March 30 - April 5, 1995

Bounty Hunters

Just Your Average Folks Seeking The Ultimate Adrenaline Rush.

THE GUY AT the gadget table offered to shoot me with a ballistic baton. It uses a CO2 cartridge to fire a two-and-a-half ounce shot-bag at a muzzle velocity of 300 feet per second.

"It'll knock the wind right out of you," said Nick Nickeson, a former Green Beret. "How about it?"

He wasn't being sarcastic. That was his idea of a sales pitch.

"Nah," I said.

Then a tall fellow named Jerry Smith came along. His lower lip bulged with snuff. He had his friend back in Michigan shoot him with the baton so he could test it out.

"Knocked me flat on my ass," Smith said. "I bought one right away."

"Is that so?" I said.

"I carry it everywhere. I swear by it."

The room in which we spoke was a blizzard of Stetsons, National Rifle Association insignias, tattoos, and message T-shirts saying things like: "If you die we split your gear." It wasn't your typical business conference. The topic was man hunting.

More than 80 bounty hunters from around the country came to the town once ruled by Wyatt Earp for what they called a rendezvous, a first ever meeting of men and women whose job is tracking down fugitives.

A lot of cops don't like bounty hunters. They're looked at as 20th century renegades living a 19th century life. The stereotypical hunter likes kicking in doors to get his man dead or alive, preferably dead.

That reputation is based in part on portrayals by actors like Steve McQueen. He played a hunter in the movie Tom Horn, and in the TV show Wanted Dead or Alive, which aired from 1958-1961.

But most bounty hunters said if an arrest comes to violence, the job has probably been botched.

"Don't believe that Hollywood stuff," said rendezvous organizer Bob Burton, who advised actor Robert DeNiro in the bounty hunting movie Midnight Run.

"We don't throw people to the ground and kick them around. We're usually arresting people who've jumped bail before trial. They're presumed innocent. I tell my agents, 'Don't get righteous about this.' "

"I'm a professional. I perform a valuable service," says California-based Warren Levicoff, who wears a hoop earring. "I don't give a damn what anyone thinks."

THE U.S. IS the only country in the world where bounty hunting is legal. No license is required. Hunters boast they're America's oldest police force.

The job is to track down anyone who gets a bondsman to pay his bail, then takes off. The bondsman hires the hunter at 10-20 percent of the bond amount, which can range up to $100,000 or more.

But a bounty hunter pays his own expenses and has no guarantees. If the fugitive stays lost, the hunter can lose a bundle. No body, no booty.

Many of those attending the mid-March conference had police and military backgrounds. Others fit no category. There was a former truck driver and a college English teacher. A surprising number don't carry guns.

"A lot of these guys think of guns as extensions of their peckers," says Denny Howley, a 57-year-old former Airborne Ranger with a doctorate in international relations. He lives in Key West, Fla., wears sandals, a flowered shirt, sunglasses and a red headband. He never carries a piece.

"If you shoot somebody you have incredible liability problems. Use your smarts and you don't need a gun."

Zora Colakovic of Flagstaff, 23, the youngest hunter, never goes on a bust without backup. She brings a couple of her weightlifting buddies.

"It's good to have some beefcakes along," says Colakovic, who's been subscribing to Soldier of Fortune magazine since age 12. "A shotgun can be nice, too. It's intimidating."

She got into bounty hunting in 1993. She was writing her dissertation for a doctorate in geography from Syracuse University. But she thought the boredom might kill her.

She quit and went to a survival school in Utah where she learned aboriginal living skills, such as how to cook and eat chipmunks. Then she went to Burton's bounty hunting school. In a year and a half she has pulled in a dozen fugitives.

Once she got roughed up by drunken relatives of the man she was after. Colakovic shrugs. "At this point I'd rather get bruised up than write a paper."

Every hunter says the same thing: They need the thrill.

"I got into it because I missed the rush," says Robert Randall, an ex-Marine who came home from Vietnam and spent 14 years working for IBM. Now when he goes out after a fugitive he wears a suit and tie.

"One time I went deer hunting and a buck sprang up in front of me," says Randall. "I couldn't shoot it. It was an innocent animal. But with men, they have the potential to turn around and hunt me back. I like that. That's the kind of rush I wasn't getting at IBM."

MANY OF THE hunters in attendance studied under Burton, a barrel-chested Tombstone resident with a voice that sounds like cannon fire.

He's 56, a former California insurance man who walks with a slight limp. He got shot in Vietnam. He spent 10 years in Marine reconnaissance.

Ten years ago Burton and three others started the National Association of Bail Enforcement Agents in an effort to bring good training and a code of ethics to the business.

Of his three former associates, one retired, one was killed by gunshot and the third vanished.

"He fell off the face of the earth a few years ago," says Burton. "Maybe he made that bust we all dream about, a drug mule carrying $2 million in cash. You bring in your man and disappear."

The hunters made a splash in Tombstone, a town accustomed to big hats, big guns and talk of bad guys. They rode stagecoaches and watched a re-enactment of the O.K. Corral shoot-out.

At night they piled into Big Nose Kate's saloon, named for Doc Holliday's girlfriend, to have a few beers and dance with women decked out in flouncy 1880s-style dresses.

The town's wooden sidewalks were lousy with media, too. Creepy reporters with pens, notebooks and cameras hunted the hunters.

French and Australian TV were there. So was The Independent of London, a British magazine called Maxim, U.S. News and World Report, and the Tombstone Tumbleweed.

