The Thin Gray Line

There's not much difference between a bounty hunter and a cop, save for a lot of regulation and a little respect

Jason McKee and Sammie Valero are back on the streets, looking for a stripper who sidelines as a thief.

She works the pole at Caligula XXI, a club on Winrock, but a sweep of the place doesn't turn up anything fruitful (at least in terms of their investigation). Next up is her apartment, where McKee bangs on the door while his partner peers through the blinds.

They are an imposing duo. With long hair and lamb chops, McKee looks like a roadie with a badge. Valero is tall, lean and a little tattooed. He's the one who usually does the talking.

"Two Gringo Bounty Hunters Arrested," said the 
San Luis Hoy.
"Two Gringo Bounty Hunters Arrested," said the San Luis Hoy.
Valero grabs the heat...
Daniel Kramer
Valero grabs the heat...

"I just saw her get up off the couch," he says.

A little man opens the door and stutters, "She's not here. You'll have to wait for her boyfriend. He's got her papers. He'll be back in a minute."

McKee and Valero wait, looming over the little fellow. Then up walks the irate boyfriend, who's sure he has sorted out her paperwork.

"I got it right here," he says, shoving papers in their faces.

Valero looks over the docs and then asks to see the fugitive. "I'm not going to arrest her," he promises. "I just need her to verify all of this."

The boyfriend coaxes the woman into the living room, where she stands with water welling up in her big green eyes.

"Hello," says Valero. "You're under arrest."

"You lying motherfuckers," yells the boyfriend. "Get the hell out of my house. You lied to me."

"I don't have to tell you the truth," says Valero. "I'm not a police officer."

Bounty hunter -- the phrase conjures up the image of a thug; a rogue roaming the streets, kicking down doors and slamming people to the ground; a tough who operates in gray areas of the law.

McKee and Valero know this image well. They see the way people's eyes light up when they tell them what they do, the way these people take a step back and start asking the same questions over and over again: You ever been to jail? Ever shot anyone? Anyone ever shot at you?

The business isn't anywhere near as rough-and-tumble as you might imagine. There are laws governing what bounty hunters can and can't do -- very old laws at that. But McKee and Valero would like a little more respect, which is exactly what they didn't get when they went down to Mexico last December.

"You can't come into our country and take our paesanos," the immigration official told them. "We're going to make an example of you. You're going to do at least two years."

The official's name was Ricardo Silva, and Valero swears "he looked like a Mexican Mark Furman," whatever that means. To hear McKee and Valero tell the tale, they were then placed in a small cell with water on the floor and feces on the walls. (Silva's office did not return repeated interview requests from the Press.) There they sat for two days, wondering what exactly they had done to put these guys in such a foul mood.

It wasn't supposed to happen like this. The bounty hunters had gone to Mexico in search of a fugitive who had a charge of aggravated kidnapping with a sexual assault. They stood to make $2,000, plus expenses. They ended up with squat.

Typically, a bounty hunter brings a fugitive back from Mexico in one of three ways: he bribes a Mexican authority to bring the guy to the border; he grabs the guy himself and shoves him in the trunk of his car; or he has his partner hold the guy's family at gunpoint until he's in U.S. custody. McKee and Valero apparently wanted to do it the legit way. The problem was, they weren't quite sure what that meant.

"There's a systematic way for the U.S. Marshals and all the local authorities" to extradite fugitives, says Valero. "They have an open channel to submit all the documents, but there's no systematic procedure for private investigators who are allowed to do arrests here in Texas." And there may never be. An 1869 Supreme Court ruling, Reese v. United States, limited the powers of bounty hunters to U.S. soil.

McKee and Valero knew where the fugitive was. His relatives had co-signed the bond, and these folks weren't keen on being $20,000 in the hole. The guy, they said, could be found in a small pueblo near San Luis Potosí, in northeastern Mexico. So the bounty hunters packed their bags and hopped a bus, embarking on what they call a "fact-finding mission."

First up were the federales, who directed the duo to the local police in San Luis Potosí, who sent them to the warrants division in Rio Verde, three hours away. Once there, Valero asked the question, in Spanish, that would soon become tired, "As a private investigator, what documents do I need to submit for you to help me apprehend this guy and take him back to the United States?"

"Half of them wanted to go get him for us," says McKee, "but the other half thought we needed the proper paperwork." A compromise was reached. "They said, 'We're going to go pick him up and we'll detain him for 72 hours, and we'll give him to you once you bring those documents.' "

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