Too Hott Custom Body Shop, a short metal building with four automotive bays that break the corrugated surface like missing teeth, stands at the edge of a cracked parking lot, down a slanted alley, past a fetid dumpster, around the corner from a half-stocked convenience store.
It rises from a wide plain situated about halfway down the leeward length of one of Winston-Salem’s fabled rolling hills. It feels like late spring, and even as the evening shadows begin to bury the compound and the cars crouched at its perimeter, a warm breeze blows.
Dwayne Little parks his black pickup in the center of the fading light, between the stereo installation station and the custom paint shop. He’s carrying two bags from Chik-fil-A and three cups secured in the crook of one massive arm. The victuals ferried therein will furnish Little and his body shop colleagues Marlin Wilkins and Scott Walker with the energy to close the shop for the day and embark on the night’s professional pursuit: bail enforcement.
Wilkins, Little’s cousin and predecessor at Freedom Bail Bonds, sheds his red work shirt and sits down to eat. Little opens his cell phone and dials.
“May I speak to Linda?” he asks. “Yeah, you know who this is because you don’t sound happy.”
Tonight’s quarry is JeSean Jones who missed a hearing on Dec. 4, 2006 on charges of driving while intoxicated and driving with a revoked license. Little and Wilkins consult a clean manila file folder. In it is Jones’ application, or, more accurately, the application filed by his unlucky indemnitor – peeved Linda on the other end of the line.
When Little bonded Jones out of jail last year, he required the indemnitor to front 15 percent of the $3,000 bond, provide three references and give valid addresses for herself, Jones and his family.
“We ask for everything but their blood type,” Little says.
In return, Freedom Bonds put up the rest of the $3,000, an amount conditioned on Jones’ presence in a Winston-Salem courtroom on the appointed date. When Jones reneged on his end of the bargain, Little and Wilkins faced a predicament: They could either get their money back from the indemnitor or get Jones back into custody. In the event that neither of those happened, Freedom Bail Bonds, this family company run by two former college athletes, would be out some three grand.
Little and Wilkins have no intention of letting that happen. And something about Linda’s story doesn’t check out.
“We gotta go by her house because it sounds like she’s protecting him,” Little says.
Little, 26, got into the bonding business by way of Wilkins, who is 10 years his senior, after he spent a year as a graduate assistant coach at NC A&T University. It was the year the team won the MEAC conference championship (Little wears the chunky MEAC ring on his right hand) and posted a double-digit win total for only the second time in its 80-year history. Despite the excitement, Little found the lifestyle insufficient.
“I wanted more fast,” Little says. “Things then were moving kind of slow.”
The bondsman, a former linebacker for the Hampton University Pirates, was staying in a basement dorm room when his cousin offered him the opportunity to join the bonding business.
The two have parlayed this foray into the insurance business into a modest entrepreneurial empire. Besides the custom shop and the bail bonding, Little has an interest in a local nightspot and Walker, who runs his own bail bonding company, does cosmetology.
Wilkins, Walker and Little co-own the custom shop. Each owns a handful of cars in various states of disrepair. Wilkins has a Catalina, stripped down to the primer, that he’s outfitting with a complicated set of hydraulics. A Toyota Maxima painted iridescent gold sports brand-new custom rims. The walls of the small office, appointed with three chairs, an end table and a high counter, display dozens of posters of rims.
Little still has the physical presence of a Division I defensive starter, but he also has a warm smile and dimples Shirley Temple would envy.
A three-sport athlete at Carver High School, Little grew up in Winston-Salem and gives back to his community on a regular basis through his involvement in Pop Warner football.
Wilkins, a family man with a wife and two children, played baseball at A&T. The former first and third baseman coaches Pony League teams in his spare time.
None of the agents appear at first glance to fit the mold of the bail enforcement agent. The mythology of the bondsman, a modern day descendent of the bounty hunter, as a thrill-seeking renegade is a persistent one stoked by mass media depictions in anything from Westerns to reality television. Little is quick to point out that he and his cousin are not like “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” of A&E and kidnapping fame.
“Bail bondsmen have such a bad rap,” Wilkins says. “But we’re just everyday people. Most of us are just entrepreneurs.”
Little lowers the gate on the black truck nicknamed “the urban assault vehicle.”
“The old door opener,” he says and slides from its holster a metal sledgehammer.
He’s laid out two Kevlar vests fitted with dozens of pockets and straps. After he pokes his meaty arms through the jacket, Little accessorizes with pepper spray, a .45 and, most importantly, his cell phone.
He pulls on a black hat, the final piece of an all-noir ensemble.
“You know how Picasso had his blue period?” he asks. “Well, I have my black period.”
