Fear and Darkness All Around You – The Flaky, Shaky, Snaky Business of Bail Bonds and Bounty Hunters

People have often asked me, especially a few years back when the TV show was very popular,  

     "have you worked with Dog the Bounty the Hunter?"   

     "did you know The Big, Bad Dog?"

     "Have you been a bounty hunter?"

     In a word, no to all questions. I have hunted many, many fugitives, finding them all over Texas, the USA, Canada and Mexico, as chronicled in book Don't Even Think ABout It and the upcoming sequel Dead Right There. I don’t recall finding criminals in the other countries. In fact, I can't think of a time when I ever worked with any so-called, full-time, official and black leather, "bounty hunters."

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     Can someone be a full-time employed, official bounty hunter? On the whole, I don't think so. And if so? Not for long. Some folks have tried and maybe still try? Clean it up a bit and call it “fugitive recovery,” or a “bail enforcement agent.” I have also been contacted by private investigators while as a police detective, in their pursuits in finding various "skipped" folks but they are being paid for some other bigger reason, other than just bail location/reward money. This situation was reversed years later when I was a PI. For example, families have hired me to find missing (fugitive) relatives, knowing that once found, they would be arrested. Or to find criminals needed to testify in civil court. These are longer stories than I shouldn't include here in this one essay, but as a private investigator I have never been hired to just find someone who jumped bond, just because they jumped bond. There were strings attached.

     Least of all, I have never worked with one as colorful as likes of the Dog. The reason citizens know about the Dog is he and his pack are so utterly, unusual and over-the-top they became great fodder for reality TV. I’ve watched the show myself when it’s on. I use to see it all over the world on various cable channels. Reruns abound. The newer episodes of Dog and Beth! The Dog was and is big! It's a perfect little recipe for just what it is – from the bad-ass, Ozzy Ozbourne theme song to the group prayer at the end. Perfect schtick. The show of course is "pre-fab" and half-scripted as most reality shows have to be.

     But the bond and this bounty hunting thing. Do they make some money? Are they all, also PIs? Security companies? Or just anyone without training and licensing? How can this be so cool and even confusing? Why are so many arrested people set loose from court anyway? And who are bondsmen? Are all bondmen bounty hunters? What are bounty hunters?

     The Bail bonds business. It’s an odd business. Nationally on average, for most years, some 20 percent of felony defendants on bail fail to appear back in court. There are no handy stats on misdemeanor suspects who fail to appear. When this failure to appear happens, an warrant warrant in ussued. This issuance evokes all kinds of authority from officials on down to "citizen arrests."

     In the USA, most normal citizens don't even understand the bonding-out process of their justice system. What little they know of comes from fiction novels and TV and movies. For the layman or the foreigner, in the USA when someone is arrested, they may be released from this custody by promising to appear in court on a later date. This promise is bolstered and underwritten by money. As we know, the denero makes the world go round. Setting up this “monetary promise” to re-appear is a complicated process, like a business contract, and that is why God made the licensed, approved, bail bondsman. The court system cannot be bogged down with doing this and running a side, "human banking or pawn shop, style business." Plus, we don't have the space in jail to keep all these people for the pending months involved in prosecuting them. The arrested party calls a bondsman day or night to get out of jail.

     Both the bail bondsmen and the suspect stand to lose a lot of money if they run off. Cash, cars, house, jewelry, boats, artifacts, antiques…you might be surprised what bondsmen will take in immediate payment of their services or will come collect of you fail to appear.

     Most skippers/jumpers are eventually caught, and people usually think it was by some kind of sleuth, bounty hunter lone wolf or team. But regular law enforcement factor into this capture posse. If a subject has jumped bond, there is an arrest warrant. Once a bail jumper has been located, many chasers just call the police in to do the dirty work of the hands-on arrest. They sit back and watch the action.

     The owners of bail bond companies are usually “interesting” people. The arrested get a call from the jailhouse. The arrested call family or friend and ask for help with getting money and meeting bond rates. The bondsman meets with the subject at the jail and conducts an extensive interview. Once out? There is often another extensive interview at the officer or elsewhere. Lots of paperwork. What does the arrested party own to offer up and promise to return to court or lose? Cash? A car? A jet ski? Jewelry? A house? Sometimes, momma puts up the house. (Sometimes momma loses the whole house. I can think of several lawyers who also wrote bonds, and bondsmen who now have a small, real estate empire from collecting "momma's houses" through the years).

