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The Troubling Business of Bounty Hunting

In order to get a closer look inside the world of "bail enforcement agents," writer Jeff Winkler got licensed and spent months as a BEA.


Read when you’ve got time to spare.

Illustration of bounty hunters

Illustration by Robert Sammelin

Names and locations have been changed to protect people’s privacy.

I. The Thin Gray Line

Slim Manila Folders

Our fugitive had no legs. He had a patchy beard, a decent scowl, and a court-issued FTA (“Failure to Appear”) arrest warrant stemming from a previous felony charge of “Assault and Battery [of a] Firefighter.” But no legs. There was nary a mention of this in the bondsman’s slim manila folder—just the original bond agreement with none of the fugitive’s details filled out, the arrest warrant, and a mugshot. Instead, this vital piece of intel about Joe Jr. was volunteered by a neighbor of his.

Me and Dodson had been on the case all day. Whenever one of these skips fails to show up in court, the bail bondsman calls us to find them. Or, more likely, calls one of our better-qualified competitors. We’d only been certified bounty hunters for all of three weeks.

The late-summer heat of Virginia’s Tidewater region soaked through our body armor as we went door-to-door in Joe Jr.’s neighborhood, like a pair of tactical salesmen. We carried with us an assortment of pepper sprays, handcuffs, and one projectile taser. Around my neck, I wore a shiny metal badge engraved with the words Bail Enforcement Agent. Joe Jr.’s neighbor took one look at us and assumed we were something legit. She pointed to Joe Jr.'s house, told us about his lack of legs, and added: “He likes to drink.”

Joe Jr.’s father answered the door. Joe Sr. grouchily claimed that he had no idea where Joe Jr. was. It was mentioned that because of the paperwork in Dodson’s hand—paperwork signed by Joe Sr.—we could legally search his house. We would like to search the house, we said. Just to be sure. Also, just for practice. That went unsaid. Joe Sr. did not take the request well.

“You aren’t coming in my house,” he said, furthering his point by marching inside and calling the cops. The officer who arrived didn’t even bother getting out of his patrol car. He seemed neither the least bit surprised nor concerned by the sight of two young men in streetwear and body armor. Local police apparently knew the Joe family well.

We showed the officer our file. “Oh, nice,” he deadpanned, after being told of the assault charge. The problem with Joe Jr., he said, wasn’t the drinking. The problem was his prosthetics. Whenever Joe Jr. got to fighting, he’d unlash the hard plastic limbs and wield them like cudgels. According to the officer, civil servants and emergency personnel weren’t allowed to keep him separated from the deadly weapons for any length of time since, legally speaking, they were a part of his body.

By the time a second officer approached, Joe Sr. was on his front lawn, screaming in my face. The police stood just a few feet away, silently assessing the situation as I tried various sales tactics. Joe Sr. wouldn’t budge. In a whisper session, the officers said that they couldn’t provide direct assistance in searching the premises. But, they shrugged, if Joe Sr. used his considerable weight to physically assault one of us upon entry…well, then they could turn it into a police matter. Legally speaking. Eventually, one officer asked if me and Dodson couldn’t follow other leads for the time being.

It was a couple of weeks later when we made another pass at the house. Same square dance—a grunt, a call, a shrug. We expanded our search to bars within shambling distance of the family residence. At one, an intoxicated Joe Jr. allegedly slammed a hollow limb on the countertop and insisted it be filled knee-high with booze like an improvised bierstiefel. The bar exercised its right to refuse service, permanently. One of the few neighborhood establishments where Joe Jr. hadn’t worn out his welcome was a topless joint.

We got a call from Joe Jr. It was a pretty dull conversation—he declined an invitation to discuss the issue in person and told us to fuck off.

It turns out that the actual work of a bounty hunter is nothing like it is on TV or in the movies. There’s the occasional thrilling chase, but rarely any shootout. No cold-blooded Rambos with sunglasses, barbed-wire stubble, and a trenchcoat. No Steve McQueen. The classic Hemingway line about how “there is no hunting like the hunting of man”—a favorite among the profession’s sensationalists—hardly ever applies. It’s mostly about waiting. And driving. Playing nice with tight-fisted bondsmen or uncooperative citizens. Doubt. Tedium. Paperwork.

We never did catch Joe Jr. Honestly, a part of me thought we might be screwed the moment we spoke to his neighbor. Call it a gut feeling. Veterans of the field know this intuition, this instinct, comes with experience. We were noobs crawling our way through the day, and my gut, bloated by drive-through stakeout fare, was corseted in the bulletproof vest. But it was telling me one thing: This legless fugitive is gonna outrun us.

The worst part was, we had a dozen slim manila folders containing equally frustrating cases. Hell, we still hadn’t caught Dave, whom we’d been obsessively chasing since our first day on the job and who'd become something of a white whale for us. Being a bounty hunter is hard work.

Obiter Dictum

The small perks of being a bounty hunter include the occasional gun-range discount or a free coffee because it’s assumed you’re law enforcement. The biggest perk: telling folks you’re a bounty hunter. Or, if you want to sound really official, a bail enforcement agent (BEA). Either name invokes danger, an aura of badassery, even if no one really knows what the job entails. I signed up because I was in a rut. My previous job had been a soulless drag, and I don’t have the education or financial stability to do much else. I’d once thought about becoming a paramedic, but that’s an expensive undertaking, and the pay isn’t great—less value in saving lives. I’m too old and feeble for the military, and very close friends said they would shun me if I became a cop. These are not flattering reasons for becoming a bounty hunter, but there they are.

