No Weapons Allowed in Classroom.
That line stood out on the application for the Bail Enforcement Academy in Concord, mainly because it was the school's only requirement. Other than that, there was no training prerequisite. No age limit. No psychological profile. Even psychos and ex-felons can be bounty hunters.
Journalists, too. Which is why, some months ago, this one was preparing to spend three glorious days in a bounty-hunting school learning about use of force, weapons, and tracking fugitives at an academy that according to its literature is known for training Navy SEALs, SWAT teams, and federal officers. And all this for a mere $385!
Bounty hunting has a reputation as a shadowy profession, and it often is. Only seven states require bounty hunters to be working for a licensed bail bondsman, and California isn't one of 'em. Around here, all you need are cuffs, a gat, and the desire to haul crooks to justice. Consequently, most of the names that follow have been changed. The last group this reporter wants angry with him, after all, is a civilian mercenary force with ready access to firearms and a penchant for busting down doors.
Our whirlwind education starts promptly at 8:30 a.m. across from a strip mall in a sterile, two-story building that looks like an insurance office. Within, five students are seated in a small conference room. Liberal journalistic bias would have dictated they be huge, long-bearded guys wearing plaid shirts and buck knives on their belts, or at the very least a bunch of elite SWAT types. Turns out the only person larger than this reporter is Kaye, a big-haired woman who works for the eye doctor in the next building. The rest of the motley lineup includes the Chang brothers, proprietors of a Fresno Subway franchise; Jim, a gung-ho recent college grad from a tiny California town; and a skinny Bernard Goetz-looking loner with greasy hair and glasses who works for a Web designer across the hall. For the next three days we will be comrades -- an elite fighting force in the making.
Our instructor Chris Harper (his real name) is an ex-military man, licensed private investigator, and graduate of some police academy or other. He's set like a bodybuilder, head too small for his pumped-up body, and he seems uncomfortable in his white button-down shirt, tie, and dress slacks. Chris starts out by challenging our Hollywood notions about the profession. First of all, he points out, the proper term isn't "bounty hunter," it's "bail enforcement agent."
"All bounty hunters know is going out and arresting people, but that's just part of the job," he explains. "You need to go into the field with forms: The receipt of surrender is your paycheck."
Our professor then offers a history lecture. The outcome of an 1822 court case, Reed v. Case, gives a bail bondsman or his agent the right to bust down a fugitive's door and take the person into custody. That's because the defendant signs a private contract with the bondsman that waives certain civil rights should he fail to show up in court. In bounty hunter lingo, bail jumpers are called "skips." Nowadays, many bondsmen employ in-house bounty hunters or bust the skips on their own. That way they don't have to fork over the standard commission -- 15 percent of the posted bail -- to an outside contractor.
"Do you get paid if you kill him?" Jim asks.
"Yes!" Chris says.
"Don't you have to bring him in alive?"
"You still get paid," the instructor confirms. "I get paid."
The Changs, both adorned in gun paraphernalia shirts, take copious notes.
Chris professes to love what he does: "Eighty percent of what the police do is all administrative paperwork," he boasts. "All I do is one thing: I hunt felons!"
Jim looks as though he's about to burst into applause.
Once you catch 'em, Chris says, you've gotta bring the skip to a judge or detention facility within 48 hours.
I raise my hand: "What do you do with a criminal for 48 hours?"
"If you're transporting him," Chris says, "secure him to the toilet of a hotel room bathroom."
Of course, that would make it tough to use the toilet, but bounty hunters apparently don't worry about that sort of thing.
By our first break, Jim is already sold. "Man, I can't wait to get out there," he gushes. "I'm going to try and find a job next week."
"Me too," I lie.
"Plus when you're at a bar and you tell girls you're a bail enforcement agent ..." he confides, "well, you know!"
We proceed to make small talk about our shared love of guns, heavy metal, and pro wrestling. Bernard Goetz interjects with a story about a co-worker. "She couldn't be a bounty hunter because the first child molester she'd meet, she'd want to beat up. You can still beat them up. Just wait for them to mouth off, then do it!"
Bernard is a know-it-all. He spent six years in the Marines, but says he was kicked out after punching a superior officer for "eyeballing" his girl. "You'd be surprised what you'd find if you did a background check on me," he says.
