The American Bounty Hunter Becomes an Endangered Species
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This is a story of big guns, hot-pink handcuffs and a bounty hunter who arrested his own mother.
By Meghan Walsh
It’s just after 4 p.m., and the late-afternoon clouds have grown dark with rain. Fast-witted and sharp-tongued Tushina Crum, 31 years old, has spent the whole day with her petite, pierced junior partner, Ileana Zamudio, pounding on doors in search of a man we’ll call Daniel. The women finally have a promising lead.
Surrounded by the red rock canyons of rural Colorado, we drive to the next town over, where we turn down a series of side streets before coming to a stop. Crum straps a bulletproof vest over her white V-neck T-shirt, and a black SUV pulls up behind us. Three baroquely tattooed men of varying ages, each clad in all-black and wearing bulletproof vests as well, step out: Our backup has arrived. Together we start toward a gray aluminum shed that’s been converted into a motorcycle shop. Big Daddy and SWAT, who is carrying what looks like a shotgun but supposedly shoots only rubber bullets, head around to the back in case Daniel tries to run. Old Timer trails behind the ladies as they walk up the driveway, their right hands poised above the Glocks on their waistbands, right next to the hot-pink handcuffs. I follow, conscious that I’m not wearing a bulletproof vest. In the garage are three biker dudes who look simultaneously intimidating and apprehensive of the visitors, who, from the looks of them, could be police or thugs. Turns out they’re neither.
For this close-knit crew of bounty hunters, today is just another day on the job, Daniel just another degenerate on the run. But in many ways it’s more. It’s an adrenaline fix. It’s a source of pride, purpose and power. It’s a way of life.
And it’s on the verge of extinction.
Along with a multitude of other justice reforms sweeping the country, courts are beginning to rethink the time-old tradition of cash bail. More sensitive to the negative repercussions of imprisonment, and fed up with footing the bill for overcrowded jails, a growing number of states and counties are looking for a new way to mete out justice, one that doesn’t involve a cash register. As it is, more than 60 percent of inmates in city and county jails haven’t yet been convicted. And 5 out of 6 of those are not there because they’re a flight risk or a danger to society: They’re behind bars because they can’t afford bail. One solution authorities are experimenting with is trading financial collateral for government supervision — a pretrial probation of sorts.
Some argue this makes for better justice, but by design, the movement for pretrial reform is putting two quintessential all-American professions in jeopardy: bail bondsmen and the bounty hunters they hire. “Times are changing,” says Katie Biorn, the bond agent Daniel owes money to. Biorn has been working for her parents’ company, Ross Bail Bonds, for 13 years, almost as long as her teenage triplet daughters have been alive.
Yet as these hardy adjuncts of justice have shown time and again over the past 100-plus years, they never go down without a fight.
When most people think of bounty hunters, if they do at all, they think blond mullets and the reality star Dog. And when they think of bail bondsmen, it’s as shady loan sharks, barely distinguishable from the criminals they work with. In some cases, that’s accurate. But not all. Biorn, also a bounty hunter, is a soft-featured, charming brunette, while her dad, Richard Ross, who once worked in law enforcement, and her mom, Judi, have been known to allow parolees to live in their home.
People seem to be just as ignorant about how the bail-bond world works. It’s simple: Shortly after a person is arrested, a judge or clerk will set bail, usually according to a predetermined schedule. Have the cash, you get released; you’ll get your money back when you show up for your court date. Don’t have the money, you can either sit in jail or call up a bond broker. In the latter case, you’ll pay a nonrefundable fee, usually between 10 and 15 percent of the total bail amount. The bond agent will be on the hook for the rest if you don’t show up to court, which is where bounty hunters come in.
Bail bondsmen say they are issuing about half as many bonds as they did just a few years ago.
Advocates for pretrial reform argue that this way of doing business allows dangerous criminals to go free and disproportionately punishes the poor, who could sit in jail awaiting trial for months, losing jobs and homes, only to be found innocent. Plus, the population of jails has swelled 20 percent since 2002, according to the Department of Justice, and the vast majority of the new incarcerees haven’t been convicted of anything. “We’re criminalizing people for being poor,” says Cherise Burdeen, executive director of the Pretrial Justice Institute. So in 2010, the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the Justice Department, chose seven districts from across the country to see if they could come up with a better approach — one that would result in less flight and less jail crowding. One of the districts was Mesa County, a corridor of about 150,000 residents that sits on Colorado’s westernmost border.
The county started by bringing together what was often a contentious committee of judges, prosecutors, defenders and criminal justice advocates. The panel’s mission was threefold: Get people to show up to court, decrease the likelihood they’d commit new crimes before trial, and shrink the jail population to only the most high-risk offenders. Their first step was drawing up a questionnaire to help predict who was most likely to skip town, based on criteria like whether they have a job or a cell phone. From there, the reformers developed a rubric, which went into effect two years ago, that takes into account the risk-assessment results as well as the crime, and then suggests a pretrial sentence. Some of the accused should be set free on their own recognizance and others only under court supervision, which means they might have to come in for drug tests or wear electronic monitoring devices. The most dangerous criminals would remain locked up. And as of Jan. 1, 2015, Mesa County did away with its bail schedule, though judges still have the flexibility to require a surety should they choose to.