Within the world of law enforcement, bounty hunting is something of an aberration. An accident arising from the combination of common law, frontier justice, chattel slavery, and capitalism. No other job is more American. Bounty hunting’s legality is a mishmash of confusing requirements, regulations, and certifications that vary widely by state. Everything from a complete ban on the practice (Kentucky) to no rules whatsoever (Wyoming). In some places, it’s the state Insurance Department that oversees bounty hunters; in others, the local sheriff’s office. The process of becoming a bail enforcement agent is equally ramshackle. Virginia’s requirements—a $500 40-hour course, a $200 state fee, and an FBI background check—are middle-of-the-road.

Since the 1980s, the completely unverifiable number of working bounty hunters ranges between 2,500 to 10,000. No one really knows. The Professional Bail Agents of the United States, a Florida-based industry organization, puts the number at 15,000. The best in the business are able to make a decent living, although breaking six figures is unlikely. Most others make far less but set their own hours, and, in the vast majority of cases, haven’t yet quit their day jobs.

Here’s how it works. Say someone—let’s call him Dave—is arrested for possession of heroin. A judge sets bail at $1,500. If that bail is paid by a bondsman—that's called a surety bond—the bondsman takes a 10 percent fee from Dave (or more likely, a family member, like Dave’s father) and puts up the rest. The bondsman gets his money back if his client (that's Dave) shows up to court. If Dave skips court, the bondsman has several weeks to return him, or lose all $1,500—that's called a forfeiture. So the bondsman offers the same 10 percent fee to independent contractors (that’s us) to recover the client before the forfeiture deadline.

Two studies by criminal-justice eggheads confirm what most probably imagine when it comes to BEAs: They’re overwhelmingly white married men over the age of 36 with either a military or private-investigation background. Yet the Virginia class I attended had a surprising lack of beefed-up wannabe cops. It was just me, a small and incredibly bubbly woman, a young guy who had been dragooned by his friend to sign up, and my future partner, Dodson: black, 25, close to six feet one and 130 pounds soaking wet. On the first day of class, he wore a cap with the Daredevil’s “DD” insignia and a bright red Elmo hoodie.

“It’s not like the Old West,” said our instructor near the beginning of the required two hours of Orientation and Ethics. You can’t just shoot a fugitive dead and “sling them over your horse.” We were warned the class would be death by PowerPoint. A couple hundred slides. The first one was a definition of “Professionalism.”

Slide 14: “Why should a BEA not misrepresent his position?” Answer: “Does a disservice to agent and industry.” This means never claiming to be a cop, calling yourself “officer,” or doing anything to suggest you’re actual law enforcement. That’d be illegal. “Agent,” though, that’s malleable. Sports agent, real estate agent, free agent. An agent has cred. That’s why most bounty hunters prefer to be called Bail Enforcement Agent or Fugitive Recovery Agent. The first of our kind weren’t called bounty hunters, BEAs, or FRAs, but they did sometimes go by “defendant.” BEAs get sued a lot—occupational hazard. It’s partly why our instructor emphasized that “it's a license…you will be in the bail-recovery business.” An LLC, he said, is better protection than body armor. Although, what you quickly learn when wearing badges and body armor for business purposes is that civilians make poor, unverbalized assumptions about our position all the time. But hey, we’re neither law enforcement nor the thought police.

The broad rights of BEAs were established by a passing comment, an obiter dictum, in the 1872 Supreme Court case Taylor v. Taintor. In just 120 words, bondsmen were given the authority to seize a fugitive “in person or by agent. They may pursue him into another State; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose.” Bail enforcers ran with it. There’s not a bail enforcement how-to book out there that doesn’t reference Taylor v. Taintor in the first three pages. It’s mentioned, too, in the introductions of a half-dozen memoirs with titles like Gotcha! and Trackdown. It’s in Dog the Bounty Hunter’s bestseller.

BEAs will say they provide a public service at no cost to taxpayers. The jails are too overcrowded to lock up every defendant, and law enforcement is too overburdened and understaffed to go after every low-rent skip with an arrest warrant. (In 2014, New York City had 1.5 million active warrants, many of them for FTAs—again, "Failure to Appear"—or very petty crimes.) National figures are hard to come by, but there are roughly 2 million people with active felony warrants. As for pretrial release and other bail-reform efforts, the bail industry says such programs are unable to properly monitor and return those out on bond, say nothing of those who go right back to committing crimes when the state sets them free (the bail industry has an entire website dedicated to such stories). According to economists Eric Helland and Alexander Tabarrok, the authors of The Fugitive: Evidence on Public Versus Private Law Enforcement From Bail Jumping, the system is effective. FTA rates are significantly lower for surety bonds than any other form of pretrial release. As for those on a surety bond who do fail to appear, “defendants sought by bounty hunters are a whopping 50 percent less likely to be on the loose after one year than other bail jumpers.” BEAs reportedly pick up 25,000 to 35,000 skips a year, with a capture rate hovering somewhere between 85 and 99.2 percent.

Day two of our course consisted of a 20-minute practice lab on apprehending a subject; a working BEA delivering a special guest lecture; and a field trip to the local police station, where we stood in the parking lot and asked a real-live bondsman a few of our most pressing queries, like how to get paid. As anticipated, a question about Taylor v. Taintor was on our multiple-choice licensing exam.

Me and Dodson both passed. It took another two months of pacing to get fully approved, processed, and issued special ID cards. I spent my time like a dilettante. First, I purchased more than $3,000 worth of fancy gear. Then I read up on subjects like police community engagement practices, psychological tricks for gaining compliance, and how to smoke out liars. I subjected a friend to fussy lectures about proper handcuffing techniques while we drank properly made daiquiris.

