The Thin Gray Line

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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.

"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.' "

The boys were sent back to San Luis Potosí, and that's where the hand-rubbing began. "Bribery is pretty much the way things are done down there," says Valero. "The director said, 'You take care of me, and I'll do some surveillance. I'll keep an eye on him until you get the proper documents.' "

"Once again," asked Valero, "what documents do I need?"

And then the conversation started to degenerate. "He said, 'I need to have the document because I don't know who you are and I don't want his blood on my hands and I don't want George Bush to kill him,' " says Valero.

The bounty hunters thanked the director for his help and went outside. McKee had the number for Interpol, so they began searching for a pay phone. As they were dialing, two officers came up to them and said the director had changed his mind.

"I already got the gut feeling that something wasn't right, but we went back in anyway," says Valero. Once inside, the bounty hunters were given a seat and some coffee. "And then all these guys with black jackets come in, and all these photographers come in, and we're like, 'What's going on?' "

Enter Ricardo Silva, who told them they had violated Mexican law by being down there without a work visa. The bounty hunters were X-rayed and thrown in a cell. "There was shit all over the walls," says Valero. "It was like someone had wiped their ass and written on the walls."

Mexican authorities are generally very quick to punish bounty hunters (there are about ten American agents incarcerated south of the border), but they've become even tougher since Duane "Dog" Chapman riled them up in 2003. The Oahu-based bounty hunter had gone down to Puerto Vallarta to capture Andrew Luster, a convicted rapist and heir to the Max Factor fortune. Chapman got his man, but he then got charged with kidnapping, so he hopped a plane and headed back to the States. He didn't get any cash for capturing Luster, but he scored a reality show, Dog the Bounty Hunter, on A&E.

McKee and Valero won't be so lucky. They'll sit in jail for two days and then be released with the help of the U.S. Consulate's office, but only after each pays a fine of 1,800 pesos ($160). Along the way, Silva will give them the number of another private investigator in Houston who will try to extort money in exchange for their release. They won't bite, but they will still leave San Luis Potosí with $1,300 missing from their belongings. They will make it back to Houston, and they will make the Mexican papers.

"Two Gringo Bounty Hunters Arrested," said the San Luis Hoy.

"I can't believe they called me a gringo," says Valero.

The Old West, home of sagebrush-covered plains, dusty mining towns and renegade gunfighters, is not the birthplace of bounty hunting. Bail bondsmen in Boston and New York were chasing after crooks long before unshaven sheriffs began posting rewards on the other side of the Mississippi -- and the practice ultimately comes from laws we imported across the pond.

Back in the Middle Ages, courts would appoint custodians to look after people while they awaited trial. Often these custodians were friends or family of the accused. But here's the catch: If the accused didn't show up for court, then his buddies would have to face the music in his stead. Needless to say, his so-called friends were quick to help the authorities find him and bring him back to justice. And thus bounty hunting was born, although the bounty to be had was one's own freedom.

Modern bounty hunting is a little more complicated. It all starts when someone -- let's call him "Frank" -- is arrested for allegedly committing a crime. Now the judge doesn't want Frank to take up valuable space in jail, but at the same time he wants to be sure the guy will show up for trial, so he releases Frank on a cash bond. If Frank can't pay the full amount of this bond, then he must go to a bail bondsman to borrow the money. The bondsman charges him about ten percent of the price of the bond and agrees to pay the court if Frank doesn't appear.

Now let's say Frank decides he doesn't feel like showing up in court, so he doesn't. Then the bail bondsman owes the court the total price of the bond, unless he can get Frank back into custody. And that's where bounty hunters come in, and that's why they prefer to be called "bail enforcement agents," because, in essence, that's what they are. So the bounty hunters go after Frank, catch him and take him to jail. Then the bondsman no longer has to pay the court any money, but he does have to pay the bounty hunters for their services. The payment usually ends up being ten percent of the original bond, which turns out to be exactly how much Frank paid in the first place. So the bondsman breaks even, the bounty hunters make a little cash and our friend Frank is back in the clink, having screwed the bondsman out of the chance to make a profit. At this point the bondsman usually sues Frank, with varying results.