Little and Wilkins keep a beefed-up Taser in the truck’s cab; the weapon resembles a nightstick augmented with plastic panels running along its length.
“The worst thing about pickups are the dogs,” Little says.
Most dogs retreat when Little fires up the Taser, he says. “They don’t like the popping sound.”
Little has tricked his truck for bail enforcement. He installed subwoofers and a 1,500-watt amplifier – the better to pump up before pickups – a television and a PS2, diversions that help pass the time during long stakeouts.
At half past seven Little and Wilkins climb into the truck. Wilkins, a solid man with a neat goatee and wire-rim glasses, rides shotgun, the subject file open on his lap. The driver guns the ignition and takes the truck around the corner to a BP gas station. Little glances at the clerk inside the convenience store and looks down at the arsenal strapped to his torso.
“Oh man,” he says. “I’ll scare the crap out of him.”
Wilkins leans over and releases one of the Velcro straps while Little struggles with the other. The younger partner slips out of his vest, and the truck, to pump gas unarmed.
“I used to change his diaper,” Wilkins says.
Once both men are back in the cab, and the truck once again on the road, the men start to parse the available information.
“There are two things wrong with what [Linda] said,” Little says. “She said he called her from a private number.”
“Why would he call her from a blocked number?” Wilkins asks. “She’s his girlfriend.”
“Then she said she talked to the lawyer and he ain’t got to it yet,” Little says.
“Why would she call the lawyer when she’s just the girlfriend?” Wilkins says.
Little turns on the comedy station and steers his vehicle south toward Clemmonsville Road.
The indemnitor submitted a valid address, but neglected to include the cardinal direction on Clemmonsville. So, the hunters first head in the wrong direction for a few blocks before they realize their mistake and turn around in an asphalt trail pointed towards a budding development.
Now driving in the right direction, the men switch the station to hip hop. Little boosts the bass. Plain houses on average-sized lots dot the side of the road. It’s a warm night, so neighbors gather on porches and stroll a sidewalk placed perilously close to traffic.
The road runs into another, larger one and Little loses track of the addresses again. He pulls into a lot behind a neighborhood baseball diamond lit up for a night game. The truck sends up clouds of gray dust as it reverses back out onto the street for another go at tracking Linda down.
Two minutes later, Little parks the truck in front of a two-story house, a white one of simple geometry, without awnings, porches or shutters. A crippled Pontiac rests in the rear driveway.
Wilkins moves between the car and the back of the house, flashlight illuminating the dirt, while Little makes for the front door. He knocks loudly.
“Bondsman,” he says.
The two men disappear into the house for several minutes. After a few minutes an upstairs light turns on, and then another one.
Bondsman have the authority to search a house without a warrant for a suspect for whom they are responsible. Broken doors, when they result in capture, are not the bondsman’s liability.
Getting bonded in North Carolina requires hours of training and a criminal background check. Most employers run a credit check on top of that, Wilkins says.
The right to carry sidearms isn’t automatic when bond is granted; Little and Wilkins applied for concealed carry permits the same as any other citizen.
The two men return to the truck empty handed.
“So, he wasn’t there,” Little says. “We got some good information, though.”
“So, his grandma makes baskets, right?” Wilkins says. “Why was there a roomful of baskets if she hadn’t seen him in two months?”
“Nobody cleaned that back bathroom either,” Little says. “That looked like a man’s job. He got clothes all up in there.”
“In the bonding business this is called ‘shaking the bushes,'” Wilkins says.
Before he goes hunting for fugitives, Wilkins calls the suspect’s family, friends and associates to get information. Bail bonding is a referral-based business, so he often starts with the client who initially vouched for the bail-jumper. Cell phone in hand, the bondsman starts dialing as Little takes the truck toward Cleveland Homes, one of Winston-Salem’s public housing projects.
“We’re looking for JeSean,” Wilkins says. “We heard he lives over in Cleveland. He used to hang with a dude named Polo, also used to hang out with a dude named Cat who got killed.”
The residents of Cleveland Homes have spilled out of their houses, on account of the balm, and Little is scanning faces for a match.
The truck creeps past another black pickup, a battered one with a camper top, that’s attracted a crowd. Inside the truck bed are dozens of caramel-dipped apples arrayed like edible hand bells.
“These places are well organized,” Little says. “It’s hard to get in and out without somebody knowing.”
Jones isn’t there, so the truck pulls out of the circle, turns a couple of blocks and enters another public housing project, Piedmont Park.
The Piedmont apartments are set in concentric rings, and as the vehicle moves toward the center the fancy truck draws stares. A young man in a white shirt approaches Wilkins and says “hello.” Then he shakes his head, mumbles something and walks away.