Meanwhile, Dodson was hustling several jobs, one as a night-shift security guard, another as a product specialist for a chain of grocery stores. This was a man supporting a growing family. His third child would be born underweight and in need of heart surgery the week we started working. Any free time he had was spent watching over her in the NICU of the children’s hospital. He was also saving up for almost all of the gear he needed. Dodson wanted to hit the ground running. So he asked God for guidance. The answer came back: Cold call every bondsman from here to Richmond and ask if they need recovery services. So that’s exactly what Dodson did.

This was my future partner. Resolute. Always had my back. A man without fear. Devoutly, relentlessly positive.

It went without saying that we’d team up. Both of us, however, had remembered what our instructor had said: “A perfect-size team is three.” So nearly three months after we’d passed our BEA test and shortly after we’d been approved, we met up with Que.

A Start-up, Ultimately

“Did you show him the video?” Que asked as we sat in a booth at Applebee’s and held an inaugural team meeting. I had not. We all leaned in to watch. It was of one of Que’s captures. A decrepit shed with three individuals inside was surrounded, infiltrated, and the subject extracted with minimal physical violence and relatively little yelling. Dodson looked impressed.

A veteran bounty hunter had put me in touch with Que, who’d been soliciting him for work. It seemed like an understandable effort on the part of the veteran to evade a couple of noobs. Que, 35, has spent more than a decade holding down various jobs in the private-security field, including one as an internal investigator at a nuclear plant where he had non-military, private “T.S. clearance.” Top Secret. His BEA badge reads “Fugitive Recovery Agent” because, as Que said, when people see “Fugitive” and “Agent” they assume he’s a federal marshal. Built like an all-state linebacker, Que had swagger and wore his hair up in a modish topknot. “We need to get a team together,” he said in a thick Rhode Island accent that turned “blah blah blah” into “blahzayblah.”

Que explained that he had recently left a security group that had a whole squad of bail enforcement agents. Que was one of their best. They’d had a company-wide contest with prizes. Que won it all. Ten arrests in about a month. But he didn’t like the way the company did business, for various reasons. Blahzayblah. Que quit. He was in the middle of a lengthy application process anyway. He wanted to be a cop. In the interim, he wasn’t going to let his talents deflate.

I mentioned that, per my instructor’s recommendation, I’d set up an LLC, for liability and tax purposes. With business cards. I’d even bought a receipt book! Que came back with his own idea: Put the Taylor decision on special little notecards. We’d hand them out to noncompliant bozos who claimed we didn’t have the right to do such-and-such. It was a tactical office supply, like the tactical pen I’d bought. Or the Slack and Marco Polo channels Que set up titled, respectively, “Snatch&Grab” and “Snapping Necks, $$$ Checks.” Ultimately, this was just like any other start-up.

If Que hadn’t automatically assumed the role of captain, me and Dodson would have granted it to him anyway. Being the eldest meant seniority. So did his six-month-old license. Our captain even echoed Lesson Number One from class: “Bro, if you lose your professionalism, they stop respecting you. … You gotta take yourself out of the situation. It’s not personal.”

Of course, that was before our team had really coalesced. Before we spent hours in the car together. Before prowling apartment blocks in the dead of night armed like mercenaries. Before I started taking things a little personal.

II. The Four Burnings of Pleasant Meadows

The Second Burning of Pleasant Meadows

I had a bad feeling about Yung Muni from the get-go. We didn’t have much to work off of apart from his street alias, a few social media photos of him flashing cash, and an arrest warrant with his actual given name. The file had been collected by Que, who’d taken the lead on scrounging up cases.

Among other quibbles during that first week and a half as a team, I’d begun to question Que’s organizational prowess and business acumen. Our files weren’t just thin; some of the required paperwork was missing entirely. I’d developed a habit of lecturing the team about relevant laws and history. Que had even started calling me “a nice guy.” To my face. He gave me a couple of other nicknames, too, including “HR & Compliance.” That one really stung.

The shoddy files weren’t entirely Que’s fault. As every bounty hunter will attest, bondsmen hate doing paperwork. But Muni’s case was doubly tough. He had a long, multi-city rap sheet—possession, larceny, various and sundry charges both minor and felonious. Worse, we were on deadline. The bondsman claimed he was facing an immediate forfeiture. Forty-eight hours. While Que had failed to negotiate a higher fee commensurate with the rush job, the original $5,000 bond was certainly more than any other case of ours.

Dodson and Que couldn’t stop cautioning me about the area where Young Muni lived, which went by some absurdly bucolic name, like, Pleasant Meadows. Section 8. The projects. They shoot cops there, bro, Que said. Amen, Dodson said. I thought the fear was likely overblown. We weren't welcome in that neighborhood, sure, but that seemed like it could’ve had as much or more to do with systemic coercion from law enforcement and dominant power structures—including bastard ancillaries like us—than with any endemic criminality. I kept this social-justice theory to myself. Still, Pleasant Meadows was always mentioned with foreboding.

We first burned Pleasant Meadows, at dusk, based on a supposedly hot tip from the bondsman, who’d gotten word from an undisclosed confidential informant (CI). “Burned” means visiting a location and/or getting spotted, usually prematurely. Burn or get burned, and you lose the element of surprise. With assistance from a local patrol unit, we’d conducted what amounted to a stop-and-frisk of a young man in a hoodie who’d been walking through the courtyard in a furtive manner. Sixteen hours later, we returned. In the middle of the day.

We were first directed by the bondsman to a location where Muni might be. A couple of hours into surveillance, the bondsman got word from the mysterious CI that, actually, Muni was perched on a stoop in a nearby apartment building inside Pleasant Meadows.