Bounty hunters have always had the right to kick down someone's door and haul him to jail, but it wasn't until 1872 that this right was recognized by the US Supreme Court. In the case of Taylor v. Taintor, the court ruled that bounty hunters are enforcing a civil contract and are acting as proxies of the state. But the court also acknowledged that bounty hunters don't have to be as nice as cops do. "In that bail bond contract, the defendant -- now a fugitive -- waives certain constitutional rights," says Bob Burton, a director of the Florida-based National Institute of Bail Enforcement. "He gives the bail bond agent permission to enter his home. He gives the bail bond agent permission to take him into custody." He also throws his Miranda Rights out the window.

After Taylor v. Taintor, the bonding industry cruised along for over a century with few major incidents. Then, on the morning of August 31, 1997, five men in ski masks and body armor broke down the door of a home in Phoenix with a sledgehammer and killed two people. Newspapers across the nation were soon awash in headlines declaring, "Bounty Hunters Kill Two Innocent People in Arizona," "Bounty Hunters Storm the Wrong House in Phoenix, Killing Two and Spurring the Cry for Safeguards" and even "Bounty Hunters; Why Do They Act Like Lawless Renegades?" It later came out that the murderers were just run-of-the-mill burglars who were not enforcing any sort of bond contract, but by then the damage had been done: The nation decided it was time for the bonding industry to clean up its act.

Many states imposed regulations on bounty hunters. Here in Texas, they were required to get private-investigator licenses. Burton fought this development and became a regular talking head on the news networks. "You have so many restrictions on private investigators," he says. "How do you expect them and them only to be bounty hunters?"

Private investigators are held up to a higher code of ethics. They're not supposed to lie to people (or, as Burton is wont to say, "use pretext"). They have restrictions on when they can enter someone's home. And they're not really supposed to use force. These limitations might sound reasonable, but bounty hunters are quick to point out they're going after people who don't want to be caught; the mouse rarely offers itself up to the cat.

Says Burton, "I don't know how Texas, which gave us the famous Texas Rangers and some of the greatest manhunters in history, can become a Wall Street bureaucracy when it comes to hunting fugitives."

Growing up on the edge of the Fifth Ward, Sammie Valero took some hard knocks. "I was the only Hispanic kid in my class," he says. "I used to have to run home every day." Then one day he got tired of running. "I haven't lost a fight since," he says. "My dad always said I should have been a boxer."

Valero ended up in the Army, where he spent 12 years in various positions. He decided on a career in law enforcement a few years later, because, you know, that's what a lot of ex-military people end up doing. So he signed up for the PI thing and now wants to be an officer with Harris County, but the 36-year-old has to wait two more years for his record to clear so he can apply. (He has a class B misdemeanor for driving with a suspended license.)

Jason McKee's path to bounty hunting is a little less prescribed than his partner's. He grew up in Temple, hung around a bit after high school and then met some guy in a bar who offered up quick cash in exchange for help capturing a fugitive. Four years later and he really doesn't have much desire to become a police officer. "It would just take so long for me to be able to do what I'm doing now," says the 25-year-old.

McKee and Valero often cross paths with the cops. Every fugitive must be checked in at a police station, where bounty hunters have to wait -- and wait -- until an officer has time to jail the perp. And when bounty hunters aren't going about their work quietly, they also run into the cops on the streets.

One of McKee and Valero's most successful tricks is to bang on the door of a fugitive's house until he freaks out and call the cops, who then arrest the fugitive on account of his warrant. The officers often mutter and groan when they have to bother with someone who's jumped bail on a traffic charge, but they're the ones who write the tickets. Call it institutional irony.

