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He’s a Bounty Hunter

Art by Gustavo Vargas

You know the bounty hunter. He’s the tough, macho dude armed with enough firepower to subdue a regiment as he busts down doors and snares degenerates in service of the mighty hand of justice. He’s the last hard-ass cowboy, a Wild West throwback, a living, breathing, noncelluloid Clint Eastwood, but maybe a little reckless, a little crazy. Maybe even a little bloodthirsty.

Well, not our man Joshua, a short, intense-looking fellow with a slightly receding hairline, glasses, and neatly cuffed biker’s jeans and leather. Though Joshua wouldn’t pass muster with Central Casting, he’s nobody’s fool, which is why he’s more invested in the stock market than in shootouts.

On this recent evening, Joshua and his three-man crew are staking out one of those little end of the cul-de-sac shit shacks on the outskirts of San Bernardino. His quarry — Joanne — skipped her court date only two weeks earlier, so her trail isn’t that cold. Ordinarily, that’s too soon to call in Josh; a private investigator or the police would be cheaper. But with 10 prior arrests ranging from drugs to shoplifting to DUI, Joanne has a history of total instability, so there’s no point fooling around. Her stepfather had put up his house as collateral for bail, about 20 grand’s worth. Rather than lose it, he was happy to pay Joshua’s fee.

Two days of intense investigatory work — and the process of elimination — have led Josh to this flat, owned by Joanne’s mother. It makes sense that Joanne, an indigent druggie, would prefer the refuge of home sweet home. Joanne can’t hang out with her lover/old man; he is in Chino detention. So that brings her here, where Joanne’s own neglected young daughter is in residence with her grandmother.

Josh regards fugitives’ families as the "Achilles’ heel" of his prey; either the fugitive can’t stay away, for reasons of sentiment or desperation, or doesn’t have the wit to. But busting in with a child present worries Josh, so he and his boys opt for a different risk. They wait until nightfall, knowing that Joanne will trudge faithfully to a pipe-friendly locale. In anticipation, Josh slips a small tracking device under Joanne’s car. The device, a mere toy by Lo-Jack standards, transmits only a quarter-mile, so the bounty hunter has to stick close by.

He considers grabbing her from her car, but Josh is not sure who’s with her and how well they might be armed, so he waits instead for his ace in the hole to arrive: backup in the form of officers provided by the local police. He doesn’t always have this luxury, but he’s not going to squander this sort of assistance by playing hero.

Joanne’s apparent destination is barely a half-mile away, a drug house that Josh had been tipped off to by a confidential informer just out of Twin Towers. Damn drug houses, thinks Joshua to himself: 6-foot fence, pit bulls prowling the perimeter, the paranoia of the residents. This could be a mess and a half.

If you catch Josh in his office, he’s the first to admit the gray area between the law and what he does. After all, he isn’t a cop or a fed, and picking people up or moving them against their will is basically kidnapping. And certainly, there are no codified rules for what he does; the law is mostly silent. He operates on the basis of an 1873 Supreme Court ruling, Taintor vs. Taylor, which states, "When bail is given is regarded as delivered to the custody of his sureties. They may seize him and deliver him up and if that cannot be done at once, they may imprison him until it can be done." In other, less-cumbersome words, a bail jumper is basically property. Of course, the fugitive also is human, which raises legal and ethical issues, and the fugitive can be dangerous, which raises some practical concerns.

Getting into Joanne’s amphetamine palace could take some doing, but by now four real San Bernardino Police officers have arrived — even though they’re mainly bystanders. Coolly, Josh hops the fence, then moves slowly past the tied-up canines before knocking hard on the door. Nothing. Peering into the window, he sees the place is empty. Part of him is almost relieved, but then, he’s still got a living to make. Joshua knows that Joanne’s car is parked nearby, so she can’t be far away. His senses settle on a house down the street, where he hears loud music and sees lots of parked cars. That’s got to be it.

He scurries that way, then knocks on the door with his right hand, while signaling his crew with his left to get over in a hurry.

Joshua is alone at the front door, and his gut tightens instinctively. As the drug scene has gotten intense and prison sentences longer, so has the possibility of gunplay. Josh has his own piece, and he’s ready for the throwdown as the door opens — and reveals a scraggly-haired, burned-out-looking dude of about 35, who stares at the diminutive bounty hunter with Formica-coated eyeballs that haven’t seen the land of Nod in 48 hours.