We entered Pleasant Meadows on foot from the eastern perimeter and spread out across the 25-acre expanse. We followed the orders of Que, the only one of us with a firearm, holstered but visible. Women and children tracked us as they played casual; the younger men craned their bodies, looking tense and ready to flee. The mimicked sounds of yips and woofs began to echo. An intruder warning.

Que gestured tactically. We fell back to the vehicle, drove around the perimeter, and came in from the west, where a group of young males loitered. Que flanked one side. me and Dodson flanked another. Dodson must’ve spotted something. He sprinted, they scattered. I went around a building to intercept. Nothing. Came back around to the sound of muffled cries. Que had chased someone into an apartment, while identifying himself and the individual he was actually pursuing. They’d tried to close the door on him, but he made it all the way to the interior, as far in as the bathroom. I had an instant of panic near the threshold about what might happen next. Join him or freeze? Protect Dodson.

But Que exited, his sidearm holstered. A male occupant followed him out the door, sputtering panicked protests. Dodson appeared. Caught up in the moment, he switched on. Transformed. He yelled retorts at the man through flop sweat—“WHY YOU RUNNIN’ THEN?”—until his voice cracked. Que continued with a more formal interrogation. I secured the perimeter and “checked” the man’s ID, which meant pretending to search for his criminal information via a nonexistent database on my phone while looking constipated.

And that was that. We just left. Retreated to the vehicle, then to what Que always referred to as a “staging area,” which was usually just some parking lot.

So far, the inhabitants of Pleasant Meadows had mostly regarded us as a temporary abnormality. A nuisance, like a common cold. They were used to the law coming in for one reason or another and doing what it felt necessary. Of course, we weren’t law enforcement. This situation felt unstable. Even Dodson expressed a hint of doubt as we loitered outside a McDonald’s. Que was blahzayblah.

“They think we’re Feds,” he bragged after the second burning, a Bluetooth in his ear. “We poured gasoline on that bitch.”

The Third Burning of Pleasant Meadows

Two days passed, along with the deadline. We’d continued our obsessive pursuit of a fugitive named Dave, but by 5 p.m. of that second afternoon, we’d managed to snatch up a hapless factory worker. Our first capture. We did it completely by the booklet—dull and uneventful. He’d been busted for simple marijuana possession and forgotten to go to court. His company’s HR & Compliance department was eager to cooperate. Just before second shift, he’d been lured to a bland conference room, where we waited with a low-level security guard who wanted to know how he, too, could become a bounty hunter. The factory worker didn’t put up any kind of fight, and we let him make phone calls en route to the jail. The take was $150, split three ways.

By 9 p.m. that night, Que got word from the bondsman, who had intel from his CI. Muni would definitely be at a club a few blocks from Pleasant Meadows. I didn’t even bother asking about the forfeiture deadline because Que and Dodson were so gung-ho. The bondsman, or the CI—somebody—knew what car Muni was traveling in. Que had a plan. We would hunker down in our trucks beside all the vehicles at the club, then run up on Muni as he and every other partier flooded out at closing time. It seemed like a terrible plan. For starters, this scenario had never been covered in class. And Que wanted me to brandish his 12-gauge, for “crowd control.” I flatly refused, regretting that I’d bragged about acing the additional qualification to use a shotgun. I lied when he asked if I had my 9mm on me.

As the club let out, we couldn’t tell exactly who got in the car, so we tried tailing it. We cocked that up, too. Well, I did. When the driver stopped at a bustling gas station to air up a tire that had mysteriously deflated, I’d been assigned the job of making positive ID. Only later did I realize that I’d been looking at the wrong cluster of people entirely. Then, while following Dodson and Que in my own truck, I went in the wrong direction.

“I guess we’re just going to call it a night,” Que said. He was peeved, at both the failed snatch'n'grab, and with me.

By 1:30 a.m., I was halfway home when Que called. He and Dodson were waiting for the police. For reasons unclear, they had decided to start following another vehicle after I left. They had been in slow pursuit on a neighborhood street when the vehicle pulled a U-ey and side-swiped Que’s truck before the offending car mounted a curb, came to an abrupt stop, and the occupants fled on foot in the direction of Pleasant Meadows.

I arrived on the scene as Que was talking shop with an officer and commiserating over the lengthy law-enforcement-application process. Dodson stood nervously nearby, stiff as a stick. The man without fear had only two weakness. “Jails make me nervous,” he once told me. Police, too. He’d said that repeatedly.

On the streets, the relationship between public and private was pretty murky. If there is any recurring quibble among BEAs about law enforcement, it’s that individual officers occasionally demonstrate just how much power and control they have over “wannabe” amateurs. But the BEA stories run the gamut, from being mistakenly detained at gunpoint to tag-teaming a case by complementing each other’s legal rights and restrictions.

One of the officers told Que, almost wistfully, that we saw more action than they did; all they saw was a lot of paperwork. But they also faced a lot more danger. They did shoot cops here, bro. Thirty-nine days later, an officer would be hit multiple times roughly a thousand feet from where we stood. A few months after we’d chased Yung Muni, he would be charged with assault and battery of a law-enforcement officer.

“Are y’all about done for the night?” asked one officer, all casual-like. It seemed like a subtle suggestion, although the strobing lights made it difficult to see between the lines.

The Final Burning of Pleasant Meadows

“So the plan,” I snarked, “is to just run up on this house?” It’d been more than a week since the bondsman’s supposed forfeiture deadline on Yung Muni. And we’d just spent the past 12 hours working other cases. Earlier that night, we even had to gather intel at a topless joint. No one ever explained why we were back to hunting Yung Muni.

