By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jeff Balke
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.
He found instead that on January 19, just five days after a federal magistrate ordered the computers to be turned over, a sophisticated file-deleting system called Shredder had been used on the machines.
At a temporary-injunction hearing April 14, U.S. District Judge David Hittner didn't look too happy when he heard that bit of news. Defense attorneys were not as surprised as the judge, of course; neither was Sheriff Williams, in the audience. They certainly looked as if they wanted to change the subject, though, and quickly.
But they couldn't. As much as they'd like it to happen, Debra Foster -- the painted pit bull who feels like she's been done wrong -- was not about to shrink away. Foster is thoroughly rooted in the pine curtain of eastern Montgomery County. "East County," as they call it, is home to small towns and rural enclaves split by U.S. Highway 59, a thoroughfare that's gained as much fame in the past for speed traps and loosely supervised policing as it has for the drugs that run up and down it from deep-woods meth labs.
When she was 12, the family moved from Houston to a farm in Splendora, between Cleveland and what is now Kingwood. She rode horses, played high school basketball and worked -- both her father and mother insisted on that.
"They will work, all my kids, you can say that about them," says Gladys Bishop. "They're go-getters. They got it from both of us."
Foster says she's just always taken life full on. Recently she filled out an evaluation to become a private investigator. "It said, 'You have to be motivated, a self-starter, self-confident and not afraid to meet people,' and I went, 'Check, check, check, check'; that's me," she says. "You've got to be self-motivated, I know that."
She married right out of high school and had two kids. Thirteen years later she divorced and went to work for her mother, who with two partners had started Quality Trucking in Houston, which delivered supplies to oil companies.
Gladys Bishop had started the company as she too was divorcing in 1977. She runs it alone now, at the age of 73, living in a building shared by the company's office. "It's been a tough old road," she says. "You know how the oil field is: up and down, up and down, up and down. It's all about the management of it -- you have to do what you say you are going to do and build a reputation It's a man's world out there, for sure. I don't back down -- these guys try to put something over on me every now and then, but I've been here a long time."
Foster went into sales, both for Quality Trucking and later, brokering her own pipe-selling deals -- making pitches in the whiskey-sodden arena of courting petroleum clients. "You just gotta be aggressive, and when I went to work in the oil field I just went out and started cold-calling on people, and some of the bigger trucking companies started rumors about that new young lady out there knocking on doors," she says. "Later we all got to be friends."
She was on her own for six or so years making oil equipment sales. Then "the oil industry was going down, down, down, so I wanted to do something different and I didn't want to go back and work at my mother's trucking company anymore in sales," she says. "That was ruining my liver."
She bought a tanning salon in Conroe. Then she heard about the money to be made in bail bonds and opened a company in 1997.
Two years later she heard that a bonding company was looking to sell its prime location and client list (there's a surprising amount of repeat business in the bonding world). "My mother and brother talked to me and said, 'Well, if that's the best location, then you oughta take it.' And I said, 'Well, if you've got the money, I've got the time.' "
Her mother lent her $400,000 for the small lot -- directly across from the jail's front door on the outskirts of Conroe -- and the downtrodden shack that housed the business and the list of clients. She outbid the site's next-door neighbor, Daisy Real of Daisy Bail Bonds.
The two had been friends, Foster says; eventually relations cooled to the point where Foster built a large fence to keep Real from complaining. "All the blinds on her side of the building were falling down from peeking through the window, and my kids they had their buddies over here, and she'd call and tell the sheriff there was a bunch of teenagers partying over here."
Real eventually became one of the leaders of the effort to hinder Foster's business, according to her lawsuit. (Real won't comment, and her lawyer says she has done nothing improper.)
Foster was also beginning to get some heat about her brother, Precinct 4 Constable Travis Bishop. Other bail bond companies accused him of steering business to his sister or helping her find bail jumpers. Foster denies it (her brother did not return phone calls).
More important, her brother and Sheriff Williams, for reasons no one seems able to articulate, were feuding. The sheriff's department and the constable's office compete, in a sense, for the drug busts -- and the DEA money -- that come from the lively East County underworld.
Bishop also was a driving force in the move to reopen the case of Roy Criner, a Montgomery County resident who served ten years for a rape he did not commit (see "Hard Time," by Bob Burtman, September 10, 1998). Criner was released in 2000; his supporters say Williams ignored their pleas for help.
