Charles "Chas" Edward Laughlin was born May 22, 1965, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the second youngest of Rufus and Elsie Laughlin's eight children.
Elsie ran an unlicensed childcare center out of the family's battered double-wide trailer on the outskirts of Hattiesburg's low-end blue-collar section.
Rufus felt unappreciated every day of the 40 years he drove a Hattiesburg city bus. When he came home, first he drowned his resentment with cheap bourbon, then vented it on his wife or children—whoever was closest.
From a young age, Chas demonstrated an interest in cars, an interest in breaking out of poverty, and a willingness to cut corners to get ahead.
As a boy, he often ditched school to hang out at the garage near his home. Watching the mechanics introduced him to auto maintenance, and according to his juvenile record, petty fraud including low-grade gasoline substituted for premium and parts sabotaged to fail later.
Working part-time at the station, young Chas developed a knack for repairing cars and taking advantage of the unwary. By the time he dropped out of school in the eighth grade, he was small-town street smart and well-versed in how to make a fast and dishonest buck. The only things holding him back were an explosive temper inherited from his father and an already-developed fondness for alcohol.
Teenaged Chas had numerous run-ins with the law. At 15, he was caught joyriding; at 17, assaulting a customer who caught him falsifying car repairs; and on his 18th birthday, he was arrested for beating one of the garage's employees who threatened to tell the owner that Chas was dipping into the till.
He spent 18 months in minimum security at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman, MS. He enrolled in the automobile maintenance and repair program at the prison, where the other inmates gave him an advanced education in chop shops, "cooking the books," and more.
He also learned how to deal with squealers. When an inmate threatened to expose a booze-smuggling scheme, Chas allegedly helped six other prisoners beat the man unconscious and pack his body into a trash compactor. Chas was never charged in the incident.
Chas got out of Parchman in 1984 with a GED, several mechanic's certificates, and a full list of criminal contacts. For the next ten years, he worked at repair shops and garages across Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, always leaving town just before his scams were discovered.
In Tyler, Texas, he met Jo Anna Deckard, a 24-year-old barmaid with three children by three previous boyfriends. They married in 1987, two months after their child was born.
While Chas was working at the TruService Auto Repair Shop in Oxford in 1994, Jo Anna demanded that they settle down.
Two years later, when the shop's aging owner became ill, Chas used his bookkeeping skills to convince him the shop was worth much less than it was and picked it up at a fraction of its true value. Chas changed the name to Laughlin Automotive & Body Shop and put all he had learned to work.
According to confidential informants, Chas has always kept two sets of books, concealing the profits from using stolen repair parts from chop shops across the South.
He has also taken a heavy hand to those who tried to cheat him. Two of his mechanics were hospitalized after reportedly "falling off the lift," but insiders claim that Chas caught them stealing and beat them to a pulp.
Lately, sources say Chas has been sending his most trusted employees to pick up parts from a Memphis supplier of black market auto parts.