Through the comms, the Rhode Islander fired back, “So are you with us…are you behind us with this?” After no immediate response, Dodson piped in. “Jeff’s our conscience, that’s all.”

Actually, the conscience was in full tactical gear and about an hour away from having a complete nervous breakdown. Thirty minutes before, at around midnight, we had stood in an empty grocery-store parking lot. Another staging area.

There, Que had double-checked the loads in his shotgun. Dodson was pumped. He told me to gear up. I put it all on with surly indifference—MOLLE tactical vest that read “Agent”; body cam; two handcuff pouches; tactical flashlight; O.C. spray; collapsible baton; and a projectile taser that had never been fired. Dodson insisted I go strapped this time. So I did. Before getting back in my truck, I got snotty. Y’all are just itchin’ for somethin’ to do. Dodson didn’t hear a word of it.

“You ready for this, Jeff?” Dodson was devoutly, relentlessly positive.

We drove by the house party near Pleasant Meadows. A narrow, car-crowded street teeming with tough-looking inhabitants. What my instructor might have called a “fatal funnel.” It was a location Que, or the bondsman, or the CI, or whoever, had heard Muni was/would/might be. This was a hellish game of telephone.

After I mocked the nonexistent plan to raid a random house, and for reasons Que never fully explained, we aimed the vehicles toward Pleasant Meadows proper and debated whether we should do a sweep of the area. By this point, we were chasing ghosts.

We parked our trucks at the border of Pleasant Meadows and waited while Dodson crossed over on foot, undetected. Que prodded us about what we should do, but it was Dodson who finally made the call.

Once again, we penetrated from the eastern border of Pleasant Meadows. Quiet. A warm stillness. Que had his shotgun at low ready position. I put a hand on my taser’s holster. Then a rustling. From the opposite distance, I thought I saw Dodson run after a red-colored figure and took off in a sprint. Dodson thought he saw me run after a red-colored figure and he took off in a sprint. We sprinted into each other around a cut and frantically searched the spot. Nothing. The figure had apparently double-backed toward a clearing but got laid out by Que’s left-armed clothesline. Que had already finished his pat down by the time me and Dodson came huffing back.

The handsome figure wore a red tracksuit. Dodson switched on and went ham. WHY YOU RUNNIN’? They were both sweating.

“Man, why wouldn’t I run? You got guns and all,” the handsome tracksuit said. It was the most logical, human utterance I’d heard all night. I let out an audible, and involuntary, snort.

Dodson’s voice was a trembling, high-octave growl.


Que checked his sleeve-tat arm for gashes; the tracksuit checked for dental injuries; I “checked” his ID. Wrong guy.

We stumbled around the area. Dodson wondered aloud about his Daredevil hat, which had flown off somewhere in the cuts. We rounded the corner of one building, and Que confronted a woman holding a cellphone. He wanted to know what she was hiding. She kept the phone to her ear but ended her frazzled protests with “sir.” Until, that is, she realized he was the same foreign entity that had barged into her dwelling a week and a half before. Then she began yelling into her phone.

“Come here now! The same people that came here...you need to call somebody on their ass!”

The shrieks followed us as we fell back, or retreated. Whichever. We were completely turned around. It wasn’t clear if that “somebody” meant police or a mob. I felt an overwhelming fear of annihilation; of being wiped gone by some natural and inevitable correction, like fever. I was well past trying to remember why in the hell I’d signed up for this crap in the first place. I almost walked away right there, on principle, and was saved from good intentions by the sight of my truck in the distance. I managed to shut the cab door before completely losing it. Fuck your hat, Dodson. Fuck you, Que. FUCK THIS SNIPE HUNT. I was alone. I wrenched off the gear and threw it wherever. I was done chasing our skip. He could stay free for all I cared. Fuck all this shit.

I burned through three or four cigarettes and drove off with a holstered firearm digging into my gut.

III. Then All Collapsed


There's no Employee Orientation Seminar in bounty hunting. Just get a license and figure out the rest. That's how I started my very first day on the job.

“I've never done this before,” said the freshman-faced motel attendant. He was giddy.

“It’s new for me, too,” I replied.

Twenty-four hours earlier, I’d met Que for the very first time, and he’d mentioned a case he’d just gotten. According to Que’s CIs, the skip and his girlfriend floated between a few budget motels and a nearby Walmart. The fugitive’s FTA stemmed from a possession of heroin charge. His name was Dave.

I’d volunteered to visit the half-dozen potential hideouts, which is how I met the whippersnapper at the motel. He eagerly handed over the entire guest list, although he did look confused when I made special amendments to the form titled “Law Enforcement Acknowledgement” that his superiors told him I had to sign. I was HR & Compliance from day one.

Poor folks and minorities were hard to read but always knew what was up. Often, middle-class white men over 40 were creepily deferential and uncomfortably chummy but rarely provided any useful information. Low-wage employees, however, they were reliably helpful. Anything or any person that didn’t threaten their job or make it harder was fine. From that first day on, whenever I walked into a hovel with a polite sheen of authority and said “bail enforcement agent,” the receptionist’s eyes flickered. I could always see the gears working. Is this graveyard shift about to get weird? They responded well to professionalism.

So far, Dave hadn’t shown up on any guest lists. But Que kept getting tips from his CIs, reported sightings. One night we converged on a motel where the clerk had made a positive ID. None of the names on the guest list matched, but we were given permission to go room-to-room. It was well past 11 p.m.

At each door, Que banged his flashlight, gave our no-bullshit reason for disturbing their peace, and proceeded to clear the interior, taser in hand. Most guests were compliant—we were serious-looking authority figures. And then came the old lady, who wasn’t buying what we were selling.

