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Bert Potter’s Secret

Illustration by Geoffrey Grahn

THE CEILING FAN SPINS SLOWLY in this bright white office and the clock with roman numerals announces 1:37 on a rainy Friday afternoon with not much happening.

From the palm-lined parking lot in front of his office Bert Potter looks directly across the street at the bright new prison with its creepy slit windows, its air of stony modern-medieval menace. Sometimes when business is slow and the phones aren't ringing, which is often enough, Potter wanders outside and, gazing at his enigmatic neighbor, wonders what is up over there. A couple of times a week there'll be sirens and a swarm of ambulances and later he'll hear reports of another riot, but he really doesn't know. Then he'll see a limo leaving the reception gate down the block, surrounded by other cars that seem to be operating like bodyguards. What is that -- some VIP sleazoid and his pals, or something else? Much that goes on over there is not known, remains in the province of rumor and speculation, though the two young guys in suits like Mormon missionaries he sees working the sidewalk in front of the visitors' center are not mysterious at all. (Mormon missionaries wouldn't wear the $200 Bally shoes, wouldn't have the French cuffs.) Bert Potter knows exactly what these dandies are up to -- smiling, handing out fliers like politicians, like Harold Hill selling trombones in River City -- and Bert Potter doesn't like it. "It's like the Clintons and what they did to the presidency," he says with mild, thoughtful indignation. "You know, some things should remain sacred. Those guys over there are pushing things to the edge . . . and it will come back on the rest of us."

The "us" he refers to are his fellow bail bondsmen, or "bail agents" as many prefer to be called, practitioners of a trade to which the word sacred is not often attached. NO BAIL SOLICITATION ON PREMISES, warn posters on the walls of courthouses and jails, as if bondsmen were some particularly pesky form of panhandler. At 60, after 30 years at the same stand, Bert Potter is something of an elder statesman of the profession, and he doesn't like the idea of some kids (the suits are both in their mid-20s) stirring things up. Even their company name is provocative: BAD BOYS BAIL BONDS, say their cards, and with it their cheerfully empathetic motto, BECAUSE YOUR MOMMA WANTS YOU HOME.

Cuffed, booked and behind bars, and when they've been sooo bad that bail is the only way back outside, most people go directly to the Yellow Pages for help, where "Chickie" offers freedom for sale (call Chickie and she comes to you anywhere, anytime), along with "Aladdin Andy" and "Deep Water" ("Don't go to bed with a price on your head"). And even good old Bert Potter, whose Central Jail Bail Bonds ad is quietly straightforward, anticipating the sort of trouble you might be in (spousal abuse, narcotics, misdemeanors and felonies). Those dapper Bad Boys meanwhile are out there offering information and advice to people who often don't really understand what bail is or how it works. EXERCISE YOUR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT, their flier says on one side, and on the other, No se exigen fianzas en exceso, ni tampoco multas impuestos en exesos. Tampoco un cruel y inusual castigo contra usted (Enmienda III, Constitution de los Estados Unidos America).

And sometimes it actually works, as with the young Cuban lady visiting her brother, already two weeks behind bars on a narcotics beef -- she took the flier home, showed it to her mother, who called the Bad Boys. Out they went to her home in East L.A., judged her of sufficient stability and means, and wrote the $40,000 bond. Like they had said, the son got cut loose because his momma wanted him home.

Bert Potter is not amused.

THE BUG ZAPPER AWAITS A FLY, a bit like the tow-truck guy out in the parking lot poised to jack up his latest victim. The ceiling fan spins slowly in this bright white office and the clock with Roman numerals announces 1:37 on a rainy Friday afternoon with not much happening. When last seen by this reporter two months before, Bert Potter was leaving for Colombia the next day to pick up a bail jumper.

"You want to come?" he had asked his visitor, who did not for a minute believe he was serious, though it is sometimes hard to tell with Potter. "Sure," the visitor said, not giving it another thought. Now the visitor asks, "So how was Colombia?" And Potter says:

"Didn't go."

"And why was that?"

"Suicide," says Potter, who then pauses and adds in his usual careful fashion, ever alert not to say more than he needs to say, "Apparently he'd been dead four days." Another thoughtful pause. "They said he had deteriorated quite a bit."

"Do you believe that . . . suicide . . . really?" Bert Potter is asked.

"I accepted it," he says after yet another pause.

He is at command central, behind his desk in his office, which is within a larger office. There are two windows here so he can keep his eye on things (the glass is mirrored so he can see out but no one can see in), and as he talks he watches the exchange between one of his associates and a small Asian woman. His expression is in its usual poker-face lock-down position, yet there is the slightest flicker in his eyes, a minuscule twitch in the corner of his mouth that suggests some mild degree of amusement when he says "I accepted it." Asked who one would deal with in such a case -- let's be real here, it is Colombia after all -- as vaguely as possible he says something about a lawyer-middleman he knows, and, as a carefully ambiguous afterthought, "Sometimes the army . . . Sometimes the police."