"Yeah?" he says laconically. "What do you want, man?"

Josh points to the cops behind him: "We’re looking for a fugitive here," he explains, stating Joanne’s full name. Before Tweaky Joe can answer, Josh adds, "Harboring a fugitive is a felony, sir. We’d like to take a look around, if you don’t mind." (After 11 years of doing this, Josh chooses words carefully to skate around his lack of a search warrant, and the fact that he’s not a cop.)

"Uh, man, you can look, but there ain’t no one like that here, man," says the tweaker, rubbing his nose and desperately trying to keep cool.

Josh knows she’s here. The police and crew descend, opening every door until they hear a "Go away!" from the bathroom. When they bust in, there she is — hunched atop the toilet seat, eyes popping out of her skull, arms flailing wildly. Joanne puts up surprisingly little resistance and is led away into Josh’s van. By the standards of the trade, this was an easy one. It’s time for brandies and cigars all around.

"We’re crazy motherfuckers, no doubt about it," says Josh, speaking in his San Fernando Valley office. "But the only way to do this job successfully is to follow a simple mantra: The pace of the chase is better than the thrill of the kill."

And successful he is — his fee is usually 10 percent of the bail bond plus expenses. In Joanne’s case, one day’s work and $2,000 cash from Joanne’s stepfather. His yearly take is well into six figures, more than enough to enhance his investment portfolio and care obsessively for his collection of Harleys.

"That Old West/dumb-cowboy gunslinger thing is a load of crap in a lot of ways," he says. "If you haven’t got any brains, all of the swagger in the world won’t help you. And the way we’re portrayed in the press, as killers and crazies, comes from guys who weren’t even real bounty hunters in the first place." Joshua is referring to the notorious Michael Sanders, a Phoenix-based informer and convicted felon who claimed to be bounty hunting when he burst into an Arizona home and gunned down two people in 1997.

Last night’s San Berdoo stakeout has left this native of Israel beat and bleary-eyed. "I came over here to go to college and maybe open a business, but after getting my private investigator’s license, I moved into bounty hunting. In the blood, I suppose." His father, you see, was an agent in Mossad, which is Israel’s CIA, only more so.

Josh has reeled in white-collar criminals from as far away as Israel (where family connections help) and once even dragged a CEO right out of a board meeting. "It was Indianapolis or Minneapolis, I don’t remember exactly," he says. "They’re sitting in a circle in the boardroom having a nice morning meeting, when I came in, announced myself and hauled this guy away." It was a failure to appear in court on a fraud case. "This three-piece guy is sputtering with rage, you know, ‘I’ll sue!’ and ‘You can’t do this!’ I get him out the door and he’s suddenly stone silent. He knew he was in the wrong — he just had to make a show of it."

Relaxing in his seat, Josh lights up a stogy, blows a ring and grins. At any given time, there are 122,000 fugitives all over the world, he says. And with the Star Wars–style technology coming in the next five years or so (which will make his vehicle trackers and bugs obsolete), there’ll be no escaping the bounty hunters: "Not this one, anyway!"

Still, Joshua cannot legally ply his trade in Illinois, Florida, parts of Texas, and Oregon, which he calls "fugitive heaven." "Oregon is the worst, especially the eastern part of the state," he says. "Mountains, militias, and the cops aren’t motivated to help you at all. I hate that place."

Even with the law on his side elsewhere, he’s been busted twice by local cops he hadn’t tipped off, once on a weapons violation that he quickly cleared. Josh is always armed: "It’s gotten insane out there. I’ve been shot at a bunch of times." The worst incident involved a fugitive driving a stolen car. "Wanted for trafficking, ADW, parole violator, GTA, a total loser. He starts shooting at us, a quarter of a mile into the chase. We returned fire and wounded him. I hated to do it. It’s basically a police matter when it escalates to that.

"Drug houses are the pits, the worst," he adds. "Went into this house in North Hollywood once, the floor covered in maggots, like a carpet." Children were there too, in such bad shape that "the local narcs were practically in tears."

Yep, notes Josh, say what you want about him, but he’s better than the people he collars. "Bail jumpers are immoral family wreckers."