But whatever the reason, a war began, pitting Foster against some competing bail bond companies and the sheriff's department. In early 2000 her license was suspended, although the punishment was probated, for using profanity in the jail lobby and for improperly advertising her business. Foster sued over the action and other complaints, and she and the county reached a settlement in May 2000 that rescinded the probation. The agreement called for Foster to receive a letter of reprimand instead, and it required the county board overseeing bail bond companies to adopt a set of rules for conducting disciplinary hearings.
Two years later, the two sides were back in court, and nothing had changed. Foster was still claiming to be a victim of unfair practices, and county employees were still saying she was a lousy businessperson with lucrative connections and a bewildering vendetta.
The bail-bonding business may be lucrative for some folks, but it has some quirks, at least as it's practiced in Montgomery County.
You can't really go out and drum up business making cold calls; instead you're dependent on phone calls from recently arrested people or their families. Once the calls come in, you can hustle your butt off trying to get all the relevant information -- spending the night lining up collateral or references, getting the name of the court the case has been assigned to once a probable cause hearing has been held -- but for the most part, you have to wait for the business to come to you.
That's why a location across from the jail is great -- family or friends checking on arrestees are likely to walk right into the closest place.
The jail has an average daily population of about 600, although most bonding companies want phone calls only from newly arrested inmates in the holding cells rather than the "population cells." (If the folks in those cells had enough money to get bonded, it likely would have happened when they were first brought in.)
Many Harris County bond companies don't accept collect calls from the jail -- if inmates can't contact friends, relatives or a lawyer first, they're not considered likely to have the resources needed to make bond -- but in Montgomery County the phone calls are considered very important.
That's why Foster says it was distressing when she kept hearing from released inmates that they had tried but been unable to reach her from the holding cell. Or when calls that did go through got mysteriously disconnected before much information could be gathered.
The phone calls are so important, and inmate behavior so predictable, that the bail bond companies devised a system where the names and numbers of all the two dozen or so companies operating in the county would be posted on a Plexiglas-protected board in the cells. The companies would rotate on the list each month, moving up one notch while the top-listed company dropped to the bottom. A company's revenues for any given month tended to track its position on the chart.
From March 2001 until October 2002, evidence in the case shows, Foster's company never moved to the top of the list. It reached second in July 2001 but was dropped to the bottom the next month instead of moving up. Other companies, such as Daisy Bail Bonds, reached No. 1 but never dropped all the way to the bottom. In February 2002, Daisy Bail Bonds was No. 1; the next month it moved down to only No. 3.
Hittner, who was being asked to issue a temporary injunction blocking the county from taking any actions unfair to Foster, reacted in his typical blunt fashion when he saw the evidence April 14.
Suzanne Laechelin, the assistant county attorney representing Montgomery County, tried to say the chart oddities may have been caused by ineptitude.
"Whoever did it might have done a junky job," she said, arguing that the chart is being handled in a different way now.
"Look at this," Hittner said. "One company never made it to the top, another never made it to the bottom. Junky? It looks like someone's looking out for someone here."
Hittner ordered the county employee who handled the list during that time frame to come to court the next day. And so Renee Duewall appeared, chewing gum on the stand until Laechelin suggested she take it out "before the judge has to say something." ("It was noticed," Hittner threw in.)
Duewall said she always put together the list properly and handed it to a lieutenant in the sheriff's department to post in the cells.
Shown a diagram of the relative chart positions over the 19-month period, Duewall said she couldn't reconcile it with the list she drew up. "I am not aware that this was happening," she said. "If this is happening, then it wasn't fair to Miss Foster." She wouldn't say that anyone had tampered with the list, however, and she said she did not know of any effort to give preferential treatment to some bonding companies.
Sherry Walls, the owner of 1-A Cash Back Bail Bonds, also complained about the list, but nothing ever happened. "I stopped complaining because it wasn't ever going to be fixed," she said.
Hittner seemed to grow even more concerned when testimony turned to the jail's computer. Edward Glynn, a computer expert who worked closely with plaintiff's attorney Dulcie Wink, said he found evidence that files had been destroyed. A file-deleting program called Shredder had been used on January 19, he said, which was days after the county had been ordered to turn over the computers to Foster's legal team.
Shredder was part of a software package called Steganos, which had been installed on the machine November 6, he said. That was one day after a notice was served to take the deposition of Roger Barlow, the independent contractor who runs the county's computer system.
"Based on the timing, I found it highly suspicious, if not sinister," Glynn said. Hittner ordered Barlow to show up the next day.
He did, and said he had spent $50 on Steganos in order to help Debra Foster. Foster had been complaining that someone was hacking into the county computer to block her calls, he said; Steganos includes an antihacking program.