His is a secretive business, Potter suggests, and he is perfectly happy keeping all the really important secrets to himself. Among the certificates and framed pictures of Potter and such luminaries as the late great L.A. County Sheriff Sherman Block on the walls around his desk are two oil paintings, both distinctly amateurish and aged into a kind of muddy antique dimness. One is of some men playing poker, and the other, painted by a long-deceased uncle of Potter's, has two small figures in the foreground -- they are meant to represent a conversation between Potter and Ronald Reagan, for reasons that probably died with the uncle. Hanging above these figures in the painting is a sign that says GIVE A SHOUT AND BERT POTTER WILL GET YOU OUT. The clock now says 1:46, the fan continues its persistent circular journey, and the small Asian woman has gone. Bert Potter waits for the next question, his face an inscrutable mask.

Thirty years in the bail-bond business, sitting like a rock in the middle of the many tidal shifts in L.A. criminality, has settled on the balding stoic Potter a kind of Buddha calm, and with it a not entirely welcomed (by him) belief in the continued prosperity of his trade. It is in fact this spring day a slow time in the bail biz, what with arrests down in general and the vast majority of the arrested let loose on their own recognizance, or "o.r.ing." Still, Bert Potter is not worried. Even the Bad Boys who have recently invaded his territory do not trouble him finally. He has seen too many challengers come and too many go. The thing you have to understand, he says, his hands resting on his desk, fingertips touching, is just how many . . . interests . . . there are in keeping the numbers up. He starts enumerating those interests on his expressive fingers -- from prison guards, to prison-construction contractors, to food suppliers, to individual police forces, on and on, and, of course, bail bondsmen. "What happens, you see, is that they simply start enforcing other laws that they haven't been enforcing." Then something so amusing occurs to Potter that he again very nearly smiles. "Imagine the do-gooder in government calling up the police and saying, 'Well, we see your arrests are down 20 percent, so I guess we'll cut your budget 20 percent.'"

There is that flicker of suppressed merriment in his eyes and he is quiet again. Bert Potter, secure in the belief that the law-enforcement community will take care of its own. The drift toward "o.r.ing," though, is in fact a worry in the profession, and bond-biz lobbyists point out every chance they get that more crimes are committed by criminals on o.r. than by those bonded. ä There is as well, as in most areas of the law, a completely unpredictable, sometimes insanely wide variance in how punishment is meted. Bondsmen love to tell stories of the sort of nuttiness they encounter every day, such as the $150,000 bond not long ago ordered for an 18-year-old who had been convicted of "statutory rape" because of a completely consensual sexual encounter with a 16-year-old, while the same judge had ordered a $50,000 bond for a man accused of forcible rape.

There is a sort of spidery quality to the game, a quiet waiting for the troubled to fall into your web. Then what? You write them a bond, "bond them out," and then -- do they skip, or hang around for charges to be dealt with? The spider is a gambling spider. It is in fact an actuarial business run under supervision of the state insurance commissioner, and it's no secret that there are many card players and committed racetrackers in the trade. "You want to be in the bonds business," says Potter, "go down to the meat market and buy yourself some guts," a line he has used in interviews before. He'll gamble on one of 10 or so who request bonding and take his 10 percent of the bond for his trouble. Of those he writes perhaps 3 percent skip altogether, like the dead man in Colombia, who Potter suggests cryptically might have had something to do with money laundering. In the criminal NASDAQ there is something of a bull market in felony spousal abuse, known in the trade simply as "spousal," which bonds up to a lyrical $50,000 (prompting a lady competitor of Potter's to give credit where credit is due: "Thank you, O.J.," she says reverently), with the added irony that in most cases it is the victim who bails the accused out.

