'I Hunt Men': Meet the Self-Ordained Officers of the Bail-Bond Industry

Article excerpt

On bail-bond row, the neon signs shine all night, and "bail daddies" sell freedom to those with cash and collateral. This seedy terrain is also the prowl of the most unregulated and bizarre "professionals" in the criminal-justice food chain.

"I hunt men. I am a bounty hunter," says Edward (not his real name), sipping ginseng soda in the corner of Al Graf Bail Bonds, a cramped San Francisco office adorned with framed photos of "old man Graf" shown posing with everyone from a young Governor Reagan to Don Rickles. Edward rubs his huge palms across his face and explains his trade.

His prey are "skips," people out on bail who skip their court dates. Edward hunts his quarry by phone, using tips from disgruntled ax-girlfriends and desperate junkies. Like any hunter, he spends long hours lying in wait, usually parked in a car or huddled in the corner of some fugitive's favorite bar. "I know people. I know the streets," says the laconic Edward, who, along with bounty hunting, has an unspecified "delivery business" on the side.

Unlike police officers, Edward and other bounty hunters can search houses or vehicles without a warrant, cross state lines. and carry unlicensed weapons. Nor is there any oversight board or form of regulation to ensure that bounty hunters do not abuse their awesome legal powers--which, it seems, they quite often do.

Bounty hunters are adjuncts of the bail industry or "the bail-surety system," a private branch of American criminal justice. When someone is arrested, a judge usually sets bail--a sum of money paid as insurance that the defendant will return to court. A defendant with sufficient money can post the entire amount and receive a refund when the case is resolved. For defendants who lack sufficient cash, bail bond agents will post bail for a standard 10 percent fee plus collateral equal to the value of the bond.

"Say you got a guy on $20,000 bail for selling narcotics," explains Gene DiDominico of Al Graf Bail Bonds. "Now, either this guy's mom comes up with the whole twenty grand or she gives us $2,000 and we put up the rest. It's that, or you wait around on the fifth floor at 850 Bryant [the jail], wearing plastic slippers and orange pajamas for three months till your trial date."

In desperation, many defendants call three or four bail agents. The one who gets to the jail first collects the nonrefundable 10 percent deposit, plus a handsome "processing fee" to cover overhead. Usually, the person on bail shows up at court. So "writing bail" is generally a low-risk business. But the haste of competition can cause bail agents to do inadequate background checks, or to fail to verify the defendants'collateral.

Sometimes, the defendant will skip court and flee. In most of those cases, the defendant, or "skip," can be found "stoned, at home in front of the TV," says one bail agent. But if the skip is really on the run and is not rearrested within 180 days (or in some states ninety or thirty days), the agent who posted the bail will lose the money and "take a hit," as it is known in bond-agent lingo.

"You got to live with some risks to make a buck," says DiDominico, rocking in an old swivel chair. Speaking of risks, DiDominico produces a pistol from one of his desk drawers. "You get a lot of irate freaks coming in here around 1:00 A.M. So you got to be prepared."

"Damn it, man, put that thing away," says Edward, adding that he "always carries a nine-inch-barreled .44."

The nearly carte-blanche powers of the bounty hunter serve a clear economic function. Bounty hunters act as enforcers for money lenders--the bail agents. Bounty hunting is about protecting private investment. Without the leverage provided by "bad-ass" bounty hunters, the financial risks for bail agents and their underwriters, the insurance companies, would be much higher.

Bounty hunting is market-driven--and market-serving--law enforcement. …