     For a fee and a possible loss of worldly goods later, the subject signs a contract and promises to appear later in court. The Bondsman is also gambling and playing a percentage game too and stands to lose a lot should the subject disappear. A good bondsman collects extensive identity information well beyond the common police arrest report for their civil paperwork. The authority stems from a 136-year-old, U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that people waived their civil rights when they signed a contract with a bondsman. All the contacts, friends, phone numbers, addresses, jobs, all things the bondsman knows from experience he might need later in a hunt.

     A good bondsman collects extensive identity information well beyond the common police arrest report for their civil paperwork. The authority stems from a 136-year-old, U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that people waived their civil rights when they signed a contract with a bondsman. All the contacts, friends, phone numbers, addresses, jobs, all things the bondsman knows from experience he might need later in a hunt. Anyone can make the bond for someone. Lawyers can do it. Friends. Family.

     Each jurisdiction in the USA has its own rules on bonding, usually set by a local committee/board of the city, county, state, federal jurisdictions, governed by the state in basic standards. Ordinarily, the board consists of a local judge or two, bail bondsmen, the local Sheriff, politicians and some others. Some boards are very forgiving if the subject "jumps," as in flees or fails to appear. Some other jurisdictions will set a deadline and demand the full bond amount from the bond company. This could be a lot of money. Either way, should a suspect fail to appear? A warrant is issued for the subject. The real power of the hunt, comes from this "failure to appear" style, arrest warrant from a judge. Any so-called “bounty hunter” should first ensure that this warrant gets listed on the NCIC police computer system before their hunt begins.

     Most bondsmen have slowly evolved in one way or another into the business. They rarely show up in town with a suitcase, a smile and a new license. They don’t graduate college and pop up to start a bond business. They didn’t aspire to be one since childhood. They are usually already entangled in the local, legal business in some manner, see the success and say, “I can do that too.” They’ve worked with a local bondsman. Maybe a family member of a local legal system person. Ex-cop? Somehow they knew something about the incarceration business.

     And most bondsmen are not bounty hunters, not as imagined, not like the Dog, not like in the books, movies and TV. They will go looking and calling for their missing people, but they do not carry business cards that read “bounty hunter.” In a way bail-bondsmen are like human pawn brokers. In many USA states they even look and dress flashy like pawn-brokers and have a tendency to own and sell vast amounts of odd things through the years, seized from bonds and jumpers. 

     And, very, very few strangers show up in town as a “bounty hunter” and open a storefront, you know – "Acme Bounty Hunting." Most states have strict laws about bounty hunting. In Texas a bounty hunter must be a private investigator, but on the other extreme, in some states like Michigan, there are no rules at all. Zip. Zero. In Michigan, no rules mean a growing wave of inexperienced wannabes. These laws change and you need to check them.

     In unregulated states like Michigan, working bondsman know where this newer wave in bounty hunting and hunters comes from…

     “It’s the Dog, following the Duane "Dog" Chapman. Duane Chapman ruined the industry," said Aaron Carr, 36, a Sterling Heights, a Michigan bounty hunter who also must also work a Sears stock orderer. "Dog's a convicted felon. He has no business being in the industry," Carr complained to a Detroit News reporter in March, 2009. "Many people entering the field do it part time and don't hang around for long."

 

"Many people entering the field do it part time and don't hang around for long."

 

     Reporter Francis X. Donnelly conducted a survey of 20 of the 65 names listed on a web directory of officially advertised “bounty hunters” in Michigan. Most of them were out of business and quickly. “The ones that remained had other jobs like cooks, teachers, computer repairmen, cable TV installers, social service counselors, and the bail bondsman. They earn 10 percent of the bail paid by the bondsmen, which usually nets them a few hundred dollars per fugitive. Something like that.”

     Only by being a combination of both bail bondsman and bounty hunter, can most hunters survive full-time. People like TV’s Dog. The Dog is paid by the television show, His TV show is his first or second job. They wrote the original bond. They clean up the mess when the guy disappears.

     It’s another loophole in most private investigation state laws and bounty hunting laws. The bail bondsman can investigate and locate/hunt his skipped clients as matter of regular bond business. he doesn't need a PI license. But, if he pays someone else to do this, say in Texas, this "other" person must be a licensed private investigator. In Arizona, the law requires bounty hunters just get written authorization from a bail bondsman before trying to capture a fugitive. In Kentucky, bounty hunting is generally not allowed at all because the state does not have a system of bail bondsmen, and it releases bailed suspects through the state's Pretrial Services division of the courts. So, there is no bondsman with the right to apprehend the fugitive. The police do it like they would any other warrant.

