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The untold truth of Storage Wars

On paper, Storage Wars seems like an idea that never would've worked. Who wants to watch people bid to buy the mostly unseen contents of dusty old storage lockers abandoned by their original owners? But the idea did work… and how. Premiering on A&E in 2010, Storage Wars became the channel's top-rated non-scripted series, averaging an impressive 2.4 million viewers. It went on to inspire a number of similar cable series, thereby creating an entire reality TV subgenre of storage locker/salvage/auction shows, including Storage Hunters, Container Wars, Baggage Battles, and Auction Hunters. 

Storage Wars remains the gold standard, and viewers can't get enough, gobbling up nearly 300 episodes of the series over the last decade. They also want to know more about the people who make a living via the buying and selling of storage locker contents. Let's unlock the secret vault and pore over some Storage Wars facts you may not have known.

Some of it's staged, according to Dave Hester

Storage Wars is another reality show that, allegedly, plays loose with the definition of the word "reality." Cast member Dave Hester approached producers with concerns over the show's authenticity numerous times. In fact, he filed a lawsuit against the A&E network and Original Productions over those concerns in 2012.

Hester's suspicions arose because whenever he won a bid, producers would draw his attention to certain boxes, or unload the storage unit so he would "discover" certain items. Like the time he found a pile of old newspapers…which announced Elvis Presley's death. Or when he found a car underneath a pile of trash—a BMW mini car, to be exact. Hester alleged that the producers were planting valuable goods in the storage units ahead of time — otherwise known as "salting"—to make the show more interesting. And while all of that sounds scandalous enough, Hester's lawsuit didn't stop there.

Hester's lawsuit revealed lots of other secrets, too

On top of the aforementioned "salting" of the units, Hester's lawsuit also claimed the show paid for units on behalf of "weaker cast members who lack both the skill and financial wherewithal to place winning bids." He also alleged that the show depicted the bidders participating in auctions when in reality "no auction is taking place." But perhaps the most scandalous accusation in the suit was Hester's claim that producers paid for "the plastic surgery that one of the female cast members underwent in order to create more 'sex appeal' for the show."

Lastly, Hester's lawsuit revealed his compensation package for what would have been his fourth season, had he not been fired raising his concerns, as the lawsuit also alleges. Hester claims that yelling "Yuuup!" on TV for another year was going to earn him "$25,000 per episode, with a guaranteed minimum of 26 episodes," as well as "a non-accountable expense account of $124,500" and a "$25,000 signing bonus." That adds up to $799,500 to star on one season of a show about buying abandoned storage units. Wow. That's a hefty price to pay for the so-called clearing of one's moral conscience.

A&E somehow came out unscathed

Oddly enough, A&E didn't indignantly deny Dave Hester's accusations and metaphorically stand on a hill to proclaim the sanctity and truth of reality television. Instead, representatives sort of admitted to staging practices by claiming that whatever behind-the-scenes actions Storage Wars producers did were perfectly legal. In footnotes in its legal documents relating to the Hester suit, A&E cited First Amendment protections. Elsewhere in the case, it's mentioned that only game shows must be completely above board, authenticity-wise, and since Storage Wars isn't really a game show, the producers could do as they please. A&E claimed Hester's lawsuit was driven by spite, and when all was said and done, he was ordered to pay the network's legal fees… but a judge also ruled he could proceed with his wrongful termination suit.

In the end, Hester eventually returned to the show after brokering a settlement with A&E, of which the terms and details were not publicly disclosed. 

Show creator Thom Beers admits elements of show staging

As the network's response to Hester's lawsuit clearly stated, they have no problem admitting that the show takes liberties with the true nature of the storage unit auction business. In fact, in A&E's motion to strike the suit, they allow that the show "has captured the public's interest by combining elements of competition and business strategy with the mystery of discovering what surprises may be found in an abandoned storage unit." In simpler terms, "We're doing a TV show here, people."

This sentiment was echoed by show creator Thom Beers, who told a panel discussion that not only does the show script approximately 50% of what the characters say, they also sometimes consolidate pieces from several auctions in a single locker in order to keep things interesting. After all, how many viewers would stay glued to the set watching locker after locker being opened to find nothing but the worthless old furniture and garbage they're generally filled with? So, the truth in all of this "staging drama" is if you're looking for reality, look anywhere but reality TV.