Returning to the room, Chris pops a tape of Fox's World's Scariest Police Shoot-Outs into the VCR. "This is not a movie," the Fox announcer warns. "Everything you're about to see is real!"
In the video, a police officer is pulling over a truck driven by two white supremacists, the Kehoe brothers. There's a big gun battle and the cop is shot in the chest. Luckily he has a bulletproof vest, but the Kehoes get away.
"That's $60,000 right there!" Chris cries.
New scenario. A man is firing from behind an overturned car. "This is good!" our instructor says, leaning back with his hands behind his head. The shooter is gunned down by several officers. World's Scariest Police Shoot-Outs as mandatory viewing: This could well be a first in the history of education.
Following the video, Chris returns to his lecture without so much as a transition. We talk about ways bounty hunters can make money, apart from making arrests. Bail bondsmen have to forfeit their bond if a prisoner doesn't show up at court, but court blunders such as putting down the wrong address, mailing the notice thirty days after the missed court date, or mailing a check to the wrong address do not cost a bounty hunter money.
"You tell the court, 'Can I have my check now?'" Chris says.
"That's cool," Jim says, clearly excited.
Or maybe not. There's a fine line in this field between legal and criminal, and it's not hard to cross. Some bounty hunters have gone to jail along with their fugitives.
Chris then runs down the list of no-nos: You can't claim to be a cop -- that's a crime. Nabbing the wrong guy or not having your paperwork in order can bring kidnapping charges. If you bust down the wrong door, or enter a place without firsthand knowledge that your mark is present, you can get hit with breaking and entering.
On day two, the big thing is weapons, and this crew is plenty enthusiastic. "I love my gun!" Kaye exclaims. Bernard also loves his gun. He explains how to make a weapon fully automatic by shaving it, and how easy it is to make "Teflon bullets" using plumber's tape. "Liberal California," he says mockingly, shaking his head. "We have the right to have guns. It's in the Constitution!"
I'm starting to hate this. The final day, luckily, is reserved for my favorite topic, restraint devices. Besides the basic handcuffing behind the back, Chris shares many interesting ways to deal with your very own fugitive. The Chang brothers scribble volumes.
Hit up your local hardware store for four feet of chain and a padlock, lock the cuffs to either end, and presto, you've got a belly chain. Run another chain down the back, handcuff the ankles, and voilá, they're in leg shackles. "I have no sympathy for a person who makes me do a thing like that," Chris says.
Duct tape can mummify a felon. A pillowcase over the head prevents him from spitting, while two loops of rope thrown around each leg will "hog-tie" him. "If they want to play hardball, I got a catcher's mitt!" proclaims our tough-guy instructor, sounding much like a leading gubernatorial candidate. "Once the cuffs are on, they don't come off!"
I raise my hand again. "What if they have to go to the bathroom?"
"Then they go to the bathroom," Chris says.
"How does that exactly work?"
Huge laugh from my peers.
Now things are getting fun: Chris is gonna tell us when it's okay to kill someone. As a warm-up, he shows us how to hurt people. Kaye, with her big hairdo, is his practice dummy. The easiest way to take someone down is grabbing the front of the hair and ripping down. "Where the head goes, the body will follow!" Chris says.
Laughter. The Chang brothers scribble.
"Can you bounce her off your knee?" Goetz asks. More laughter.
After demonstrating a few holds that can snap a person's neck, Chris draws a stick figure of a head and chest on the board, illustrating where to shoot to achieve the proper "incapacity zone." Better yet, in a crowded area, shoot upward, aiming for the base of the skull where the spinal cord meets the brain. This is simply too much for a liberal journalist: "Why not just shoot the guy in the kneecaps?" I protest.
"Why, so he can live to meet you?" Bernard scoffs.
The others laugh again. Chris merely looks impatient. They think I'm a wuss. "There's no shoot to wound, or in the kneecaps," he admonishes. "You shoot to kill! If you surprise a fugitive, dressed from head to toe in black, shine a gun light on them, and shout 'GET ON THE GROUND!'' They'll think they've just entered hell!"
At the end of the day, we take a 42-question certification test on what we've learned. The Changs get the highest scores. I get the lowest. We all nonetheless receive "official" bounty hunter diplomas. Wrongdoers beware.
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