Night of the Bounty Hunters

DATE 10/21/92





The bounty hunter creeps around the corner of the white clapboard house in Atlanta’s West End, his Glock semiautomatic pistol drawn. Suddenly, the back door flies open, and someone crashes through the pitch-black yard.

“He’s going out the back!” Charles Shaw, the bounty hunter, shouts. “Freeze, or I’ll shoot your head off!”

The runner, unimpressed by the threat, charges down a hill, past a snarling chained dog and neighboring homes into nearby woods. Shaw and a friend working with him give chase, sidestepping the dog themselves as they head for the woods, too.

For a few minutes, all is quiet, except for the sound of the two men beating the bushes. They find the runner crouched in the underbrush. He agrees to come out, under one condition: “Just don’t shoot me.”

Unfortunately, as they bring him back up the hill, the pursuers make a discovery more irritating than the nettles clinging to their pants. The man they’ve been chasing is not the bail jumper they were after.

“Why did you run from us?” Shaw asks, shining his flashlight in the man’s face.

 “I thought you were the two guys who’ve been trying to rob me,” the runner says, blood trickling from his knee. It’s an unlikely story, since an Atlanta police officer in a marked car accompanied Shaw and his friend to the house.

They also realize the man they wanted probably ran from the house at the same time, going a different direction and eluding them. With no reason to hold the runner, they let him go.

Such is life when you make a living chasing people with dozens of aliases through communities where the major industries involve dope and sex. People who don’t run at the first sign of authority are the exception.

These people, these places, make up the major market for the bail bonding industry, a for-profit system filling a quasi-official role, straddling the line separating private business and the state’s legal system.

  Broad Powers, Few Restraints

For most poor Americans facing serious criminal charges, bail bonding companies offer the financially reasonable way to remain free pending trial. In exchange, the U.S. Supreme Court has given bonding companies tremendous power when it comes time to track down a bail jumper, someone who has failed to appear in court.

In many ways, bounty hunters working for bonding companies have more power than the police. For example, they have the right to kick in a bail jumper’s door and drag him out, with only a mere suspicion he’s inside taking the place of a search warrant. And they can freely cross state lines to do so.

While bounty hunters make up the romanticized, high-profile side of the bail bonding business, they actually make no money for a bonding company. Tommy Brewer, Shaw’s employer as owner of A&B Bonding, says he makes a profit by diligently tracking his cases through the court system.

The concept of the bail bond is relatively simple, evolving through the centuries from English common law. Essentially, it works like this: Police arrest a person and charge him with a crime. Some kind of judge, depending on the court and the crime, sets bail at an amount that should guarantee the accused will return to court to avoid forfeiture.

The accused can pay all of the bail in cash, of course, and recover the full amount after appearing in court. Few, however, can afford to put up the thousands of dollars often required. That’s where bail bonding companies step in.

Bail bonding companies charge a fee—in Georgia, 10 percent of the bail amount—and, in exchange, agree to pay the bail in full if the accused fails to appear in court.

Most do appear. Brewer, like most owners of bail bonding companies, makes certain his clients don’t forget, mailing notices to the defendant and the defendant’s co-signer, as well as the defendant’s attorney, if known. His employees also call the client the night before the court appearance.

About 10 percent fail to appear, Brewer says. Generally, he manages to bring in 98 percent of those with a phone call, avoiding forfeiture of the bond. Bounty hunters go after the other 2 percent.

Brewer runs one of the largest bonding companies in Atlanta out of a bright yellow brick building across from the city jail on Pryor Street. His bright red neon signs flash the words “Bail Bonds” to relatives of the imprisoned across the street. His is one of half a dozen bonding companies surrounding the city jail.

Brewer used to work with the bounty hunters, although now he spends most of his time in the courts during the day, checking calendars and escaping incorrect forfeitures.

For example, there was the forfeiture of Ulysess Lockett, a man with so many aliases no one is certain what his real name was. Brewer’s 65-year-old mother and the business’s night manager, Eileen Brewer, recently found a woman living in the housing projects who knew Lockett.

The tipster said, ” `Why, they blew his brains out a long time ago,’ ” recalls Eileen Brewer, a dignified, silver-haired grandmother. Sure enough, the bonding company found Lockett died in Clayton County under the name Otis Wright in April, a month before his bond had been forfeited. The bonding company should be relieved of the $500 forfeiture as soon as fingerprints from the death certificate and jail records can be matched.

The night manager, disguising herself in a black wig, still sometimes goes out to find information or trick people into opening their doors for the bounty hunters.