Prime location in the bond biz is naturally next to a jail, and where Potter sits in his flagship office (he has four others) is opposite the Twin Towers Correctional Facility, where behind the gleaming new terra-cotta façade 5,000 souls are currently being corrected. (It is typically those visiting jailed loved ones who park here illegally, attempting to bypass the $6-an-hour jail parking fee across the street, and who get towed, a nice bit of sadism, adding just that extra knife thrust of misery to the already miserable.) Called officially Vignes Place, or more commonly "bail-bond row," with its sickly orange and yellow stucco Tijuana vibe, it is home to several of Potter's competitors hawking their get-out-of-jail cards. Eddie Nardoni is next door, or was -- Eddie himself stays home enjoying the good life in Pacific Palisades while his daughters, Laurie and Lisa, tend the business. (The ladies have so spruced up the place with climbing vines and clown paintings that a location scout for Tarantino's Jackie Brown found the décor insufficiently funky for their neo-noir purposes.) Down a ways is SAL MONTANA -- COLLATERAL NOT ALWAYS REQUIRED, and up the stairs, in the second-story addition, is ANYWAY BAIL BONDS, where one of the bondsmen keeps a talented rottweiler who howls in tune with those frequent siren wails in the neighborhood. Why, then, choose BERT POTTER'S CENTRAL JAIL BAIL BONDS? Potter shrugs. "No reason, it's just what takes your eye."

A few years back Potter's Vignes Place office expanded, taking out a wall and absorbing the space next door, which had belonged to a now-defunct company. Word was that one of the contributing factors in the demise of that firm was a couple of big bonds it had to eat (one for $350,000, another for $200,000). Such losses are obviously to be avoided at all costs, and despite the COLLATERAL NOT ALWAYS NEEDED claims, cars and houses and other tangible property are generally needed to secure the bond, which is a kind of short-term, high-interest loan. A curiously named computerized data bank called Win-U-Data, containing as it does lists of all the real estate property in Los Angeles and the names of its owners, is a major source in deciding which miscreant is good for the bond and which is not. Another major source, prior criminal records, is not officially available to the bondsman except by "good faith" questioning and whatever shows up on the booking report. "We try to work with them," Bert Potter says of his clients.

A merchant taking his cut of "the way things are" in a world he never made, Potter, former president of a California state Senate "bonding and surety" committee, is a believer in the work he does, in the service provided, insisting he'd happily close up shop should human nature make a miraculous U-turn into mass civility and good conduct. But he is not holding his breath. "How many people in greater L.A. -- 9, 10 million? And how many arrest warrants outstanding -- 1 million or so?" he asks, the poker face slipping into near animation. "Okay, some are expired, or should be off the books for one reason or another, but still, 1 million. The police would never be able to track them all down. We do it because of our financial interest." (While others might use outside bounty hunters, his shop, he says, tends to collect the jumpers "in house.")

He remains, for the most part, morally neutral about his clients, remembering the straight-laced bookkeeper who embezzled so her crack-addicted daughter could stay off the streets. "A guy can go along without any trouble his whole life, and then he loses his temper and it all changes in an instant." Drugs and booze, he insists, account for 85 percent of his business. He has pondered this fact for some time. "You see in the paper the cops confiscated 200 pounds of cocaine here, 800 pounds there. Think what's happening to all those brains out there, pouring the stuff into them. We get calls from families -- their son is breaking up the house, they can't help him anymore. The kid can't think, can't focus, he's not a part of society anymore. But the worst thing is the guy who gets in too deep. He's a three-time loser looking at serious time -- 28 to life -- and some poor policeman stops him in what he thinks is a routine traffic stop. But the guy has thought about it, really wants to kill himself, get himself out of his misery, but he hasn't the nerve so he gets the cop to do it for him. We're seeing a lot of that now, you know."

Potter lives up in the hills, above the misery belt. His own family, several of whom are involved in his business, is intact, but down here he sees the cost of big-city anonymity. "In other places someone gets in trouble and the whole family knows about it right away. Here we see people in and out of jail three or four times and nobody knows about it, and if no one knows about it, no one can help."

Outside, the tow-truck man is waiting.

THE BAD BOYS MEANWHILE were preparing their Los Angeles invasion, taking 4,000 square feet of offices in a building across from City Hall on First Street as of March 1. Those young spiffily groomed missionaries that Bert Potter eyeballed at Twin Towers were an advance party testing the L.A. waters. It's actually a San Jose­based company, the creation of an exuberant 37-year-old former bounty hunter ("recovery agent") named C. Jeffrey Stanley, who conquered that market with TV ads featuring his general manager in drag ("Yo momma wants you home") and who is mapping a similar campaign here. "I thought Bert was a friend," he laughs happily upon hearing of the annoyance of his competitor. "Bert's a good guy but old-school, quite conservative. We're here to write the bonds nobody else will bother with, the $500, the $1,000 bonds, and to help people nobody else will help." Like so many bondsmen, Stanley sees himself and his operation as a sort of for-profit civic function. But he likes the battle as well, and if a bail-bond war breaks out in L.A. -- briefcases at the ready -- in Jeff Stanley's opinion the Bad Boys will surely win.