There was a shag rug at the door and splashy, personalized decor inside. The room was immaculate. It was immediately obvious to me that this woman was not harboring a druggie fugitive. She was wearing a muumuu. Yet our captain insisted that we need to search every room, ma’am. She swore up and down that she was a long-term resident, and she was not having any of our guff. At last, an unstoppable force had met an immovable object.

Que was eventually allowed to search her room, but only after I called her by her name, gently explained the situation, and said I was always available for any questions. Two days later, my phone rang.

“I’ve got this lady here,” said an exasperated police officer, practically begging for assistance. He said she wasn’t making a lot of sense. Some intruder had given her a business card. That was my Thursday afternoon. Most days were like that. Best business practices and public relations. Dealing with miscommunications, as professionally as possible. But sometimes, yeah, we had to just grip and grimace.

A few days later, one of Que’s informants said a male who fit Dave’s description and a woman who looked like his girlfriend were spotted hanging around the Walmart down the street from the muumuu motel. I rushed to meet my partners, who were already near the location.

Just outside the Walmart entrance, Que interviewed the Dave lookalike while Dodson approached the man’s car, in which a young woman sat behind the wheel. “Fugitive Recovery Agent, ma’am. I have some questions for you. Can you please step out the car?”

The woman panicked. Dodson was close enough to the front bumper that, if she sped off, he’d surely get run over. She sped off.

“Where’s she going with your buddy?” the lookalike asked Que. He turned around to see a Dodson-shaped hood ornament body surfing ass-first through the parking lot.

Dodson braced himself as the woman hit 25 mph, somehow managing to also keep ahold of the taser in his hand. It went pappap-pappappappap as he tried reaching out to shock her into compliance. “Just stop the fuckin’ car!” he pleaded. “All I need is your fuckin’ ID!” When the woman slowed down at a curve near the parking lot’s entrance, Dodson rolled off and came to a running stop.

“It’s not how I planned my day to go,” Dodson said afterward, uncharacteristically terse. To both us and the exasperated police officer who eventually arrived, the lookalike swore up and down he had no idea how to contact his lady friend. After he walked off, the officer told us the guy was definitely “hot.” He had outstanding warrants. We spent time driving around looking for the getaway car and eventually spotted the two rendezvousing behind the muumuu motel. It was a long day.

And yet, the first thing Dodson did when I came to pick him up the next morning was spread his body across the front of my truck. “Okay, I'm just gonna ride on the hood right here for the rest of the way.”

Dodson was devoutly, relentlessly positive. A fuckin’ saint.


Progress was slow going—maybe four weeks, never mind how long precisely—but we got into an ebb and flow.

I’d pick up Dodson from the children’s hospital, where he spent nights watching over his newborn, and we’d drive for hours, working absurdly hopeless cases. Fugitives without address, vehicles, or phone numbers. One didn't even have legs. I had doubts that another, in Pleasant Meadows, even existed at all. It took time to get comfortable, especially conducting field interviews of skips’ friends or family at homes, hangouts, or places of employment. But we did that shit professional.

After a number of interviews with Dave’s father, he finally gave us a partial name of the girlfriend, the SUV she drove, and suggested she might have been arrested recently. Boom. All it took was a quick but careful search through court records. There she was. Jane. She’d copped to possession of fentanyl and was scheduled for an initial probation appointment. We called her probation officer, who promised to call us when Jane arrived for their upcoming meeting. We had a gut feeling that wherever Jane went, we’d find Dave.

On the morning of Jane’s probationary meeting, we parked our trucks at separate positions in the parking lot. Dodson was stuck at his grocery-store job and couldn’t join us.

She said she’s on her way, said the P.O. Fifteen minutes. Forty-five minutes later, a beat-up SUV the color of fool’s gold pulled into the lot.

“Whiskey, Tango, uh …,” I pressed the binoculars deeper into my eye sockets, “... Xylophone?”

“X-ray,” Que corrected on speakerphone.

When she left, we tailed her for several miles. Que took the lead while I held back, ready to leapfrog if he was spotted. Jane went straight from her meeting to the one pay-by-the-week motel we hadn’t checked. The receptionist was more than helpful. Giddy almost. Second floor.

Que’s plan, which had thus far been perfect in conception and execution, was for us to approach the room from different directions and meet at the door. I was barely up the stairs, however, when I heard a distant yell: “BAIL ENFORCEMENT.”

I shifted into a jog on the motel’s second-floor deck and pulled out my still-unfired taser. Just as I rounded a corner, I heard it again. “BAIL ENFORCEMENT.” Except this time it was…behind me? The door I’d just passed was already wide open. I’d overshot my big entrance.

The room looked as if it had been furnished by a hurricane. Jane stood near the AC unit, spouting protests. “What the fuck are y’all doing here?” Que and his topknot stood beside the closed bathroom door. His drawn sidearm was at low ready position.

“DAVE, IF YOU DON’T COME OUT OF THIS ROOM RIGHT NOW, I’M COMING IN THERE AND I’M SNATCHING YOU OUT.” He hoisted his leg and tried to put a boot through the cheap door. It didn’t budge. “OKAY, THAT’S HOW YOU WANT TO PLAY IT? IT’S ON.”

I stood between Que, ramming the door, and Jane, moored and unmoving. I didn’t know what the fuck to do. Should I physically move her? Bullshit lawsuits were an occupational hazard, but so were legitimate threats to our safety. All I could think was to scream variations of “Get back!” like an angry nice guy. There was a lot of yelling. It all blurred together.