Bonder Beware

The bonding agents—the actual writers of the bonds—often have to use gut instinct to decide whether a person is a good or bad risk. Asking for identification is standard but pretty much useless with the hard-core cases because so many types of fake licenses, Social Security cards and even credit cards are available on the street.

But Frances Reed and Bill Davis, the two A&B bond agents working one recent evening in the part of the business they call “retail,” say it’s not as difficult as it sounds.

“It’s not like you’re dealing with somebody new every day. You get to know the whole family,” says Reed, noting many clients are repeat offenders. Reed has spent eight years as a bond agent, after working 30 years as a beautician.

Eileen Brewer says when she’s gathering information on a client, she’d rather have the name, address and phone number of the client’s grandmother than the mother. Grandmothers do a better job of making sure the client shows up in court, she says.

Davis knows firsthand the dangers of writing a bad bond. He once owned a bonding company, but it quickly went broke in its early, capital-poor years because of two large forfeitures. He says he doesn’t remember the amount of the forfeitures, but his tone seems bitter when discussing them.

“It was enough money to keep you awake at night,” Davis says.

Sheriff’s Influence

Forfeitures are a painful topic for bail bonding companies—enough so that they often avoid paying them, says Joseph J. Drolet, who recently left the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office. Part of his job over the years as an assistant district attorney was representing the county in its attempt to collect forfeitures.

“It’s lost revenue when the counties don’t collect,” Drolet says. However, he adds the situation improved some after Robert McMichael took office as sheriff and began pressing the companies to pay. McMichael lost the recent Democratic primary to Jackie Barrett, who faces Republican Morris Chappell.

Sheriff’s departments regulate bonding companies and their bounty hunters primarily with the threat of revoking a bonding company’s license if it fails to pay a forfeiture. Bonding companies are licensed by the sheriff’s department in the county where they operate or by the city if they intend to work inside city limits only. A&B is licensed in both Fulton County and Atlanta, as well as the city of East Point.

Tommy Brewer says despite the big-profit reputation of bonding companies, his profit margin runs about 6 percent. He estimates he had revenue of about $385,000 last year.

It’s the potentially devastating losses a bonding company faces from forfeitures that make bounty hunters so important. The Brewers both note that for every forfeiture, the company must write 10 bonds for the same amount just to break even.

Bounty Hunters 3

A&B employs three bounty hunters, all of whom work for a base salary plus commission, which usually comes to 10 percent of the bail of the person they capture.

Contrary to popular belief, the bounty hunter’s work involves more investigation and deception than head-busting. In fact, Shaw works part time for A&B and part time as a private detective. He says the two jobs together earn him about $30,000 a year. 

Eugene Thomas and Robert Cook, both of whom are black, spend much of their time on the streets digging for information on bail jumpers—enough so that neither wanted his face photographed. Shaw, who is slight-framed, white and unable to blend into Atlanta inner-city neighborhoods, relies more on informants who will tip him off to a bail jumper’s whereabouts for a little cash.

Thomas fits the traditional image of a bounty hunter. He’s huge, with a booming, gravelly voice and a 9mm semiautomatic pistol strapped close to his hip.    Cook is his opposite: 22 years old, barely 5 feet, 7 inches tall, soft-spoken and mannerly. He handles much of the undercover work, dressing the part of a streetwise drug thug in running shoes, an expensive denim outfit, and gold rings, bracelets, earrings and a necklace with a large, gold crucifix. He also carries a 9mm tucked under his jacket.

Brewer says he arranged for all three to receive basic training in the use of their weapons from local law enforcement officials, largely to avoid some liability if they’re forced to shoot someone.

The same night as Shaw’s mad dash through the woods, Cook and Thomas provide a tour of some of the neighborhoods where they work. They cruise downtown housing projects in a yellow van, furnished in the back with a battered couch, two padded den chairs, and a rolled-up bamboo curtain between the driver and rear passenger sections.

Visible from the van just a few feet away on the street corners, small plastic pouches and money change hands. A teenager sells sports jerseys out of the trunk of a car, the price tags still dangling from the sleeves. Thomas points out a parking lot where his car was riddled with 14 bullet holes.

Thomas, when asked whether he ever worries about violating someone’s civil rights when, say, he kicks down a door to search for a fugitive, pshaws. “Why won’t you open your doors if you’re not hiding something?” he asks.

Cook tempers the discussion on door-kicking by noting if they do kick down a door by mistake, they have to pay out of their own pockets to have it fixed. He’s actually had to pay up, he admits, and it forces you to be sure before you do it again.