IT COSTS $300 TO TAKE the 12-hour course that prepares you for the state licensing test. Wages are all over the map, according to what you bring to the party in experience or special skills (speaking Spanish is a definite plus). Bondsmen with good contacts are often given a 20 percent cut of bonds they write. At the low end is a $10-an-hour job whose primary qualification can seem the ability to survive 10 hours of television watching. Those regulations against "soliciting" put in place over the years have tended to discourage the sort of in-your-face marketing of the Bad Boys. This leaves most bondsmen at the mercy of walk-ins or the ringing (or for the most part, stubbornly non-ringing) phone over those long purgatorial hours as the night wears on.

Yet not long ago in Potter's Vignes Place office in those late hours the phone did ring, and fortunately the veteran bondsman Alfred Newman was on duty. The call was from the 77th down on Broadway, the new LAPD station house that processes many of the city's female arrestees. The lady calling was a quality lead in her own right, dangling the promise of a $30,000 "assault with deadly weapon" bond. But that was just the beginning, since Newman, who in his long, checkered career has operated several bond companies himself, was alert to ask, "Anyone else need a bond?" And from this came two more prime prospects, a $50,000 "spousal" and another $30,000 "assault." Nice.

The little rush of business was not typical in these dog days of the bond business. (In a recent four-day period Newman got not one potential customer.) The office today is very quiet, the only actual "action" being that ever-vigilant tow-truck operator outside jacking up another car.

"Ninety-five bucks," Newman says, standing at the window. "On the weekends the guy gets maybe 60 or 70 of them. It's their own fault."

Like many veterans of the bonds profession, Newman has the proud paunch of the man whose work requires prolonged sitting around and a certain rumpled casualness in the dress-and-whisker department. Old enough to have fought in Burma during World War II (the first time he got the "Alfred E." Newman ribbing, and don't get him started on that), he ambles about the white-walled office, ignoring the blathering TV, and slips easily into a fragmented monologue that skips in and out of decades past. A key element in the dissertation is the infamy of Newman's "two schmucko brothers" with whom he had several bail-bond companies, a mini-empire with outposts in Temple City, City Terrace and Hollywood -- businesses in his telling that the brothers sold out from under him. The principal "schmucko" was the horseplayer, who at one point owned 10 horses himself.

"Once we're at the track and he loses the first three races, then -- wham -- six winners in a row. And he's handing out 20s and 50s and I can't win a bet, and he's up, what, 20, 25 thousand, something like that. And I'm broke, I'm tapped out." Sheesh.

A lot of the monologue concerns missed opportunities. Most especially, singing the great communal song of Los Angeles, the song of houses that should have been bought, he talks of houses that went for peanuts back then and now are worth . . . zillions. Alfred Newman, free-associating in time, lands on a moment when he and his wife had this great little house on a good street in the Valley, one that they should have held on to but noooo, his wife insisted they move. And why? "She didn't like the people across the street and we had to move. Can you believe it?"

Bert Potter, on the other hand, the man in whose domain Newman finds himself a modestly paid vassal, has done just fine, and Newman has on the tip of his tongue all the properties Potter and his wife (a real estate broker) own. Money, as ever, begetting money. Oh well. The two men go back a ways and Newman is now remembering a $50,000 bond they went in on, each man covering $25,000. So the guy skips and both men are burned, one of Potter's rare bad bets. And sure they had done their homework, used a house the guy owned for collateral, but what do you know: "He had no equity!" Talk about ultimate sins.

The monologue continues, sparing no one, especially himself, ranging from the guys his daughters married and what property they had and what the property was worth and on and on, all of it remarkably free of bitterness, the tone more a puzzled curiosity about why one man accumulates wealth and another doesn't. What, after all, is Bert Potter's secret?

Newman has no answer beyond the fact that the man obviously has the money to back his plays, that he has held his course, kept at it, hasn't disappeared into a bottle or done anything really stupid. Beyond that it's a matter of touch and luck, like at the track -- one guy wins and the other guy doesn't.

"You want to see something?" Newman asks, and his visitor says sure he'd like to see something, and Newman goes over to a knee-high cabinet on the floor near the entrance to Bert Potter's office. Inside are five or six fat blue binders, and Newman lovingly lifts one out like a man displaying precious jewels. "Look," he says, opening the book, "this one goes back to 1993, and look, this one for $50,000 . . ."

They are holds, liens, on property (cars, houses, other valuables) that Potter has on bad debts.

"You mean all of them are still active?"

Newman says they are, since when one is paid off the page is removed from the book.

Five or six fat binders chock-a-block with property, and when Newman puts the book back he does it carefully and with affection.

A quiet night on Vignes Place, the TV chattering up on the wall . . . Everybody waiting, the lights on next door at Eddie Nardoni's, and across the way at Sal Montana's, and upstairs at Anyway Bail.

Everybody waiting.


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