Local bondsman Daniel Armstrong doesn't want to impede the work of his bounty hunters, but he thinks the industry could benefit from more regulation. With it, he believes, come recognition and respect. He works for James Bonds (yep, that's the real name of the place), in a building on the North Freeway that also houses Third Coast Investigations, the workplace of Valero and company. Armstrong would like to see Texas follow the lead of Washington state, where a recent bill codified the role of bounty hunters. "It's outlined," he says. "It's definite. It's law."

The 2004 bill requires bounty hunters in Washington state to notify the police when they plan to force their way into a residence. They also must wear clothing that immediately identifies them as bail bond recovery agents. "People will cooperate with you a whole lot better if you walk in there wearing stuff that identifies you and they recognize you as a bail enforcement authority," says Armstrong. "People will know why you're there."

The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is also in favor of more regulations for bounty hunters -- go figure. The group made some headway after the Phoenix incident, but a lot of that progress was lost after a new crop of legislators convened in 2000. "Regulation would ultimately help the bondsmen stay in business," says spokesman Jack King.

Bob Burton couldn't disagree more. "We made over 25,000 arrests last year," he says. "Of that, there was something like 12 or 13 incidents. We have fewer incidents in a year's worth of work than the NYPD does in a week." He adds that bounty hunters capture 87 percent of bail-jumpers nationwide. The police pick up another ten percent at routine traffic stops, and the remaining three percent are sipping daiquiris on the beach or doing whatever it is that fugitives do.

The bounty hunters who roam our streets are too busy hunting down people to care about the minutia of law. McKee has encountered few problems during his tenure, but that might have something to do with him being one big dude. Valero, a five-year vet, also thinks more regulation is unnecessary. "But I would like more power to conduct my investigations," he says. People won't comply with the wishes of a bounty hunter like they will with those of a cop. "We need more recognition," he says, "because the job's on the table already."

Bondman Armstrong is hoping to up the level of respect for bounty hunters by enticing the police into participating in the Gotcha Games, an event that would pit the skills of bounty hunters and cops against each other. "We are going to extend an invitation to HPD," he says, adding that the proceeds would go to Blue Star Mothers of America, a non-profit organization for mothers of military personnel.

These games would do little for regulation, which sits just fine with old-timers like Burton. "We don't know why they refer to it as a gray area," he says. "It's a clearly spelled out, concise legal system, which has had judgment passed on it every three years by some U.S. federal court, state court or Supreme Court."

Gray or not, bounty hunting is still a craft, a set of skills taught from one practitioner to another. This system works fine for carpenters, plumbers and electricians, but bounty hunters don't build things; they enforce civil contracts. They act as an arm of the law, so it'd be nice to know they've been given proper instruction about what they can and can't do.

Then again, McKee and Valero seem to be doing just fine.

Nothing grabs your attention quite like the barrel of a shotgun, two feet away and pointed at your face.

"Get down on the fucking ground," yells McKee, standing beside his green minivan in the middle of the night. On the unfortunate end of the gun stands Jesus Aguirre Hernandez, a convicted murderer who spent ten years in the pen. He doesn't seem too surprised by the current turn of events. This guy recently jumped bail on a drug-possession charge, and he knew the bondsman would send bounty hunters after him. Now, at a moment when most of us would soil our pants, Aguirre Hernandez turns around and makes a break for it.

Ten feet later he's down on the ground with a pistol pointed at the back of his head. Valero watches out while another bounty hunter, Anthony Gonzalez, handcuffs the fugitive. A security guard runs up and offers to help. (How did he know who the good guys were?)

"We've got it under control," Valero tells him.

They've been after this jumper for a while. All of his former addresses turned out bunk. No one, everyone claimed, knew where he was. But Valero and company finally got a tip: The murderer could be found most Saturday nights drinking after-hours at a club on Gulfton. Which brings us right back to the present, where McKee is leading the fugitive into the back of his minivan. They'll soon be driving him to county jail. Their prize: 1,000 bucks, split three ways.

"I'm a badass," says the prisoner. "Five more minutes and you'd be on the ground instead of me."

"You know what," says Valero, "I'm a badass too."

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