Sessions of the three-day event were kicked off with readings of cowboy poetry by Luke Dudley, a wrangler from a nearby ranch:

Rare if ever and seldom seen

A plan without mistake

When man is hunting man

It's the last one you make

After the verse, hunters listened to lectures on executive protection and stalking, and watched a demonstration of something called the Air Taser, the latest in man-hunting gadgetry. It fires two needles that stick into a fugitive's skin and runs electricity through him. Nickeson fired the Taser into a target on stage. It makes a noise like a hamburger sizzling on a grill.

"The current will put you down anywhere from three to 15 minutes," says Nickeson. "It'll ruin your day."

His company specializes in selling gear to bounty hunters--moonlight scopes, prisoner transport belts, leg irons, a device that can pick up voices through walls.

AS HUNTERS CRUISED the table, the street outside echoed with the boom of pistols fired by actors re-enacting gunfights. With .45s thundering in the background, the hunters talked about their trade.

Levicoff spent 22 years as a race track photographer. His job was traveling the racing circuit taking pictures. He was a private detective, too. He ran that business out of the back of the Airstream trailer he drove from track to track.

He once chased a car dealer from Santa Cruz, Calif., to Spokane.

"The guy wasn't very smart. He's a car dealer in California, so what does he do? He registers as a dealer in Washington. Under his own name. I flagged him down in traffic and started making small talk about buying a car. Then I reached in, turned off the ignition, got one cuff on him and pulled him out through the window.

"I've made 367 arrests and I'll tell you, a professional criminal is easy. He's been through the system. I'd much rather pop him than a drunk driver. They're fucking dangerous. He's never been arrested, he runs on the charge, and you try to pop him and he fucking freaks out. Give me your professional criminal any day.

"I get shit from guys when they find out what I do. A lot of times they're doing fucking lousy jobs and they fucking hate it, and they hear you're a bounty hunter and they get jealous. They've been cutting meat all their lives and they're sick of it. Guys come up to me at parties and say, 'So what's with this bounty hunter shit?' "

Howley used to work for the Defense Intelligence Agency, and he consulted for the CIA. As a paratrooper, he made 250 jumps.

"Human dignity is real important. I'll say to a guy, 'You wanna beer, Charlie? You fucked up. My job is to come get you. No hard-on. You're going back.' You can't treat them like shit.

"A lot of times they wanna get caught. One guy jumped from Maryland and got caught in D.C. and he was glad. He couldn't do anything. He missed his brother's wedding. He was hiding all the time and sick of it. The cuffs go on and he's like, 'Ah, it's over.'

"Some guys think it's prestigious to get caught by a bounty hunter. That means he evaded the cops. He'll brag about it. 'Hey, it took a bounty hunter to get me.' The cops will give up. A hunter won't because his money's on the line."

Smith's dream when he was growing up was to drive a truck. After high school he drove a rig for nine years. He changed his mind when he started hunting. He wears a black cowboy hat. He's 30.

He got a call from a bondsman last New Year's Eve.

"It's 5 p.m., we're having an office party and this cat calls me. He's got a revoked bond, which means that whoever put up the money pulled it back. The bond was on this kid, 19. Lived with his mom. He promised to go straight and she bailed him outta jail, and soon as he's out, he gets drunker 'n shit and cranked up. And he goes home.

"I called his mom to confirm he was in the house, and to make sure we knew where in the house. He's on the couch, passed out. I'm talking to her on the car phone as we pull up in the driveway and she goes, 'Hold on. I got three kids in here and I don't want them seeing their brother taken away in cuffs.'

"We go up to the door. And my whole deal is to avoid a violent confrontation. I'd rather back off. Some guys'll grab hold of you and bust you up. To me, that's an ego problem. But this was easy. She opens the door and there he is, sleeping on the couch.

"I swear, he's 7-foot, 260 pounds. We had cuffs on him before he woke up. He didn't know what was happening. I told him his bond had been revoked, and he's going, 'Who revoked my bond? Who revoked my bond, man?' Shit, I didn't have the heart to tell him it was his mom that done it."

BURTON IS considered the Wyatt Earp of American bounty hunters. He's been in on more than 2,500 arrests. He once described his job to a reporter this way:

"You're sitting in the car in a bad section of town, drinking cold coffee, talking to stupid people and there's not much romance. But there is adrenaline."

He calls the money he earns adrena-dollars.

"I picked up this lady one time in Mobile. I was driving her to California. We're in Slidell, La., and she defecated in the back of the van. I was up front with another guy, and by the time we got a whiff of it she was throwing the stuff at the back of our heads.

"We pulled off the road to a farm house and jumped out. We're screaming and cussing. Oh, my God. There was a farmer sitting on the porch, and I'm thinking, 'Please have a hose, not a well.' He had a hose. We dragged her out of the van, stripped her and tied her to tree and hosed her and hosed her. Almost out of revenge. Then we turned the hoses on ourselves.

"Here's these two guys and a 300-pound chick and we're all covered with shit. And the best part is the farmer, he never said a word. I still have this picture of him sitting up there watching. He must've thought, 'Boy, these Californians have some weird sex habits.'

"I hosed out the van, the dashboard, everything. This was April and the nights were chilly. We're driving along, about four hours later, and I turned on the heater and bingo, out comes more shit that's embedded in the heater screen. And she's threatening to do it again.

"Finally I pulled over and said, "Look, lady, if you do, I'm going to tie a 55-gallon plastic bag around you and make you sit in it the whole way back.'

"We made up on the way home. I told her I understood. Fugitives are frustrated and they need to take it out on somebody. Last I heard she was running a rehab house for women in Santa Barbara. She sends me a Christmas card every year."

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March 30 - April 5, 1995

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