By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Ronnie Sheridan, a 37-year-old mechanic from Magnolia, needed a laugh on March 3.
On the one hand, he was in line with a bunch of other folks who were finally being freed on bond after their arrests in Montgomery County. On the other hand, getting arrested yet again -- this time, for driving with a suspended license -- and spending the night in jail is, as always, a bitch.
So Sheridan was glad to get at least a slight giggle out of the release process. The arrestee in front of him, checking out with the jailer, commented, "Hey, that was pretty quick."
The jailer told him, "Yeah, it's a good thing you didn't get bonded out by that big-titty blond bitch."
As laughs go it wasn't much, but Sheridan relayed the story when he met up with Dustin Rutherford, the bail bondsman who had handled his case. Rutherford wasn't so amused. "Are you serious? Do you know who they're talking about?" he said.
"That's my mom."
Rutherford was right, as anyone who works around the Montgomery County Jail would have known. Any jailer referring to a "big-titty blond bitch" could only be talking about Debra Foster, owner of A-Discount E-Z Bonding Company of Conroe.
The description has some flaws -- Foster doesn't sport a double-D rack; just how much of a blond the 50-year-old soon-to-be-grandma still may be is a hair-care secret; and whether she's a "bitch" depends very much on who you ask in the insular world of the Montgomery County criminal justice system.
She's certainly hard to miss in the lobby of the jail -- with tight, bright dresses hemmed well above the knee, with a helmet hairdo that rises several inches above her five-foot-three frame, with mile-a-minute patter delivered in a sharp twang, she's an outgoing, take-no-prisoners, Piney Woods morphing of Ann Richards and Dolly Parton (without the double-D rack).
Throw in her penchant for zooming around on her Harley, her years as a barrel racer on the rodeo circuit, the earthy humor that comes through years of working sales in the macho world of Gulf Coast oil fields, and you've got someone who's inherently unable to enter a room without making an impression.
And then there's the lawsuit.
Foster believes that the sheriff's department and other jail employees are messing with her business. Maybe it's because Sheriff Guy Williams has long feuded with her brother Travis Bishop, a constable in Montgomery County. Maybe it's because she beat out a competitor who's friendly with Williams when it came to buying the absolute best piece of land in the county for a bail bond business. Maybe it's just because she's so successful.
Whatever the reason, she says, Williams and the county have gone to great lengths to hinder her. Bail bond companies in Conroe depend heavily on phone calls from prospective clients in the jail -- and Foster says the county has blocked calls to her business. Arrestees usually start calling the first company on a cell-block list and work their way down until they get a bond. Foster says the county tampered with the list so that her company was never rotated to the top.
Whatever company gets to the jailhouse first with a properly filled-out bond is supposed to get the job. Foster says her bonds were rejected for the most minute of reasons -- abbreviating instead of spelling out the name of the court, for instance -- which allowed other companies to slip in ahead of her. Their bonds were accepted even with glaring omissions, she says, which county employees helpfully filled in for her competitors, which is against the rules.
Jailers openly told inmates to use companies other than hers, she says; the county bail bond board also put her out of business for two months, refusing to renew her license because of a ten-year-old, $34 hot-check charge that had been settled long ago.
The actions may seem petty, but they add up in this big-time industry. Depending on the time of year, Montgomery County may generate $2 million to $3 million worth of bonds a month. Although there's no set fee, most people use 10 percent as a rule of thumb for how much income a bond company gets -- meaning there may be up to $300,000 a month in revenue to be generated.
Lawyers for the county and for Williams scoff at Foster's allegations. "She is paranoid. This is a vengeful action," says Jay Aldis, Williams's attorney. "This is paranoid vengeance."
But her claims aren't unusual, some Montgomery County bail bond people say; bond companies have come and gone in Conroe complaining about similar treatment.
Those companies don't have what Foster does: a rich, generous mother. Gladys Bishop runs a trucking company and runs it well, and she's given her daughter $500,000 to pursue her claims by hiring such high-profile Houston attorneys as Joel Androphy, former State Bar president Lynne Liberato and enough clerks to do the grunt work of examining by hand thousands and thousands of bonds in Conroe.
About $25,000 of that money went to a computer-forensics expert who examined the computers controlling the jail's phone system. He was looking for evidence that calls had been blocked.