So far, the mission has succeeded on all three fronts, authorities say. Defendants who were released under supervision, instead of with a cash bond, were 50 percent less likely to miss their court date compared with the 10-year average (the biggest reason for that drop is simply that people get a reminder phone call ahead of their court date). And by March, 75 percent of those being held in the county jail were considered high risk, an almost 180-degree turnaround from a year earlier, while the incarcerated population as a whole had fallen by 27 percent. “We have the right people in jail now,” says Dennis Berry, director of Mesa County’s Criminal Justice Services department.
The downside? Bail bondsmen say they are issuing about half as many bonds as they did just a few years ago. Many of them complain that average bail amounts have also plummeted. Or, as Judi Ross says, “They’re passing out PR [personal recognizance] bonds like suckers in a bank.”
In a barren strip mall just down the street from the Mesa County Courthouse in Grand Junction, Colorado, Gilbert Tafoya runs Big G’s Bail Bonds out of a one-room office with nothing more than a couple of desks, file cabinets and folding chairs. Big G — who is indeed a big dude, hovering well over 6 feet and weighing in at more than 300 pounds — is one of the last bondsmen standing. Four other bond agents, he says, have fled in the past year. While he once issued more than a dozen bonds in a single day, he hadn’t issued any over the course of my two-day visit. The bonds he does issue are for much smaller sums than before. To make up for the lost business, Tafoya, a father of three, travels to surrounding counties, where pretrial reform hasn’t yet arrived. “Everybody was living good. Now it’s all gone,” he says. “Good” looked like $120,000 one year and upward of $60,000 most others — more than double the per capita income in Grand Junction.
Tafoya, 44, hopes he can outlast his job market’s turbulence. “You don’t choose this business. It chooses you,” he says, and when you hear his CV, it’s hard to disagree. Arrested for selling marijuana in ’97, Tafoya says he fled from his own bond collector. When he got wind that the bounty hunter was looking for him at a friend’s house, he says, he left a note on the door: “You’re never going to catch me.” It was punctuated with a smiley face. Eventually, Tafoya says, he turned himself in and spent two years in a correctional halfway house, but he’d made a big impression on his creditor — who offered Tafoya a job as a bounty hunter when he got out. Tafoya went to a police academy in Montana, took a test, and got a fugitive recovery badge, which brought with it the ability to knock down doors and tackle clients on the run. He became assiduous, chasing fugitives across the country and as far as Mexico, and sometimes very close to home — when his mom skipped bail for driving under the influence, Tafoya says, he went after her, too. He transitioned to issuing bail bonds about four years ago.
If the mammoth insurance companies that underwrite bonds have anything to do with it, Tafoya won’t have to look for a new job anytime soon. The organization they fund, the American Bail Coalition, is trying hard to keep the industry afloat and even to generate new business. The group has a long winning streak: Twenty-five years ago, before it existed, just 23 percent of releases were tethered to commercial bail. Today, that proportion has more than doubled, while felony bail amounts have almost tripled.
It won’t be easy cutting ties with a thread that is woven into the American justice system.
The ABC is lobbying statehouses around the country to enact legislation that would allow for post-conviction bonds — instruments that would require convicts who violate parole not just to go to jail but also to pay a financial penalty. Michigan, Mississippi and South Dakota have already passed legislation allowing post-conviction bonds; Mississippi is also experimenting with requiring convicts who can’t afford court fines to use a bail agent to pay them off. Meanwhile, the ABC is fighting hard to limit the offenses for which judges can let people go without a cash security, including driving under the influence and robbery. So far, it’s found success in Georgia, Louisiana and, you guessed it, Mississippi.
It won’t be easy cutting ties with a thread that is woven into the American justice system — the United States is one of only two countries that relies on financial bail, and even the Bill of Rights mentions it. Bail agents, for their part, argue they render a service to the public; were it not for them, taxpayer-funded police would have to track down no-show defendants. And it might be difficult for some legislators who want to seem “tough on crime” to back pretrial reform. “It’s a welfare system for criminals,” says J.R. Henderson, a board member for the Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents. He says that he’s seen an influx of bondsmen in his state. They’re all looking for work in a place that has yet to pass pretrial reform.
Back on the hunt for Daniel, who I’m told was arrested for possession of drugs and a sawed-off shotgun, we’re now winding through what I’m told is the most decrepit of the decrepit trailer parks. The motorcycle shop turned out to be a dud. But we have a photo from Daniel’s Facebook page of him fixing his all-chrome bike. The area surrounding him is strewn with particleboard and trash, and he appears to be in front of a trailer. Our goal is to find the exact location where the picture was taken.
Someone spies a home with the same gray horizontal paneling as in the photo. Again, the guys fan out, and with the neighbors watching from their porches, Crum and Zamudio head up the front steps. Crum says she knows this is the place, she can feel it. She bangs on the door. Nothing. She keeps banging. Eventually a startled older man with few teeth comes out. Nope, he’s never seen the guy in the picture.
We drive around until the sky turns completely dark. But now Zamudio has to work the night shift at the local Kum & Go gas station. Crum, a mother of two who started at the police academy before having her first child, makes a plan to hit up the motorcycle shops in Grand Junction first thing in the morning. The pair will earn only $500, to split, if they catch Daniel. If they don’t, nothing. And already they’ve spent countless hours trying to find him. “We don’t do it for the money,” Crum says. They do it for the hunt. For the glory. For the sweet, sweet moment when they hold Daniel’s wrists behind his back and snap closed those hot-pink handcuffs.