Dave Hester also sued Trey Songz

Apparently a huge fan of court, Dave Hester also got into a legal battle with musician Trey Songz over the use of the catch phrase "Yuuup!" According to The New York Post, Hester and Songz each used the phrase both in speech and on merchandise over the years, but the hilarious distinction came via Hester's lawsuit which sought "a court order barring Songz from 'interfering' with his use" of the phrase.

Hester's filing claimed Songz' version "resembles an animal-like or non-human squeal which begins with a distinct 'yeeee' sound before finishing with a squeal-like 'uuuup' sound," which is "distinct and different from Hester's more monosyllabic sounding guttural auction bidding phrase…which is meant to convey the meaning of 'yes.'" Anyone want to guess how hard the judge rolled his or her eyes at that one?

Anyway, as is seemingly Hester's signature legal move, did he and Songz eventually settle privately? Yuuup!

Jarrod Schulz's story of dark to light

Though he may have vaguely mentioned it a few times on the show, veteran bidder Jarrod Schulz never elaborated on his criminal past. Too bad for him that the internet is a thing. Starcasm reported in 2012 that Schulz was arrested for felony possession of a controlled substance, narcotics transportation, and a DUI in 1997, and in 1999, he was busted again for pretty much the same things, only this time he had a parole violation added to his charges. For his crimes, Schulz served a 16-month stretch in a state prison, where there's no bidding for the top bunk.

His stint on Storage Wars is something of a happy ending for Schultz. According to The Orange County Register, he got his first whiff of storage auctions from his aunt, who at the time was managing a public storage facility. (At the same time, Schultz was trying to make it in the mortgagee business…and having a rough go staying afloat.) Over time, he and his longtime partner, Brandi Passante, would go on to open up their own second-hand store, Now and Then. How did they go from there to Storage Wars? It all went down at an auction in Harbor City, California, where he met producers who were planning Storage Wars. The rest, of course, is history.

The sad story of Mark Balelo

Auction house proprietor and game store owner Mark Balelo (a.k.a. "Rico Suavé) popped up in the second, third, and fourth seasons of Storage Wars as a bidder and a buyer, generally bringing a large stack of cash with him should he wind up winning. He was a colorful character who unfortunately had some personal troubles offscreen. In December 2012, Radar Online reported three years earlier, Ball pled guilty to a felony count of selling or transporting a controlled a substance. He received three years probation, but was sent to jail in 2011 when he violated his parole by getting caught with a gun — which he'd recovered from a storage locker he'd purchased. 

In February 2013, Balelo was arrested for possession of a small amount of methamphetamine, meaning not enough to distribute. (He was also reportedly under the influence of the drug at the time of his arrest.) Days later, he committed suicide via carbon monoxide poisoning.

Somebody made fake porn of Brandi Passante

Back in 2010, a man named Hunter Moore launched a website called Is Anyone Up? The now-defunct site basically popularized the concept of "revenge porn," which is when users upload naked images and videos of their exes in an attempt to publicly humiliate them. Moore and his hacker accomplice Charles Evens were both eventually sentenced to prison for cybercrimes connected to the site.

Unfortunately for Brandi Passante, she fell victim to Moore's grotesquery when, according to The Wrap, he "distributed a pornographic video falsely claiming to feature her over the internet," as well as "published bogus pornographic pictures of her." Passante sued, seeking "$2.5 million in actual and exemplary damages," as well as $5,250 in statutory damages. But the judge in the case reduced her monetary award all the way down to $750, and issued a permanent injunction that required Moore to remove the content, as well as barring him from any further dissemination of it.

Love at first sight

If you've ever wondered how Dan and Laura Dotson have stayed solid all these years, it might have a little to do with their relationship's auspicious beginning. "I found the right man because I am very high-energy," Laura told The Huffington Post while discussing her relationship with Dan, whom she met in 1996. "When I saw him auctioneering all over the place, I thought, 'I'm going to marry that man!' Indeed, Dan Dotson was an experienced auctioneer — he learned the trade at age 11 from his grandfather, a farm auctioneer in the Ozark Mountains. According to Laura, the pair fell in love (and got married) almost immediately. "We just looked at each other, said 'Let's get married, I'll snatch you up.'" Four months later, they were expecting their first child together. "We work well together," Laura Dotson added. "He's taught me how to auction and it's the best thing that's ever happened in my life."

