All along lower Broadway and its side streets, near the restaurants with the misspelled signs and the gum wads under the counters, alongside the loan sharks and the plasma merchants, business goes on as usual for the bailbondsman.
It’s the bailbondsman that one meets if he is booked into jail and can’t dig up bail fees ($35 for walking drunk, $65 for disturbing tire peace, $300 for drunk driving). The bailbondsman writes a bond, assuring the Court that he will cough up the bail himself (he is backed up by an insurance company) if the arrestee skips bail; he only writes this bond if he has enough assurance, usually from a steadily-employed or wealthy co-signer, that he himself will be reimbursed if bail is jumped. The risk is well rewarded — bondsmen charge 10% (plus S10 if it’s under $500) for this short-term loan.
But collecting from a co-signer is only a last resort; most bondsmen would rather get the bail jumper back in jail rather than go after the co-signer. And it’s the hunt for the bail jumper that the “bail bond recovery agent” is called in for.
The life of a “recovery agent,” or bounty hunter, is very — um - interesting. Interesting because the agent works in the territory of the penumbra between what is legal and what is illegal. Though not a criminal himself (supposedly), he must be pretty familiar with citizens/of the demimonde as well as the law enforcement troops. Though the recovery agent plays the role of cop in that he brings people back to jail, since he is really a private citizen he is not bound by the niceties of no-knock laws or entrapment rulings.
Two of the most popular recovery agents around San Diego are these two black guys named Mike and Bill. (Anonymity is so important to them that Mike’s business card says only “Mike.”) Mike grins and says he comes from a poor but honest family in Arkansas, was brought out here by the Navy, and worked for another recovery agent before hanging out his own shingle. UCLA-educated Bill is Mike’s assistant. They speak unabashedly of their mercenary motivation.
“Man, we don’t care what the dude does. We tell him when we catch him to get rid of any stuff he might have in his pocket. All we care about is getting him back to jail. We could care less what else he does, unless maybe it were murder or raping some little girl. We’re strictly in it for the money.”
The money is an enticement. A recovery agent charges the bondsman 10% of the posted bail if he’s notified of the skip within 7 days, 15% after 7 days and before 25 days, 25% after 25 days. It’s not bad money if the guy is out on SI0.000 bail. Mike charges a higher fee (15% if notified within 7 days) for someone in Logan Heights, primarily, it seems, because there aren’t many others who have the contacts there. Mike and Bill claim, though, that most of their targets are whites. “Black people aren’t smart enough to rob a bank. Most of the people we go after are wanted for embezzlement or robbery or murder — something big.”
Mexicans and Mexican-Americans pose somewhat a problem for these two since neither one speaks much Spanish. They tell the unbelievable stories of being outbid in the bribing of a Mexican official by a suspect in Mexico. “Yeah, we just started stepping back. ‘Yowsuh.’ Did the old step-’n-fetch-it routine.” And when they have to recover a Mexican-American down there, they see that he’s not really in shape to protest his being dragged to the other side of the border. “We can’t let him be talking to them. He’d be telling the Mexican officials how we were raping him. So we see that he’s real quiet and then we crash the border.” There are other things Mike and Bill can do that a policeman couldn’t. “We get someone on the phone and we say, ‘hey, baby, this is Bill. You know, baby. Bill. I got some real nice stuff for you.’ That’s entrapment for a cop. We can also enter without knocking. Hell, if we waited for them to answer, they’d be out the bathroom window.”
Much more important for information than the police are the contacts that Mike and Bill have developed, especially around San Diego. “We don’t use ‘snitches’ (criminals who help the law in hopes of getting off with a lighter sentence themselves). Their life expectancy is about 15 minutes. We like to use paid contacts. We just come up to ’em in a bar or some place and slip ‘em a little something, and they stay on our side .. . They could be anybody — a prostitute, a secretary, a pimp, a janitor. White people think they put blacks in unimportant positions by giving them menial jobs like clerk or janitor. But these people are our best help. They listen to all kinds of conversations that whites think go unlistened to.”
To get an idea of just how similar to the T.V. routine our bounty hunters’ life is, we tag along, two of us whites in the back seat of Mike’s car, Mike and Bill in the front seat. The two guys Mike and Bill are looking for today are a small guy wanted for $90 of traffic tickets and a big guy wanted for armed robbery and attempted murder. We start out looking around Fifth and Market. “Don’t worry,” Mike reassures us as we enter the Market Street turf, “no one will think anything if you’re with us. They’ll know you’re cool. Besides, who else rides four in a car like this but gangsters?”
One of the first guys we meet is a “popcorn” (small time) pimp lounging in a doorway just north of 5th and Market. We pull over and banter with him. He wants to know if Mike knows any white girls who want a job. No, not now. As it turns out, the pimp hasn’t seen the guy we’re looking for. We cruise down Sixth and back up Fifth, and Bill explains that the small guy we’re looking for is probably only here at night, except on welfare check days. We head down Market, then down to National, and at a gas station near 38th and National we meet an older guy who’s a friend of Mike’s. He says he just got busted for possession of heroin. “Man, I didn’t have any heroin.” And he tells us how he got hit by some black cop named Smith. Bill and Mike ask him about the guy we’re looking for and he doesn’t know. They tell him to be careful.
We pass near Ocean View Park, and Bill and Mike say if they really wanted to find this guy they’d find him on Sunday at the Park. That’s when all the pimps are paying off their “holes” and the pushers are making their deals. “It’s like a jungle. You’d never make a bust there or 10,000 niggers would be on you. The San Diego Police never go there on a Sunday.”
Somewhere down on Logan, I think, we stop in front of this bar and there’s this girl wearing black gloves, dancing on the sidewalk and mouthing the words to some song coming from inside the bar. Bill yells something about wanting to marry her and she says something about getting “your policing ass out of here.” Mike says he might've busted her a few years ago but he didn’t remember that well.
We cruise on, looking at license plates and at males likely to fit the two mug shots we have at hand. Finally, somewhere near Emerald Hills, in a parking lot next to a bar, among a crowd of Saturday afternoon drinkers, Mike thinks he spots the other guy we’re looking for — the big guy wanted for armed robbery and attempted murder. We park the car about a block away, in front of a liquor store. Bill goes down to get a closer look. No luck. A different guy.
So it’s not always a fruitful job. A lot more legwork than a half hour of Kojack would show. But Mike and Bill get to travel a little. They picked up someone in Puerto Rico last month and got to stay at the Hilton there. And though the danger, seems a significant disadvantage in the job, these guys brush it off, “Oh, any job has danger.” And they talk up the advantage of not having to work fixed hours.