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Getting sprung in the Springs 

The local bail bond industry can be fiercely competitive - and disillusioning

click to enlarge Bobby Brown: As seen on television. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Bobby Brown: As seen on television.

The episode starts in a dimly lit bar. "Hollywood," a bounty hunter, ends a phone call and strides purposefully toward his employer.

"Hey, yo, man. This dude just called me," he says. "He's got some information about Charlie. I'm gonna meet him first thing in the morning at the office."

They confer before Hollywood heads for the door, preparing for an early-morning meeting that could give leads to the fugitive's whereabouts. "Blaze," a local bail bond agent, bids him good night, and the video shifts briefly to what could be an outtake from a MADD commercial.

"Be safe, man," he says. "You only had one, right?"

Blaze is played by Rick Harper, owner of Express Bail Out in Colorado Springs, in a sort of low-cost, unpolished alternative to the Dog the Bounty Hunter series seen on the A&E Television Network. He's posted two episodes on YouTube and is waiting to see if they get picked up for wide distribution.

Harper describes the videos as a sort of window into his world, a world to which he was drawn by the promise of ensuring community safety and providing service to accused criminals.

"When I opened this business, I thought I would be able to help people," Harper says. But now, he contends, a wave of "predatory pricing" is paving the way to a society in which a few unscrupulous bond agents will blindly post bail for dangerous thugs.

Harper, 46, says he won't post bond for suspected sex offenders and will turn away people suspected of murder.

"We're screwing the community by bonding folks who are a threat," he says. "You can't just have this revolving door."

The process

A revolving door, if one exists, results partly from the principle in this country that people accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty. Judges cannot simply lock up all suspects until they are convicted or acquitted, so instead they set bail for most: low amounts for those accused of minor crimes, amounts exceeding $1 million for major crimes or defendants considered likely to run.

In the tradition of American enterprise, bail bond agents are simply businesspeople who, for a fee, take responsibility for that bail. In Colorado, they must be licensed by the state and can charge up to 15 percent of the bail amount; for instance, they'll make $150 for posting a $1,000 bond.

Though most agents pay a small amount for an insurance company's backing, and though competition often drives the fees below 15 percent, bail bond agents can make a good living if all their clients show up at court.

Business gets tricky when customers miss court or flee the state. Bail bond agents face the expense of paying bounty hunters to track their clients down, or the hassle of seizing a house or a car put down as collateral.

In cases where the collateral has dried up and the client has vanished, they face the prospect of paying out the full bail amount. The insurance companies only pay out as a last resort, and agents who lean on them could end up with higher rates or losing their backing altogether.

Harper has only been in the bail bond industry for four years, but says he's seen competition among local agents drop the floor from the get-out-of-jail market. While 15 percent used to be the standard fee for small bonds of about $2,000 or less, he says, some local agents are now advertising rates of 9 and 10 percent. Larger bonds that might have gone for 6 to 10 percent now can be had at 5 percent, or possibly less with some sort of installment plan.

The competition, in Harper's view, makes society less safe by letting suspected criminals go free for a relative pittance.

"I think my industry sucks," he says.

There is no data available in El Paso County to support Harper's claim about the ease of posting bond, or its effect on society. Sheriff Terry Maketa notes that people often miss court dates due to simple forgetfulness, especially those who were booked on minor charges and released on their own recognizance. This has happened more frequently in the last couple years, as the 1,600-bed Criminal Justice Center has run out of room to house people accused of most minor crimes, Maketa says.

click to enlarge Rick Harper: industry humanitarian. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Rick Harper: industry humanitarian.

But, Maketa says, "They don't get a lot of bail jumpers."

Dennis Blackwell and his uncle Bobby Brown, who run rival bail bond agencies widely considered the county's largest, dispute Harper's claim. They say their companies have applied a Wal-Mart-type model, bringing low prices, customer service and professionalism to a business in which some operators fly by night and write bonds from their cars or kitchen tables.

Though the industry is rife with jealousy and infighting, they say, companies like theirs help relieve jail crowding while providing an efficient way of tracking suspected criminals.

Blackwell says he wrote more than 8,000 bonds last year, most of them in El Paso County for amounts averaging between $1,000 and $2,000. Since some court cases drag on for years, he estimates he now has around 10,000 clients.

He has two full-time investigators to keep up with them and to find the roughly 10 percent of his clients who miss court. Blackwell says most are quickly found and returned to jail or released on a new bond. He has two offices and employees for each, and he pays thousands each month for advertising.

In 16 years of business, he says, he's never been closed a single day.

"We're a real business," Blackwell says. "I want to set the standard."

Industry's threats

The argument that the bail bond industry is an example of free-market splendor is viewed with distaste from many sides of the criminal justice system, though for different reasons.

Many defense attorneys backed a legislative proposal this year put forward by the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar that would have essentially allowed courts to take the place of bail bond agents. Under the proposal, courts would have been allowed to collect up to 15 percent of a bail amount for release and then refund some of the money for those who make all their court dates.