The trials of Dan and Laura Dotson

The Dotsons have been together for decades, and with a long relationship come ups (starring on a popular TV series) and downs. In 2012, the Dotsons were the victims of identity theft. According to an interview with TMZ, hackers got into their home computer and stole their credit card and bank account information. The cyber-criminals might have gotten away with it, too, or at least for a while, except that they used the Dotsons' accounts to make several huge purchases immediately and all at once, which alerted a credit card company's fraud protection unit. The purchases were thwarted, but the crooks left some evidence behind: While still remotely connected to the Dotsons' computer, they talked about the heist via an instant messaging account, which the Dotsons could see taking place. They took screen grabs and turned them over to authorities.

Two years later, Dan and Laura had the health scare of their lives when Dan suffered a double brain aneurysm in Palm Springs, California. According to TMZ, Dan's condition was so bad when he got to the hospital that he was given only a four to 20 percent chance of survival. Miraculously, Dan's surgery turned out to be a success; he was released from the hospital a little over a week later. As an added bonus, Dan decided to quit smoking after 40 years, inspired to make a change thanks to the surgery that saved his life.

Barry Weiss was the one who gave Jesse James the nazi hat

After Jesse James flamed out in spectacular fashion following his admission that he cheated on Sandra Bullock, the celebrity bad boy then made repeated media appearances explaining his public meltdown. The meltdown included an incident in which a photograph of him wearing a Nazi SS officer's hat and doing a "Sieg Heil" salute leaked online. James later explained multiple interviews (via Starcasm) that the whole thing was a joke, and that the hat was a "gag gift" given to him by his "Jewish godfather," Barry Weiss. James also claimed that the hat was not authentic and was "part of a Hollywood costume."

In his autobiography, American Outlaw, James admitted that he even begged Weiss, who he called "a buddy of my dad's" for support in the aftermath of the scandal, but Weiss declined. "Can't do it," Weiss allegedly told James. "I got a show on A&E this fall—I can't afford to get mixed up in all this crap. Sorry, Jess. You're on your own, kiddo." Ouch.

Pirate's booty

The whole point of Storage Wars is to give audiences a visceral thrill as they watch other people do something everybody wanted to do when they were a kid: find buried treasure. Hoping to find valuable memorabilia in abandoned California storage lockers is merely the modern, adult equivalent of coming across a centuries-old treasure chest full of pirate gold in your backyard or at the beach. It would be pretty astonishing and unlikely, then, to find actual pirate treasure in a storage container… and perhaps almost as astonishing and unlikely that people associated with Storage Wars would overlook it. In 2011, TMZ reported that a storage unit auctioned off by Dan and Laura Dotson unknowingly contained about $500,000 worth of Spanish gold "dating anywhere between the 16th and 19th century." The booty was discovered after the storage unit had been auctioned off. It was reportedly located inside a real pirate's chest that was "at least 200 years old." If that wasn't amazing enough, the report says the winning bidder made off with the gold by paying a little over $1,000 for the storage unit.

Barry Weiss has been green for decades

Buyer Barry Weiss left the show in 2013 and soon thereafter anchored his own short-lived spinoff, Barry'd Treasure. But before he got involved with storage locker auction television, he worked for 30 years in the wholesale produce business, providing produce for cruise ships, restaurants, and hotels. "I've always been collecting antiques on the side," he told Wisconsin's Big Cheese on 107.9 FM, "so that helped fund my passion for collecting weird stuff."

Generally as cool as the cucumbers he sold in bulk to cruise lines, Weiss exuded a low level of stress compared to his co-bidders. He clearly was in it for the fun, having little to no financial stake in the unknown treasures lurking inside those units. Obviously, a lot of this has to do with his financial independence, but he's also offered an alternative explanation for his laidback demeanor. Wisconsin's Big Cheese asked Weiss about his medical marijuana card, and he responded, "Oh god, honestly, uh, it's been about eight years ago. I'm one of the first in this state to get it, but you know I got a bad back, and I've gotta tend to it." Bad back, huh? Yuuup, sounds legit.

Kevin Pew's son was charged with murder

Storage Wars: Miami was the short-lived spinoff of Storage Wars that was barely off the ground when a gruesome tragedy struck one of its stars. At a viewing party for the show that had only premiered days before, cast member Kevin Pew's son Hashim shot and killed family friend Janel Hamilton for seemingly no reason. According to CBS Local 10 News, Pew shot Hamilton without warning, using a stolen .45 caliber handgun, then proceeded to shoot her again while she was on the floor.