Thomas also notes many of the people he pursues are convicted felons, and adds, “everyone knows a felon loses his rights.”    Besides, Thomas adds, “We are actually federal officers because the U.S. Supreme Court gives us that power.” They also buy their own badges, which may carry phrases such as “Bail Officer” or “Special Agent, U.S. Supreme Court.”

Calls for Reform

 While privacy issues don’t weigh heavy on their minds, the bounty hunters do know from where their authority derives.

In  Taylor v. Taintor, an 1873 U.S. Supreme Court decision, the court held that bonding agents’ “dominion is a continuance of the original imprisonment. Whenever they choose to do so, they may seize him and deliver him up in their discharge, and if that cannot be done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done. They may pursue him into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose. The seizure is not made by virtue of new process. None is needed. It is likened to the rearrest, by the sheriff, of an escaping prisoner.”

Over the years, little has changed about what qualifies a person to write bonds and employ bounty hunters. Much of the applicable law is rooted in surety, and bonding companies effectively act as the insurers of a person’s behavior.

Some bonding company owners, as well as bounty hunters, would like to see more changes in their own profession. Cathy Joyce, owner of A Confidential Bail Bond Service and president of the Georgia Association of Professional Bail Agents, wants better training for bonding company owners and their bounty hunters.

The association, with the help of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, has started a voluntary training program for people interested in the field. Joyce hopes the program will one day become mandatory.

She’s also working on the industry image—for example, she doesn’t like the term “bounty hunter,” although most of the people doing the job still refer to themselves that way. “They are recovery agents or bail enforcement agents,” Joyce says.

Roger Hornsby, a 37-year veteran of the bonding business, agrees with the push for more training. “There are some good people in this, but there are some who need to be weeded out,” he says. A&B’s bounty hunters also express concern about their colleagues, many of whom they say don’t bother to train with their weapons or learn arrest techniques.

The Subtle Approach

Despite their broad powers, Shaw says it’s better to take a subtle approach to tracking down bail jumpers, setting them up and trapping them so the actual arrest can be made with relative safety. The night of the errant chase into the woods, he is searching for an A&B client known by the alias Herbert Miller. Miller used A&B to make $12,000 bail on drug and gun charges.

Shaw’s first lead on Miller’s location comes from an informant who meets Shaw outside the informant’s home. For $30, the snitch agrees to lead Miller to the “Blue House,” a nearby rooming house where junkies go to smoke crack cocaine.

But the snitch fails to arrange for Miller to follow him to the Blue House—Miller is selling crack himself this evening, the snitch says, and didn’t want to buy any. Miller does want “powder,” however, meaning cocaine suitable for snorting. (Shaw says he really doesn’t want to know whether the snitch is actually buying drugs to lure the bail jumper.)

The powder deal also falls through when Miller fails to show again, this time in a parking lot. But now Shaw suspects Miller is in the West End house, where he chases the wrong man into the woods.

Later, the snitch calls again. Miller did flee the house with his friend, he says, and has bedded down in a nearby abandoned house. The snitch knows because he took him a blanket and a pillow, and agrees to lead Shaw to the house for another $20. But by the time Shaw and some police officers who agree to back him up get there, Miller is gone again. Shaw does find a blanket inside.

A few minutes later, Shaw hears on his police scanner that an officer just spotted someone fitting Miller’s description running across a street and into some more woods. A now seriously frustrated Shaw and his friend, who asked not to be identified because it could jeopardize his full-time job, again search through bushes and brambles. Neighborhood dogs bay furiously at something in the foliage, but Shaw again comes up empty-handed.

“He will eventually lead us to him,” Shaw says of the snitch. “He’d better, anyway,” he adds, referring to the $50 he’s already paid him this evening.

The night is not a total waste. Shaw, spotting another bail jumper on the street, knows he’ll never catch the young, athletic man in the open. He finds an Atlanta police officer who works the area, knowing the bail jumper won’t necessarily flee a uniformed officer he’s used to seeing.

“He’ll run as soon as he sees me,” Shaw tells the officer.

“He’ll come right up to me,” the officer says, the subject of the conversation sounding more like a dog than a fugitive.

Sure enough, in a few minutes the officer manages to approach the young man and put him in the back of his patrol car. The officer, not having a warrant or cause to arrest the young man, can detain him for only a few minutes, but Shaw arrives in time to take him into custody.

Mario Williams, who jumped $3,500 bail on charges of possession of cocaine and other crimes, heads first to the A&B Bonding office and then back to jail. Shaw’s bounty: $350.

“It’s not really exciting when we do it like this. But this way, nobody gets hurt,” Shaw says.