And why did he use the Shredder file-deleting program in January? To remove some personal files that he had stored on the computer, he said.
And what files needed to be deleted so urgently? Web site visits to CatholicGirlsGetSpanked.com? No. The only thing he erased, Barlow said, was a program that allowed him to check the depth at his boat slip on an Arkansas lake. Nothing else was deleted, he said.
Of course, Glynn said, there's no way now to know what was deleted. Such as efforts to block calls to certain numbers from inside the jail.
Jay Aldis, the lawyer for Sheriff Williams, says he believes Barlow merely was anxious about having the one personal file on a county computer.
"The problem is that if it had not been Shredded, the expert would have just found readings for a personal boat slip and that would have been the end of it. They would not be able to make any hay of it at all. I think it's an absolutely legitimate explanation and that that's exactly what occurred," Aldis says.
During the hearing, defense attorneys argued that for someone who complains a lot about her phone, Foster was pretty lackadaisical about paying bills. She'd been late with payments 19 times in the past two years, and the phone was disconnected for nonpayment five times.
They pointed out that this was occurring while she was driving a 2003 Cadillac. They mentioned that in the listing of assets and debts she filed to renew her license, she failed to include the $400,000 loan from her mother to purchase her current location.
Foster says in reply what turns out to be, for better or worse, something that appears close to the truth: "I'm not a bookkeeper," she says. "I'm a salesperson, I'm a people person."
Phone bills? She doesn't generally pay them until she gets a warning letter or two. The phone was cut off "for an hour or so at most" each time, she says.
The $400,000 loan? "My mother said I could pay it back if I was making money, and I wasn't. She said, 'Don't worry about that until all this [litigation] is straightened out.' I just forgot about [listing] it."
The Cadillac? "I have other money than the bail-bonding business," she says, adding, "I wish."
Her bonding company, while not nearly as lucrative as some, still pulls in cash. She's averaged nearly $200,000 in bonds a month for the past year, the county says. ("We're not talking about a failing bond company," Assistant County Attorney Laechelin says. "We're talking about a thriving bond practice in Montgomery County.")
It becomes obvious pretty quickly that Foster is a bit casual about business. She has a sign out front saying she'll cash checks. She says it's for released inmates who receive small checks to replace the money they had on them when arrested.
"And they try to make out like I'm wrong because I don't have a license to cash checks," she says. "Well, I don't know what's wrong with helping those people -- I'm not declaring it as a profit or anything."
How can someone complain about check-cashing if she's not charging for it? "Well, I will charge them two bucks or so if the check's $30 or something," she says. Oh.
Those casual ways incense some other bail bonds people who say they strive to play by the rules. And Laechelin labels Foster's methods as ranging anywhere from "sloppy all the way to illegal."
While Foster obviously isn't a Wharton School of Business grad, she excels at the people skills. When she gets a call from an inmate waiting not so patiently to make bond, she combines a coo and a drawl to assuage him: "I just called them, Anthony. They don't have it in the computer yet, baby."
She describes one set of calls that morning, a guy hoping to get out on a $10,000 bond after his arrest for failure to appear in court. "He called and gave me his boss's number, so I call the boss, Tyrell, and Tyrell says, 'Yeah, yeah, where's my truck?' I had him on [one] phone, him on [another], and I said, 'Darryl, Tyrell wants to know where the truck is.' 'Well, the truck's over in Magnolia.' 'Okay, are his tools in there?' 'Yeah, his tools are in there.' 'You gonna help him get out?' 'Yeah, I'm gonna help him.' 'Okay, he's gonna help you.' Thunk," she says, pretending to hang up the phones. "You know, that's pretty easy money for a thousand bucks."
She's not concerned about a flight risk, because she'll have the boss co-sign. But she's used to making snap judgments on the phone over who's worth taking on. "Now, if I called his boss and his boss said, 'Hell, no -- he owes me money,' then click. I wouldn't bond him."
When she guesses wrong and someone does jump bond, she usually doesn't go after them herself. Her critics say she uses her brother -- or her son, who wears a uniform as a part-time deputy constable under his uncle -- but she says all the constables help.
"And there's a lot of trickery, too," she says. "If they don't come in and you find out it's a girl and you know where she lives or something, you can call and say, 'My name's Rita, with Roses Etc. You just won two dozen roses; can I deliver them?' You take a cop with you."
There's a lot of repeat business -- perhaps up to 75 percent of her customers have been bonded by her before, she says. She points to a woman headed toward her door. "I've bonded her, her husband, her husband again -- and again -- and now her son twice," she says.
