TOPICS > Politics

Bounty Hunters

September 12, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


BOUNTY HUNTER: Okay, fellas, what we got here is a $500 failure to comply with conditions with bond. He failed to appear in Mesa City court.

LEE HOCHBERG: On a threatening night this week outside Phoenix these four men were on a hunt for a criminal fugitive they believed was holed up nearby.

BOUNTY HUNTER: He’s approximately 20 years of age, height 5’11”, 185 pounds.

LEE HOCHBERG: The four aren’t police officers. They didn’t want to reveal their real names, but the one who goes by “John” used to be a San Diego cop. Junior fills oxygen tanks for a living, and Peter works in the ambulance business.

BOUNTY HUNTER: What we’ll do is just when we get out there, we’ll surveillance the apartment complex and the surrounding area, and we’ll just play it by ear and see what happens.

LEE HOCHBERG: The four are bounty hunters, or more formally bail recovery agents. They work for bail bondsmen, for companies that lay out bond or bail money for those accused of crimes. Their job is to capture and haul into jail criminal defendants who’ve skipped on their bail. In return, they get 10 percent of the value of the bond. The bail recovery business is being pummeled after an incident in Phoenix over Labor Day.

WOMAN: They kicked in the door, and I mean, they just opened fire on him. Chris didn’t have a chance.

LEE HOCHBERG: Five men wearing black ski masks and body armor kicked down the front door of a house, held three children at gunpoint, and in a gun fight shot dead a young couple in bed. The invaders told police they were bounty hunters seeking a fugitive and mistakenly entered the wrong home. Arizona residents like Ron Barnhart were outraged.

RON BARNHART, Arizona Resident: I think what happened was totally sick. And I mean, the bounty hunters should at least be under the same regulations as the police. The police can’t just break in and start shooting. Bounty hunters can? That’s not right.

LEE HOCHBERG: The incident set off a battle–first, over whether the men were actually acting as bounty hunters. Phoenix police say they were. But the bail bonds industry vigorously denies it and claims the men were acting as common criminals; that the warrant they claimed to have been chasing had expired. The suspects have been charged with second degree murder. Whether or not it was a bounty hunt the incident has called attention to the thousands of people nationwide who act as bounty hunters and if they should be regulated more. In all but three states–Nevada, North Carolina, and Indiana–they operate with virtually no legal constraints, routinely entering homes without search warrants. They can do that under an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that permits those hired by bail bondsmen to seize a bail jumper, pursue him into another state, arrest him on the Sabbath, and break and enter his house.

LINDA OWNBEY, Bail bond Agent: I definitely feel that these bounty hunters are out of control.

LEE HOCHBERG: Bail bondsmen like Linda Ownbey of Liberty Bail Bonds in Phoenix say increasing numbers of rough hewn glory seekers are being drawn to the trade. Internet sites lure them with promises of excitement, television programs glorify the chase, and weekend workshops at costs as high as $500 offer graduates a certificate and a badge and the promise of a new career. Ownbey says four years ago she hired as a bounty hunter one of the men charged last week with the Phoenix killings. She says there’s no way to know who she’s hiring.

LINDA OWNBEY: There’s no regulations. There’s no certification. There’s no licensing. To be a security guard in the Circle K you have to have some type of licensing.

JOE ABODEELY, Former Prosecutor: The profile of a lot of these people are the people who want to have power. They’re cop wannabes.

LEE HOCHBERG: For 15 years in Phoenix Joe Abodeely prosecuted criminals as deputy county attorney.

JOE ABODEELY: But I think that there is the potential for some serious problems. Some of them may get a job. I may actually do a good job. And some of them may be a time bomb waiting to explode.

SPOKESMAN: Pat down search.

LEE HOCHBERG: Those who train bounty hunters say critics are overreacting. The National Institute of Bail Enforcement in Tucson is the industry’s largest training program, claiming to have graduated 1600 bounty hunters from its three-day class.

SPOKESMAN: You’ve got complete control at this point.

