The photo indicated that the truck no longer carried porcelain and iron parts; emerging from its cargo bed were a black-cloaked figure and an antiaircraft gun. According to the tweet, the truck was being used by Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (the “Muhajireen Brigade”), an extremist group fighting 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 that, after the photo went viral within days of posting, began ringing nonstop.
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 its 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 spokesman for the company told the 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 Islamist militants.
The lawsuit claims that Oberholtzer started to peel the “Mark-1 Plumbing” decal off when a salesman told him that doing so would blemish the paint on the vehicle. The salesman, Edgar Velasquez, allegedly assured Oberholtzer that the dealership would remove the decal.
The complaint says that neither Velasquez nor any other employee told Oberholtzer that the decals would remain on the truck.
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.
While the lawsuit states that the photo of the truck was originally tweeted by “Caleb Weiss, a member of Ansar al-Deen, a jihadist group operating near Aleppo in Syria,” this is not the identity of the Internet user who introduced the photo to the world. Weiss wrote in an email to The Washington Post, “I am in no way a jihadist, a sympathizer of jihadists, a member of any jihadist organization or an extremist in any fashion. I am an analyst and researcher of jihadist groups.”
Weiss is an intern at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributor to the Long War Journal, a news website which provides reports on terrorism-related conflicts around the world. The lawyers who filed the suit have been contacted to change their reference to Weiss, he said. Weiss reportedly obtained the image from an Ansar al-Din Facebook account.
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 history of “The Colbert Report,” at 2.5 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 more than 1,000 phone calls from across the country just two days after the tweet was posted, Oberholtzer’s suit alleges. His family members feared for their lives, and his secretary was too scared to return to the office.
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 extremists in the first place.
An AutoNation spokesman told the Huffington Post that after Oberholtzer’s trade-in in October 2013, the vehicle was immediately sent to an auction house, which then sold it to a local used-car dealer. According to the lawsuit, a vehicle history report says the truck was imported at Mersin, Turkey, on Dec. 18, 2013.
The damaging tweet was sent out almost exactly a year later.
Oberholtzer’s Ford isn’t the only car that has been repurposed for use by extremists. The Islamic State is known for featuring Toyota trucks and SUVs in its graphic propaganda videos, prompting the U.S. government to ask the Japanese automaker 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?” asked Iraqi Ambassador to the United States Lukman Faily in an interview with ABC News.
Toyota distributors in the region told ABC that they did not know how their vehicles reached the Islamic State.
This post has been updated to clarify the identity of Caleb Weiss.