“If nobody was around that guy would have talked a lot more,” Little says.
After a fruitless tour of the block Wilkins takes up his cell phone and punches in Jones’ phone number. It’s been disconnected for the past two months, but the bondsman, running out of options, gives it a shot.
It rings and Jones picks up. After a brief and not entirely discourteous introduction, Wilkins gets down to the business at hand.
“Listen, this offer is only good for the next 30 minutes,” he says. “Meet me at the jail tonight with five hundred dollars and I’ll bond you right back out again. … How long will it take you to come up with five hundred dollars? … Can you get your mom to come down here? … Believe me, I understand that, that’s why I’m calling you tonight. If I’m going to trust you, you need to trust me. I need to know where you’re laying your head, and all your phone numbers and stuff. … Listen, that gives you two days. Friday. That changes the whole ball game. Can you meet me at twelve o’clock? … I can even extend it to four o’clock. … Friday at five-thirty, is that better? Now you see how flexible I’ve been.”
He hands it to Little to finish the deal, and his partner, satisfied, ends the call.
“How long are we gonna wait to hear from him until we go to his mama’s house?” Wilkins asks.
The next morning Wilkins sits in the front section of a small courtroom dressed in a cream-colored shirt, slacks and a tie. His business shoes, tapered to a square toe, have light topstitching that matches the color of his massive upper body.
Wilkins and a female bond agent from another county sit in front of smoked glass, awaiting the arrival of Judge Denise Hartsfield, who usually oversees hearing bond forfeiture cases.
“This is the part of the business nobody ever sees,” Wilkins says.
The money paid by bond agents unable to locate clients who have fled goes to the school board. And the school board attorney in Forsyth County works very hard to round up every dollar, Wilkins says.
Every so often a paperwork fiasco or another event, like a suspect’s death, happens that allows the bondsman to challenge the forfeiture. That’s what Wilkins is doing today, trying to prevent his company from having to pay the entire $10,000 bond for a suspect whose lawyer put the wrong date on a recall order.
A clerk tells the two bond agents to move to another courtroom. The judge arrives in short order, sans robes, from a morning speech to honor students at Carver High School. Wilkins’ case is the first one called.
The school board attorney admits that the paperwork was flubbed, and tells the judge that the law likely did not intend for Wilkins to have to pay the bond. In that situation a bench warrant would have been issued for a suspect who had already taken care of his legal situation.
After a short presentation by Wilkins, Hartsfield grants his order, thus releasing him from the obligation to pay $10,000.
The judge denies the next motion, but not without first conceding the bond agents’ relative disadvantage in the criminal justice system.
“This is a hard and complicated paperwork part of the law,” she says before ruling.
Wilkins makes it his business to know the finer points of the law, because he knows that otherwise his adversary, with three years of professional education, would overmatch him.
“You see how it is,” he says. “Here you have a judge who just came from speaking to kids, and the money goes back to kids.”
He said he doesn’t think the game is necessarily rigged.
“But it’s an uphill battle,” Wilkins says.
The bondsmen did not have to go to Jones’ mother’s house last night after all. She called them back and they worked out an agreement to meet at the courthouse with $500.
“It’s just like I like it,” Wilkins said. “It’s more money for the business, and it’s not like I have to go out and get another client. I get my same client.”
Regardless of what you might see on television, charm and diplomacy serve the bail bondsman best. Wilkins and Little favor the outcome in which no one even knows they got involved.
Wilkins, who has been bonding for five years, has never pulled a gun and only been involved in three physical altercations. He says he and his colleagues are not above engaging in the odd “tactical retreat”, i.e. running away.
“You can’t go in gung-ho,” Little says. “The best thing is just to talk to people. I sweet-talked this one girl, almost took her out to dinner.”
Nonetheless, Wilkins and Little treat every pickup like it might turn dangerous. You never know the whole story, Wilkins says, you might not know whether they skipped court by mistake or out of desperation. Desperation makes people dangerous.
Bondsmen get to choose their clientele, and these two in particular avoid risky investments. They look for a client who will be in court on the appointed day. Hunting, for this pair, is strictly a loss reduction strategy, not a pastime. They transact most of their business at the courthouse, filling out paperwork and explaining the system to their charges.
The hunts themselves rarely turn violent, Wilkins says, because that isn’t part of the game.
“That’s the game,” he says. “The game is just to find them.”
He knows that his client’s freedom is at stake, but Wilkins nonetheless takes a fatalistic view.
“You can’t run away from it forever,” he says. “Eventually you’re gonna get caught. If it were me, I think I’d rather get it over with.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.