Maureen Cain, a private attorney and CCDB's policy director, says the court-administered approach works in the federal court system, and the cash collected benefits the public instead of private bondsmen.

"I don't know of anyone who thinks the bail bond industry enhances the criminal justice system in Colorado," Cain says.

Cain points to cases where bail bond agents have been accused of taking sexual favors in return for posting bonds, or in which they've improperly revoked bonds only weeks after writing them, perhaps by claiming the posted collateral turned out to be no good. And she says sometimes, defendants will scrape together all their money to pay a bail bond agent, meaning they have nothing left if they are convicted and ordered to pay restitution to their victims.

Cain's arguments, however, did not carry the proposal very far. It was withdrawn before legislators even heard from Duane "Dog the Bounty Hunter" Chapman, who went to Denver with Bobby Brown and other bail agents to fight it. Bail industry backers say court-run systems result in more people missing court, because you don't get bondsmen hunting down the people who skip.

Prosecutors see the industry and bail amounts in a different light. John Newsome, district attorney for the judicial district covering El Paso and Teller counties, says prosecutors by and large argue to increase bail, routinely debating defense attorneys about a fair amount that will protect society and guarantee a defendant makes court.

"Everyone is entitled to bond," he says. With apparent reluctance, he adds: "I think the bondsmen are filling a need."

The operation of the free market, however, seems to be driving down costs, Newsome says. The schedule that judges use to determine bond amounts was doubled last year, but prosecutors still often argue that bonds should be set higher for many defendants, particularly those accused of violent crimes or with few ties to the community.

"We do see a lot of people posting bond when they should not be," he says.

Newsome points to Gregory Whitehead, formerly a local insurance agent, as an example.

Whitehead was 45 when he was arrested in October on suspicion of offering two 15-year-old girls money and alcohol in exchange for sex, according to Colorado Springs police. He is also accused of taking explicit pictures of the girls.

click to enlarge Dennis Blackwell: self-styled king. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Dennis Blackwell: self-styled king.

Though Whitehead had previously been sentenced to probation in a 1993 case in which he admitted giving young girls money and alcohol in exchange for climbing into his car, he was released from jail on a $150,000 bond. He has been a fugitive since missing a Jan. 4 preliminary hearing.

A wanted poster with Whitehead's picture hangs in Blackwell's office at the corner of Las Vegas Street and Nevada Avenue. Blackwell split the bond with another local agent. Blackwell's investigators have been looking for Whitehead since he left.

It now appears Whitehead is out of the country, Blackwell says, and he thinks he knows where. The $150,000 soon due to the court will come from a $100,000 trust fund and another $50,000 tied up in escrow. He will not say how much he charged for the bond, and he becomes defensive at the suggestion that he should not have posted it.

"You never know what's going through a person's mind," he says, adding an argument for the presumption of innocence that might make the Founding Fathers proud. "We are bondsmen. We're not a court. We're not a judge. We're not a jury."

Though bail agents have no authority to bring fugitives back once they go overseas, Blackwell says he's done his part by finding Whitehead and sharing information with the court.

"Greg Whitehead will be back in jail," he says.

Costly self-promotion

Opening a phone book gives a sense of the Darwinian struggle to survive in the bail bond industry.

With a perceived advantage to being the first name listed, companies go heavy on the As: "A All American Bail Bonds," "A Alpha Bail Bonds" and "ABC Bonding Agency" are the first three listings in the 2008 telephone directory.

The temptation to offer the lowest rate, and the attached risk of losing big sums of money, quickly puts some enterprises under: The first three listings from a 2005 directory either have disconnected phones or no one answering.

In the phone book, agencies use color, position and size to distinguish themselves. Dennis Blackwell, the self-proclaimed "king of bail bonds," pays thousands each month to have the first, full-page color ad in the Qwest directory's bail bond section. His 2008 ad offers the lowest rates, "bar none."

"I advertise more than anyone else," Blackwell says casually during an interview in his newly remodeled office. "Obviously, it works."

Bobby Brown, 57, is the only other local agent likely to contest his 42-year-old nephew's royalty claim. Their agencies used to run competing ads in the phone directory. Brown now claims he's evolved beyond that struggle, relying instead on a variety of "subliminal" tactics.

His name, for one thing, stands on its own, thanks to the R&B singer and tabloid regular once married to Whitney Houston. Brown's painted his office on South Nevada Avenue bright yellow to attract attention, and an exclusive deal allows him to advertise in the bathrooms of various bars. His tanned face breaks into a mischievous grin as he notes that women look at him behind closed stall doors.

And then there is Brown's relationship with Dog the Bounty Hunter, whose picture is plastered in the lobby of his office. The prospect of having the grizzled national TV star possibly come looking for them is apparently a selling point for some clients.