She enjoys the work, so it hurt when she couldn't practice for two months in late 2001. Because of a ten-year-old check for $34.
She had put in an application with the county's bail bond board to renew her license. Board president David Bluestein, a county prosecutor, says he discovered the class C misdemeanor of theft by check while he was reviewing Foster's records. (Foster claims a rival company tipped him to it.)
The conviction was soon found to be invalid -- a jury waiver had not been signed as required -- but it took two months to get it straightened out. (Foster blames her second ex-husband, who she says redirected all their mail to a post office box she didn't know about. She made good on the check in 1994, she says.)
Another member of the board, County Court at Law Judge Mason Martin, said he believes Foster was treated unfairly. Her attorney was notified about the check charge the day before the hearing, which was also right before he was going into surgery.
Bluestein rejected a request to conditionally renew the license, a procedure that had previously been done with bail companies such as Daisy Bail Bonds.
Daisy Real's company had been conditionally approved only because the county had failed to do a required inspection of the offices, Bluestein said. "We were not going to penalize her for the inaction of the [district attorney's] office," he said in Hittner's court. As with all other county employees who testified, he said he knew of no plot or efforts to get Foster or to boost other companies.
Sheriff Williams also testified he knew of no plot, and that Foster had never complained to him about anything. He said he launched an investigation into her claims in January -- seven months after the second suit was filed -- and found nothing wrong. He'd welcome an FBI investigation if that would allay her concerns.
The first two days of the hearing, when she knew she was going to be on the stand, Foster might not have been recognizable to those who see her every day. Her hair was pulled back in a tight, schoolmarmish bun and she wore a dark blue mid-calf dress. She stayed in dark colors the third day, but the skirt hem went higher and so did the hair, freed at last from its sedate confinement.
That third day she listened to two very different descriptions of herself. "The county doesn't have a rich mother," Laechelin told Hittner. "It has a system in place to run the jail, and just because Debra Foster doesn't like it does not mean it's wrong She's got it better than anyone in the county, with a brother in office to run interference for her, send information to her. She doesn't want equal treatment, she wants to run ahead of everyone."
Laechelin said Foster "thinks someone at the jail cares enough about all this to listen to the phones and say, 'Oooh, someone's calling Miss Foster' and click, hang up on them."
Joel Androphy, Foster's attorney, said, "They claim Debra Foster is paranoid. Anyone would be paranoid if the people you're competing with is the sheriff and the law enforcement of the county you're working in." He said the deletion of computer files "permeates this entire case and shows the county cannot be trusted."
He noted that the computer expert had determined that, as the expert put it, "Montgomery County has from time to time blocked phone calls to Miss Foster's business."
The temporary injunction hearing had been somewhat strange from the start, beyond Hittner's decision to hear a wide range of evidence. Temporary injunctions are issued to force someone to stop doing something that is causing irreparable harm before a case reaches trial.
Foster said on the stand that the county's new phone system, which features speed-dialing to bond companies, was fine. (Whether the old system harmed her financially would be an issue for the trial, not for an injunction.) Evidence failed to show that Williams or other named county employees directly ordered such actions as dragging out the release of Foster's clients (there was testimony that included such allegations, but not involving Williams or other defendants directly).
So the county was saying it had never done anything wrong, and if it had, it definitely wasn't going to do it anymore. Hittner could only reinforce that, and he did so by issuing an injunction April 21.
He ordered the county not to block Foster's number, to list her properly in the cell, to make sure jailers do not encourage inmates to use a different company, and eight other actions that Foster claimed were occurring and the county said weren't.
"We needed something, and the next step if they don't honor it is contempt of court," Androphy said. "Now if they don't follow their rules, they'll have to answer to a federal judge."
Foster says her mother told her she's ready to stick around for the longer fight. "She said, 'I guess I better go back and make some more money,' " Foster says.
"It is taking quite a lot of money to do it," her mother says. "But I told her she should do what she needed to in order to stay in business." If Foster prevails, of course, the county might be liable for her legal fees.
And sticking around is exactly what Debra Foster intends to do, when she's not out riding his-and-her Harleys with her boyfriend of eight years.
One of her sons also owns a bail bond company in Conroe, and there are rumbles that her brother may run for sheriff in 2004.
"I plan on staying in the business," she says. "I plan on doing this for a while, and as my other kids get older, if they want to have a bonding business, they can have it."
Which means that the "big-titty blond bitch" isn't going anywhere. And Montgomery County, apparently, is just going to have to deal with it.
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