On the trail of a bail jumper

2005-12-31T23:00:00Z On the trail of a bail jumper The Billings Gazette
December 31, 2005 11:00 pm

Associated Press

GREAT FALLS - It's no stretch to say that Paul Jara hunts human beings. He's a bail bondsman by trade, which means he'll front your bail for a fee.

But if you don't show for your court date, he's hot on your trail.

"Human beings are easier to hunt than deer," said Jack Sanders, another bail bondsman and bounty hunter in Great Falls.

"They're dumb," Sanders said. "They're creatures of habit. A lot of times they're on meth, and their friends will turn them in for 50 bucks."

Last summer, Jara persuaded one client's mom to hand over her fugitive son's address in Wyoming by fabricating a story about a mix-up with the courts.

Then Jara, a former longtime deputy sheriff, drove to the hideout in Jackson and surprised the guy just as he was heading into town for the Fourth of July festivities.

Brains, not brawn

"Part of our success in capturing these fugitives is the trickery and surprise that we use," said Scott Olson, a bounty hunter and director of the National Institute of Bail Enforcement, a national bounty hunter training program.

The main goal of bounty hunting, in fact, is to outsmart the fugitive. Brute force is almost never used.

About 4,000 professional bounty hunters - sometimes called "bail enforcement specialists" - work in the United States today, Olson said. Many of them are women. Most don't carry guns.

And contrary to what viewers have seen on A&E's series "Dog the Bounty Hunter," most don't dress like professional wrestlers or antagonize fugitives for the sake of TV ratings.

Montana has its share of bounty hunters, though the number is hard to gauge. All four bail bond agencies in Great Falls do their own fugitive hunting.

"Freelance" bounty hunters work on commission, earning on average about 10 percent of the bond amount.

Olson calls them "adrenadollars" and said most bounty hunters thrive on the chase.

"What attracts a lot of people into our business is hunting down another human being," he said. "Once you track down another human being who can track you back, either you love it or you leave it."

Varied backgrounds

Olson said 600 to 800 people graduate from his program each year. They come from lots of backgrounds.

"We've got bankers, business people, mechanics and housewives," Olson said.

Bounty hunters start each pursuit by doing their homework.

They first dig out the paperwork completed by their clients when they bonded out of jail.

It's packed with handy tidbits like mug shots, aliases, phone numbers of relatives and friends, vehicle descriptions and other personal facts.

"They want out (of jail) so bad that they give me all good information," Sanders said.

The next step is making calls and persuading a friend or relative to spill the beans on where the fugitive is staying.

You might be surprised how many family members and friends are willing to part with an address or other key facts about a fugitive for a few bucks.

Fifty dollars is usually all it takes, Jara said.

In fact, family members often are the first ones to offer information, since they frequently put up the cash for the bonds. Or the bond company might even have a lein against their home or property.

If all that doesn't work, Great Falls bounty hunter Red Jorgenson buys a newspaper ad with a picture of the fugitive and the word REWARD in big, bold letters.

Thrill of the case

Once the bounty hunter knows where the fugitive is hiding, things can get thrilling.

An 1872 U.S. Supreme Court ruling says bounty hunters may pursue fugitives "to another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath, and, if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose."

Accused criminals give up many rights when they go to jail. They don't get them back just because they make bond.

"We're an extension of the courts, so they're under our control," Jara said. "Which allows us to pursue them where we believe they may be at."

Bounty hunters even have more latitude than police, who are still limited in their pursuit by warrants and probable cause requirements.

Old-fashioned stakeouts

A key tool in the fugitive recovery business is surveillance. Old-fashioned stakeouts are common.

"A lot of times it's drinking cold coffee in a bad neighborhood waiting for someone to show up," Olson said.

It's critical to understand the fugitive's environment so the fugitive is the only one getting a surprise when the bust goes down, Jara said.

It's also important to bring backup. Bounty hunters almost always work in teams.

They frequently call on local law enforcement to make sure the confrontation doesn't get out of hand.

The Great Falls Police Department is happy to provide a "civil standby," said Sgt. Shane Sorensen.

"We're there to keep the peace and make sure nobody gets hurt," Sorensen said.

Impersonation used

Bounty hunters also are good at notifying landlords or property owners before they break down doors or smash windows, Jorgenson said.

Jorgenson prefers to make the arrest when the fugitive is alone, which reduces the risk that they'll do something stupid to save face in front of friends.

He also likes to swoop in early in the morning. Most criminals are lazy, undisciplined and tend to sleep in, Jorgenson said.

Impersonation is another important tool. Olson likes to dress like a FedEx delivery man. He cuffs the fugitives when they reach out to sign for their phony package.

"There's times they don't even know what hit them," Olson said.

Most arrests are anticlimactic. Many fugitives don't even struggle. Those who have been on the run for a while often are just relieved the chase is finally over, Jorgenson said.

Jara said he occasionally catches a fugitive who doesn't want to go quietly, but usually they submit after a little wrestling.

Most bounty hunters don't carry lethal weapons. Even most big-city pros use no more than pepper spray and a baton, Olson said.

"In the 10 years I've been doing it, I've packed a gun maybe twice, and pulled it once," Sanders said.

Earlier this month, a judge in Pittsburgh convicted a bounty hunter of involuntary manslaughter for fatally shooting an unarmed fugitive last year.

The lack of guns doesn't mean an absence of danger.

Olson was the target of a drive-by shooting last year during pursuit of a big-time drug dealer.

"They will turn the tables if they know someone is after them," Olson said.

In most cases, bounty hunters usually are trailing low-level criminals. Judges try to keep them in jail until their court date.

Bounty hunters' work isn't done when they make the bust. They must also safely return the client to the court system, sometimes over long distances. The transport can be dicey.

One of Sanders' jobs turned bad when the fugitive jumped from Sanders' moving van near Bonner.

Sanders was bringing the young man back from Seattle on charges connected to a possible homicide.

The impact of the fall punctured the man's lung, and he bled to death on the roadside.

"If I'd have known he was going to do that, hell, I'd have let him go," Sanders said. "But he was in a lot of trouble, and he had to give it a whirl."

Bounty hunters work on a deadline. In Montana, they have 90 days after the broken court date to retrieve their former clients. After that, they're on the hook for the price of the bond.

The cost can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. A few lost clients can force a bail bonding company to declare bankruptcy.

For men like Jara, Jorgenson and Sanders, good bounty hunting is just good business.

Copyright © 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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