Many competitors, Brown says, are jealous of his success and of his appearances on Dog's show. Harper has tried to start a bail bond agent trade group in town, and Brown says he'd be happy to join if there were a way to guarantee that no one would be undercutting him.

But without a way to enforce a minimum rate, Brown says, there could be cheating. And he likes being able to lower his rate when he wants to bring customers his way.

"I'd rather have half of something than all of nothing," he says. "I'm in this business to make money."

Different settings

For all their mutual success in the bail bond industry, Brown and Blackwell's contrasting approaches to business are nowhere more evident than in their offices.

click to enlarge 35ab_cover-27160.jpeg

Blackwell, for instance, works out of a renovated two-story house. The lobby is fitted with comfy chairs, new-looking furniture and a modernist painting featuring nine separate squares arranged in a grid pattern.

"I want you to feel like you're at home," he says, explaining that he wants mothers and fathers traumatized by a son's arrest to find comfortable surroundings.

Behind the lobby, a front office holds one of Blackwell's bowling trophies, and his private office upstairs is hung with pictures of his children, African masks and posters of leopards and giraffes.

"I just love wildlife," he says, speaking slowly with a voice that could almost be called contemplative. Wearing a sweatshirt over a softball team jersey, Blackwell does not look the part of a stereotypical bail bond agent. His blond hair is shaved on the sides but rises on top to a sort of rounded peak.

He says his business strategy is mostly about being visible, and he prides himself on offering low rates without the kinds of installment plans that some agents offer.

Brown's office is only a few blocks away, but it is a different world inside the bright yellow walls. The lobby is a small rectangle. A bail agent sits behind bullet-proof glass at one end, and one long wall is covered mostly with portraits. One shows Brown with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Ray Crespin, a bail bondsman and mentor. "Dog" smiles from several others.

A display case holds T-shirts and even women's panties printed with phrases like "Property of Bobby Brown" and "Your handcuffs or mine?"

Brown's personal office has no windows, and no outside light enters except obliquely though a panel of frosted glass bricks. Migraines, he says, make him more comfortable in the dark. He smiles at the notion that he's competing with his nephew or anyone else.

"I do not worry about what any other bondsman in the state is doing," he says. "I worry about Bobby Brown and Bobby Brown only."

Surviving amid chaos

There are close to 30 bail bond agents listed in the Colorado Springs phone book, but only a handful actually keep offices. Harper, who got his start in the bail industry four years ago working for Bobby Brown, can count himself one of those. He rents a few rooms on the second floor of a building just up the street from the county jail.

The office, reached by climbing a staircase through a Jamaican restaurant, is neat and comfortable. Though it shares a parking lot with a liquor store, Harper is quick to say the location is about convenience rather than a way to catch the eyes of possible clients running pre-arrest errands.

He tries to be careful about his clients, and he's proud of the results. His "skip" board, used to track clients who've missed court or are running, usually stays empty. He likes it that way, and expresses reluctance to revoke bonds even for clients who break rules. For instance, today he's worried that a woman who's seven months pregnant will miss her court date. She's already left the state, a violation of the rules for which her bond could easily be revoked, but Harper says he hopes to talk her into doing the right thing.

"I'm a sucker, I guess," he explains. "I try to be a humanitarian."

Harper served 20 years in the Army before retiring as a first sergeant. He got back from a tour in Iraq four years ago and started a second career in the bail bond industry, figuring it was a good way to help the community while staying busy and earning some extra money. He talks at length about people he's helped as a bondsman: A couple called him on a snowy night desperate to get their daughter out of jail. He drove across town to post her bond and later received a warm thank you note for his efforts.

But today, he also wonders if he might have chosen the wrong business. A couple years ago he posted a $30,000 bond for a noted "gang banger" with the aim of helping him turn his life around. The gang member then turned on Harper; he ran for 18 months before he was finally caught.

The chase highlighted difficulties working alongside law enforcement officers who view bounty hunting with suspicion, and also risks of the business that are both financial and physical. Harper is a towering combat veteran with a military-style haircut, but he says going up against a gun-toting thug did not have the same moral dimension as fighting in the Army.

"I'd rather die knowing I'm defending my country than die at the hands of a gang banger," Harper says.

His disillusionment is clear as he talks about his failed effort to organize local agents into the aforementioned trade group, in which members would agree not to undercut each other and not to play games with clients for instance, revoking their bond at the drop of a hat while pocketing their fee. He's in a profession where chaos is the norm, and where principles and order could get in the way of profits.

His ambivalence about the nature of the job comes out in his YouTube clip, as he and Hollywood hop in an SUV and start searching for Charlie.

"I hate to have to snatch this dude off the streets like this, man, you know, knowing his situation trying to get his girl cleaned up," Harper says in his gravelly voice, his sentences merging together. "She's into drugs and everything."

Hollywood counters it's Charlie's fault for missing court.

"It's part of the job, man. He's gotta go back."

lane@csindy.com

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