LOCK HER OUT. “Get back!” What the fuck are y’all doing here? “You know what the fuck we’re doing here. Where’s ...” DAVE. OPEN. THE DOOR. NOW. “Who’s in there?” He’s not here! DOOR’S LOCKED. “Go! Get out!” Nobody’s in here! “The door’s just locked from the inside, huh?!” GET HER OUT. You guys are in my room. Get your fucking hands off me!

Que had had enough. He picked Jane up and hoisted her out of the room. Que took my taser—the one I’d been inadvertently pointing in his direction and had only just remembered to switch on—and issued another warning to the bathroom door. I pulled out my collapsible compliance alternative. Kkkkirch.

“That’s the baton!”

I rapped it a few times on a wooden desk as...a threat that we’d cost him his security deposit? I’m still not sure myself. I got tunnel vision yet was suddenly hyper-aware of all sensory stimuli. I took deep, conscious breaths. Some basic cognitive motor skills shut down. I knew what this was but couldn’t fully process it: an adrenaline rush. It was a kind of high I hadn't felt in a very long time.

“Ohohoho…you’re not going to like this.” Que’s voice was calm and menacing. He was in his element. I’d never been more grateful. “You think I’m playing?” He removed the taser’s projectile cartridge and fired it up. Pappap-pappappappap.

Que chuckled once more, snapped the cartridge back into place, then charged the door. It disappeared as Que dove headfirst into darkness.

The snap of the fired taser cartridge was immediately followed by a clamor of clicks ’n’ crackles and high-pitched wails. By the time I got to the threshold, Que had already put himself between the bathtub and a flesh-colored mound, commanding it to get the fuck out. I flung the door onto the bed and echoed the yells of my captain.

Our skip emerged, like a startled myth. And a lot taller than I’d imagined. He wore nothing but boxer briefs, tiny electric harpoons in his arm, and Que riding his backside.

I cuffed Dave’s right wrist quick enough; he jerked some with his left. Checked to make sure they weren’t too tight. I’d practiced this.

The yelling ceased. Dave dropped to his knees. Exactly two minutes and 56 seconds had elapsed since we’d entered the room. It seemed like the hard part was over. Then Dave started dry-heaving. As we picked him up, he began to shake. Then convulse.

I’d never before seen a seizure or an OD. But this felt…off. That was my gut feeling. Que’s gut was saying the same thing. He told Dave to “stop with the bullshit.” Dave didn’t stop with the bullshit. I started doubting my gut. Dave kept flopping as I supported his shackled limbs behind his back, repeating, “Dave! Come on, Dave!” He quickly wore himself out and partially complied.

Que knew that a good BEA doesn’t linger. He expertly looped an arm and carried Dave away. Jane was waiting outside the door. She followed us to the stairwell, swearing up and down she didn’t know Dave was in the room, much less a fugitive. Threatening legal action and legitimately swearing up, down, and sideways. To be safe, we called the EMTs. Que was in control. Sassy, even.

“Good job changing your hair color, too, by the way,” he said with a swaggering nod. She snorted. “My hair’s been this way since I got arrested, dumbass.” Jane stayed near Dave until just before police arrived, then vanished.

I called Dodson the moment I could. “I wish you were here.” He yelled to someone in the background, I told you I was sick. I shouldn’t even be here today. He said he’d meet us at the hospital.

“Secure my vehicle,” Que said. It was his one request before hopping in the EMT wagon to escort Dave to the hospital. I dutifully took the shotgun from his truck and put it in mine.

‘Wouldn’t yours do that for you?’

“People talk out there,” Dave said with a knowing indifference. Dave was half reclined in the hospital gurney, his torso bare, a blanket over his propped-up legs. He knew we’d been after him for at least three weeks. He’d even heard about Dodson’s Walmart ride.

Outside the exam room, the hospital staff seemed unsurprised by the results from a battery of tests. Inside the room, they kept to the Hippocratic oath, dutifully attending to Dave’s complaints of chest pains and difficulty breathing.

Three years older than me, he looked salted and overcooked. He pulled at his fingernails. Que made confident small talk. Said he’d call his law-enforcement contacts, talk to their task force. He’d make sure to note in his report that Dave had cooperated, put it in the database. Que was fishing for leads on other, unrelated cases. Dave was stalling and coy with what he might know. They took turns taunting one another. Both bargaining. Each hinting that the other might be full of shit.

Dave nibbled at me, too. How long have you been doing this? You don’t live around here, do you?

I answered with my best attempt at stony, authoritative silence. Dave looked dead at me, then right through me. He scoffed and turned away. I could see the gears working, downshifted and methodical. If Dave was an addict, he wasn’t entirely powerless. If anything, he seemed calculating. I think I know a troublemaker when I see one; Dave knew a mark when he saw it.

Dave was both a standard and an unusual case. No two skips are alike. As Que once put it, though, “there’s patterns to this shit, bro.” Being noobs, we primarily got the tough cases—the bad bonds. Slim manila folders made to look professional. Those skips that perpetually screw up, screw others, and screw one another. Those skips are accustomed to getting really screwed by some systemic clusterfuck. They know how the game is played even if, or maybe especially because, they’ve got a losing hand. These skips weren’t alone, either. They had associates—others down, out, or historically disenfranchised—that felt screwed by The System as well. So they screwed us right back. Passively, usually. By lying. Swearing up and down. To our faces. With ease. It didn’t seem all that personal, either. Most of the time it was incredibly convincing, especially to a nice guy; as impressive as it was frustrating. Unless it was obvious, and even when it wasn’t, I took people at their word. Their protests and denials made sense. The System does screw with people, it does screw them up. I understood that, in the same way I understood that there’s a power in protecting your own against the powers that be.