     As a matter of practice, it is always good for detectives to know and have a give-and-take working relationship with area PIs and bondsmen. I tell you this as a police advice because we use to ask bondsmen for inside info when hunting a suspect for a new or old crime. We would research or recall the prior arrests of our suspect and see who bonded him out in the past. Their files would often contain more people, places, phone numbers, etc. that we needed to troll around and find our guy. They needed us frequently. They would come to us hat-in-hand for help – facing a huge court payment for a jumped client. If we had the time we'd help hunt for their bad guys. Many times they were career criminals and needed to be in jail. We'd use that "failure to appear" warrant as a power base to help out when and where we could. An arrest warrant is an arrest warrant. We like serving arrest warrants. It’s what we do.

     These crimes and relationships can get really messy. One time years back, we arrested an international Thai, drug smuggler on a visa in Texas. Heroin. It was a major op for us, originated by us that eventually included the DEA and State Narcotics. It went down as planned, a simple-drop-off/pick-up, and we caught the smuggler “red-handed” as they say. The Thai was arrested and as a matter of routine, given a bail hearing. The bail was crazy high, but can you imagine this guy from Thailand even getting a bond at all set by any judge! Well, over a million something as I recall. I think the judge thought no one would/could make such a bond.

     But, once in the hoosegow, our man, as was his right, looked over the bail bondsmen ads in a phone book by the phones. He picked up the phone and contacted a local bail bonds woman nicknamed Spotlight Sally.

    We all knew her. “Spotlights Bonds.” She was a former Dallas stripper, stage-named, Spotlight Sally with quite the biography and therefore had a certain familiarity with the law and order business. She even married a cop in our region. She moved to our city and opened “Spotlights Bail Bonds.” She was one of those insiders who said, “I could do that,” about the bond business and she started her own bond company. She reminded us of a Dolly Parton type, if you will.

     But, sort of a different league with international drug smuggling, huh? Ya’ think? She took the bond challenge! She was given contact information from Thailand (we were not privy to this in the beginning).  She was quickly wired the required, very, very substantial, down payment money from international ports unknown, with promises of all the rest. All the paperwork boxes were checked. The DA protested, but the guy was set free.

     As next imagined, the Thai was never seen again! And we were all busy moving down the road working other cases. Spotlight Sally went into a tailspin as the court, deadline date loomed, freaking out over the total bail money she had promised the court. Desperate, she begged our detective division for help. She called Sgt. Howard Kelly, who was our "Jethro" of "NCIS" at the time, if you know what I mean. Kelly snatched me up and we paid a serious visit to her modest, small office. She sat with us in her Dolly Parton hairdo, in her tight jeans, boots and a country-western, plaid shirt and told us the rest of the story. The Thai connection. Meanwhile, we knew the real folks behind all this smuggling caper were off in a Thailand palace of sorts? Tripping over machine guns and giant stacks of cash?

     On her desk was the Thai file. Thick in paper, but when passed to us, shallow in workable content. It was thick enough to do a little hunting around with though. We got with our narcotics guy who cracked the original smuggling case – an old hand and friend, who had risked his life and almost died several times in his career, and for the sake of his peace and quiet, I will not name him here.

      We eventually found the Thai fugitive alright. His corpse. He was killed by a hired hit man. And…we eventually caught the hit man too, thanks to another joint agency operation. He was sort of a regional criminal who did a whole host of crimes. I testified in federal court to help with his demise. He died in the Texas Pen with the names of his Thai employers a secret and how they contacted him.

Police photos 1980s, hock hochheim

(Sgt. Howard Kelly and me, circa the 1980s. When I grew up? I wanted to be just like him, except for the Conway Twitty haircut.) 

     I am not sure how all that promise-to-appear money worked out in court for the our nice, Spotlight bonding lady. If the fugitive is murdered I think the system will not punish the bondsman and ask for the full bond.

     Sometimes these things are not as simple as a weekly Duane Chapman, Dog episode. Different leagues. Oh, and none of these heroic bounty hunters popped in on this one. Like Ozzy Ozbourne said,

    “There's fear and darkness all around you…” 

 

Hock's email HockHochheim@forcenecessary.com

 

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