The younger Pew was allegedly tackled by his father and brother, who restrained him until police arrived. According to police reports, Hashim allegedly said, "She's dead as (expletive) dawg," while he was being restrained by his shocked family members. According to TMZ, Hashim was charged with first degree murder, but was later found "incompetent to stand trial," and was "remanded into the custody of the Department of Children and Families for treatment in order to 'attain competence to proceed,'" or become competent to stand trial later.

As of this writing, the status of the murder trial is unclear. Storage Wars: Miami never returned for a second season, although it's unclear whether that decision was related to the murder of Janel Hamilton.

Brandon Sheets got fired, then fired up on Twitter

Storage Wars gets rid of cast members with the kind of frequency reserved for high-stakes scripted shows like Grey's Anatomy and Game of Thrones. And while Storage Wars producers aren't killing off any characters it's still a bit surprising that so many players have come and gone. Most of the season one group remains in tact, with the notable exceptions of Barry Weiss (who left after four seasons) and buyer Brandon "The Sidebet" Sheets. At first he merely tagged along with his father, Darrell Sheets. Then he started bidding against his kin…and then he was gone. In December 2016, the younger Sheets announced via Twitter that he'd been laid off: "I am no longer affiliated with Storage Wars, Darrell will still be in new episodes but I have been told I am no longer on the show (budget). But then he kept going. No hard feelings? No, hard feelings. In a tweet storm, Sheets declared that he had "bigger plans for myself than to be degraded by a show and people who simply do not care about others and their quality of life," and said that "some people just didn't appreciate what I brought to the table." Sheets landed on his feet, and he now works in real estate in Arizona.

Darrell Sheets accepted a bid on his job

One original Storage Wars cast member who has managed to stick around for all eleven seasons (and counting) of the series: buyer Darrell Sheets. (He's "The Gambler.") But he hasn't exactly enjoyed absolute job security and a peaceful working relationship with show producers and A&E. TMZ reported in 2015 that A&E threatened to cut Sheets per-episode pay from $30,000 all the way down to $15,000. Making that pay cut even more severe: They only wanted him in four episodes out of the upcoming season's 26 total installments. Sheets suspected the network was phasing him out so as to replace him with younger, newer talent who would happily work for less money. A source close to Sheets told TMZ that the star considered leaving the series for another show (for which he'd received offers), but in the end, he stayed put. He doesn't appear on Storage Wars as much as he used to, but it's unclear what he's getting paid these days.

Dotson v. Hester vs. Dotson, one night only

While A&E may not think Storage Wars fits the legal definition of a game show, there's undeniably a gaming element to the show, if not an intense sense of competition. This is a series about usually the same handful of people bidding against each other for the potentially bountiful contents of a storage unit — their very livelihood depends on a win. In that environment, things are going to get heated, even amongst longtime co-stars.

According to TMZ, in June 2015, Storage Wars taped an episode at a Palm Springs, California, facility. Evidently, auctioneer Dan Dotson missed a bid from Dave Hester, so producers told  Hester to let Dotson know he made a mistake. Dotson didn't pay any mind, and Hester wouldn't let the issue drop, at the behest of producers. Eventually, Dotson and Hester got into it verbally, and then Hester punched Dotson. A full-on brawl ensued between the guys, and then Laura Dotson jumped on Hester's back, only for him to throw her to the ground. (She then went on a profanity-laden tirade, calling Hester, among other things, a "son of a b**** m***********.") Production halted, Hester got booted from the set, and he headed to a hospital for a tetanus shot, as Laura Dotson scratched at him so severely she drew blood.

Emily Wears is an auction and reality TV prodigy

Veteran real-life and reality TV auctioneers Dan and Laura Dotson welcomed another tradesperson into their realm in season 10 with the addition of Emily Wears to the Storage Wars cast. Born into an auctioneering family, she started working for her father's company in Iowa at age 10 and began her formal training — which including learning to call in two languages — at age 17. Then she got competitive, becoming the first woman to win major auctioneering contests in Colorado and Wyoming, along with second and first place finishes in the International Junior Auctioneer Championship in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

Storage Wars isn't Wears' first experience with reality television. In 2012, she appeared on the Thom Beers-produced auction show Money Barn, and auditioned for the fifteenth season of American Idol in 2016. She sang for Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez, and Harry Connick, Jr., on TV, but all three judges turned her down.