About the best my bullshit detector ever got was with Jane, who’d sworn up and down that no one was in the locked windowless bathroom. Later, on the way to the jail, Dave was asked why Jane had so foolishly tried to cover for him.

“She’s my girl,” he said. “Wouldn’t yours do that for you?” Like it was fucking obvious.

That one hit me in the gut.

The Warrior Class

Dodson finally appeared at the hospital, power-walking toward the exam room. His undone button-down flapped behind him like a cape. He wore an assortment of gadgets on his utility belt, the body armor he was buying in installments off Que was exposed, and his official Virginia bail-agent ID card was clipped to its collar like an insignia. He looked like a discount superhero. When I suggested Dodson conceal some of his outfit, he shot back.

“Don’t! Lemme have this moment!”

I deserved that and was ashamed. Dodson not only had my back, he was a go-getter with big plans. He was always the first one ready to work in the morning and the last to call it quits in the evening. Between spending time with his family and providing for them, he never slept. He was a man without fear. A daredevil. A saint.

Also, since my truck was a two-seater, we needed to use his car for transpo. Dodson had to clear out the back and threw some diapers into my truck bed. But he made it work.

Per request, we bought Dave one last Black & Mild en route to the jail; the same jail me and Dodson had gone to on our class field trip. We waited five minutes, tops, for an intake officer. It took 10 times as long to square away the messed-up paperwork. The bondsman met us at the jail and gave us our fee, plus an attaboy bonus. I took the cash, wrote out a receipt. He commended me for being such a puckered asshole when it came to paperwork.

“We deserve a drink,” Que said. Bro, yes.

Once we got Que’s truck from the motel, we gathered intel as to the closest saloon. Applebee’s. The same one we’d held our first meeting. Swear to God.

Hunting Dave took 33 days, 60-odd hours, and so much driving. HR & Compliance did the math. We made $150, plus the $50 bonus. Another $150 for our first skip, split three ways. All told, that comes out to $116.66 each. Not including expenses. We would end up forfeiting about $40 to Applebee’s. That’s $103.33.

The veterans caution: Don’t go out and drop $3,000 on fetish gear right away. All you need is a little protection and a good head. Noobs will be lucky to make $30,000 a year, they said. We were currently on track to just barely crack a grand. A lot of BEAs get into the work thanks to family or friends; they’re usually mom-and-pop operations with an established in. The smart ones diversify. They collect a stack of paperwork—licenses for armed security guard, private personal protection, bouncer, certified weapons and defense instructor. They find ways to hustle. And there’s work to be had.

The private-security industry is a $350 billion market, with 2 million full-time workers in the U.S. Private investigators and detectives are among the fastest-growing occupations. All this in spite of the fact that eliminating cash bail has been one of the largest criminal-justice-reform efforts in the past decade. Every year that passes, more and more states and cities across the country are curtailing or eliminating the system that facilitates bondsmen and BEAs. In 2020, California voters will decide whether or not to kill cash bail altogether. One bounty hunter I met told me, apropos of very little, “I’d be surprised if our industry lasted another 10 years.”

Even if cash bail and bounty hunters were completely eliminated, it seems unlikely the larger related concerns would get resolved. Our Spartan nation, built by fugitives and fighters of one degree or another, is perpetually engaged in a “War on”…whatever. So it should come as no surprise that there are plenty of Americans who are able and willing to do the kind of confrontational free-market labor our country was founded on. There’s not a lot of economic security these days. But for those returned from endless oversees military engagements or offered easy acceptance into a similar tribe, there’s private security—a whole industry for which the most marketable skills are cheap, monetized bravery and a soldier’s pose. For many, especially those starting off, bail enforcement is a weekend job. Just another part of the gig economy for the warrior class. Most of the noobs I’ve run across are other young men, as racially and physically diverse as any staged textbook photo. Without the body armor, however, it’s sometimes a little difficult to tell the difference between the indigent skips and the working-class captors.

The rest of that infamous line from Hemingway about how “there is no hunting like the hunting of man,” the one the profession’s sensationalists love so much, reads: “those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.” The thing is, that line was never meant to be a boast. It’s a lament. I never did ask my team members why they got into hunting humans, or if they thought it was worth it. The job certainly hasn’t boosted my dismal basic income. It’s “hard work,” which is usually code for low class. At the very least, like doing food delivery, the barriers to entry aren’t impenetrable. No bounty hunter has ever asked me where I went to college. The job, long mythologized by our culture, provides a cheap, state-sanctioned alternative to the mundanity of being a desk jockey, a grocery-store clerk, a manual laborer, or any other expendable, part-time drone. Plus, an adrenaline rush is a hard perk to refuse a second time. I ran across that phrase a lot while bounty hunting: “adrenaline rush.” It, too, sounds like a lament. Or a plea.

These are not flattering reasons for becoming a bounty hunter, but there they are.

At Applebee’s, I ordered a whiskey on the rocks. So did Que. Dodson had his usual shot of gin, straight up. My body cam had recorded a video of the apprehension. We were very eager to relive the action. It all looked very tactical.

We sat at the bar and debated the best ways to pursue other cases—more Joes, Munis, and Daves in slim manila folders. Que called up a member of his former jilted team and began haggling about an old interoffice dispute. Dodson talked about some of the gear he’d soon be able to purchase. I figured I’d leave the Tidewater area soon, look for other gigs out west. Probably Idaho or Wyoming, where the regulations are few to none. Being a successful independent contractor takes a real entrepreneurial spirit. Go-getters. So I knew I was screwed. But my gut told me Dodson and Que were gonna be just fine. Those bounty hunters work really hard.

This article was researched with support from New York University’s Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award.

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This post originally appeared on GQ and was published July 1, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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