LEE HOCHBERG: Owner Bob Burton, a former contributing editor of “Soldier of Fortune” Magazine, says his trainees are no greater a public threat than the police are.

BOB BURTON, Bounty Hunter Trainer: Bounty hunters have gotten in shootouts. On the other hand, we’ve never sodomized a Haitian with a handle of an implement. The police have problems. We have problems. We have fewer incidents during our arrests than any police agency in the world.

LEE HOCHBERG: He says he teaches his students they need a firearm only 20 to 30 percent of the time.

BOB BURTON: The fact of the matter is most arrests are made wearing civilian clothes, walking up to a waitress or a waiter or a bartender or a 7-Eleven clerk and informing them they’re under arrest for failing to appear.

BOUNTY HUNTER: It’s going to be Building 23.

LEE HOCHBERG: Still, these bounty hunters, who allowed the NewsHour cameras to accompany them, were armed, as they snuck through this Phoenix area apartment complex around midnight earlier this week. John, the former police officer, pointed out that Joe is a former Marine and the two others volunteer at the county sheriff’s office.

“JOHN,” Bounty Hunter: All of us here either have previous law enforcement background and/or military background. We all have the training. We know what we’re doing. We’re all professional.

LEE HOCHBERG: They say they’re up to the task of tracking fugitives, though a driving thunderstorm made this search difficult. Joe dropped his handgun into a puddle. After almost an hour the team zeroed in on the right apartment. It turned out the fugitive had moved on about 30 days earlier. The chase led to two more locations later that night.

WOMAN: Sir, can I get you to sign a petition regulating bounty hunters in the State of Arizona?

LEE HOCHBERG: The family of the woman slain in Phoenix has begun a petition drive for new laws to regulate bounty hunters. State Senator John Kaites says he’ll introduce legislation to require all bounty hunters to submit to background checks, eliminating felons or others, he says, with unsavory character.

JOHN KAITES, Sate Senator: So that we don’t have unscrupulous people, or people who would be more likely to kick down the door of an innocent person to play Rambo, to put on the body armor, and put a gun to the heads of children.

LEE HOCHBERG: Kaites says he’ll also request a provision requiring bounty hunters to have police at the site when they break down the door of an occupied structure. The proposals already are generating opposition from the bail bond industry. Spokesman Stephen Krimel, who says he arrested more than 500 fugitives in his career, sees no reason felons should be prevented from being bounty hunters.

STEPHEN KRIMEL, Bail Bond Industry Spokesman: I don’t agree on immediate–I know a number of lawyers who are convicted felons. I’m sure you do too. I don’t see a non-violent white collar felony necessarily being an automatic disqualifier.

LEE HOCHBERG: Even bondsmen who support general tightening of the industry say they’ll fight the requirement that police be on hand for arrests.

LINDA OWNBEY: To require that a police officer assist in every arrest, that’s just not going to happen; they’re too understaffed as it is.

LEE HOCHBERG: Bondsmen say police on the scene could mean the bonding company and the bounty hunters would not get credit for returning the fugitive to trial.

LINDA OWNBEY: The bonding company has to maintain its own status as a bail bond company. We have the right to arrest. Okay. We should not be required to have police assistance.

LEE HOCHBERG: And security experts are weighing in, arguing that reform should include a requirement for licensing and tougher training of bounty hunters.


LEE HOCHBERG: This Tucson security firm hires only those with military, law enforcement, or emergency medicine experience and puts them through exercises more akin to a SWAT team. Company owner Karl Delaguerra.

KARL DELAGUERRA, Security Firm Owner: Any time you give someone the power to carry a gun and to utilize it against the citizenry of a state they need to be highly qualified with it.

LEE HOCHBERG: For now, bounty hunting remains a wide open field. That’s fine, say these Phoenix bounty hunters, who did capture their fugitive. Though bills to reform the industry recently failed in Missouri and Rhode Island, the Arizona legislature will consider new restrictions when it convenes in January.