzer’s truck alright. The picture shows a masked man sitting in Oberholtzer’s worn seat, his elbow hanging out the driver’s side window as he looks back at his comrade firing the repurposed anti-air weapon from the vehicle’s bed. A Texas man’s work vehicle had become a weapon of Syria’s bloody war and a plumbing truck had managed to find itself wedged into a discourse that features terms like “barrel bombs” and and Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices.
According to the lawsuit, Oberholtzer’s truck had been sold at a Texas auto auction on Nov. 11, 2013. On Dec. 18, 2013, it left the United States from the port city of Houston and was imported to Mersin, Turkey sometime later.
By the end of Dec. 15, 2014, the day Weiss tweeted the plumbing truck now seen around the world, Oberholtzers’s cell phone, work phone and office phone had “received over 1,000 phone calls from around the nation,” according to the lawsuit.
The phone calls were a mixed bag. Some of the calls stood in solidarity with Oberholtzer. The majority, though, were less than pleasant.
From the lawsuit:
“These phone calls were in large part harassing and contained countless threats of violence, property harm, injury and even death. These phone calls included, but were not limited to, individuals who were: (a) irate and yelling expletives at whomever answered the phone; (b) degrading to whomever answered the phone regarding their stupidity; (c) singing in Arabic for the duration of the phone call or voice message recording; (d) making threats of injury or death against Mark-1’s employees, family, children, and grandchildren in violent, lurid and grossly specific terms; and, (e) directing expletive-laced death threats to whomever answered the phone.”
Oberholtzer was forced to shutter his business for a week and left town. When he called Charlie Thomas Ford, the person he spoke to on the phone “expressed not the slightest regret,” and informed Oberholtzer it was not their job to remove Oberholtzer’s decals, according to the lawsuit. One of Oberholtzer’s main contentions, however, is that he began to remove his decals while waiting to finalize his paperwork with Charlie Thomas Ford and was told to stop because it would damage the paint.
In the months that followed, Oberholtzer was visited by both the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI and interviewed extensively. According to the lawsuit, he was advised to “protect himself” and Oberholtzer began carrying around a firearm. On Dec. 18, 2014 his truck was featured on the final episode of the Colbert Report, the most watched episode in the show’s history,
“The widespread viewing of the segment increased the volume of the harassing and threatening phone calls and has immeasurably added to the suffering of Mark, his family, his employees and their families,” reads the lawsuit.
For damages done, including “invasion of privacy by appropriation of name,” Oberholtzer has sued for $1,000,000.