Bounty Hunter : A Character Out of Past in Comeback

Times Staff Writer

Craig Stephenson was hunting.

He jacked a hollow-point round into his semiautomatic pistol, then tucked the gun into the back of his jeans, near his handcuffs.

His quarry was a fugitive wanted for attempted murder, Jason Zeise.

Stephenson had been tracking him on and off for weeks, ever since the 18-year-old Zeise had shot a man in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun, left jail in nearby Sacramento on $5,000 bail and vanished. Now, at last, Stephenson had tracked him here, to the kind of tranquil, suburban neighborhood where only missing puppies are hunted.

Taking a deep breath, Stephenson stepped from his white Ford, the kind of nondescript sedan detectives love, and walked toward the front door of Zeise's rented duplex. "This is about the time my adrenaline gets going," he said.

Once a Sales Clerk

Stephenson's mission to arrest "that little punky kid" in the duplex might have called for SWAT teams and back-up units. But Stephenson, 27, is no cop. He looks more like the hip clothing store clerk he once was. And as he stepped up on the porch, he knew there would be no reinforcements if there was trouble.

It comes with the job when you're a bounty hunter.

With police departments throughout the United States complaining that they have been swamped by growing backlogs of fugitives, bounty hunting, once an all-but-extinct reminder of the Old West, is making a comeback.

Ten years ago, there were perhaps fewer than 50 full-time bounty hunters nationwide, old-timers in the business estimate. Today there may be more than 1,000, with as many as 200 based in California. No one knows their numbers for sure because bounty hunters, who generally work for bail-bond agents, are not licensed and usually keep low profiles.

Arrest Warrants Jump

What is certain is that in the last five years, the number of felony and serious misdemeanor arrest warrants throughout the county has jumped 34%, up from 201,000 in 1982 to 269,362 in July of this year, according to FBI statistics. Many of those warrants are for fugitives with prices, however small, on their heads--a financial incentive that has helped make bounty hunting what it is today.

Hollywood and the written word also have had an impact.

There's been a movie ("The Hunter" starring Steve McQueen); a television series ("The Fall Guy," in which Lee Majors played a stunt man and part-time bounty hunter), articles in Soldier of Fortune magazine and even a how-to book ("Bounty Hunter").

"What you got now are bounty hunters galore coming out of the woodwork," grumbled J. Leonard Padilla, 48, of Sacramento, who has been in the bounty-hunting business 15 years and for whom Stephenson works.

It is a business dotted with eccentrics who themselves have sometimes run afoul of the law, human "repo" men who can never seem to remember the names of their quarry but can always recall the amount of the reward.

"A guy came in here one day wearing camouflaged fatigues with a Doberman as big as a horse and carrying every conceivable weapon you can hang from a combat belt," Padilla said. "He tells me, 'I want to be a bounty hunter.' Bounty hunter? I'm thinking, man, we should send this guy to find the MIAs in Vietnam."

Veteran bounty hunters concede that their business has attracted more than its share of Rambos, and there continue to be incidents of violence. In May, a bounty hunter from Hemet, Dennis Thompson, was charged with murder after allegedly shooting a fugitive in Phoenix. Thompson, 23, was not jailed and is himself on the run.

Increasingly, however, today's bounty hunters are fast-talkers who use guile rather than guns to quietly retrieve hundreds of fugitives around the United States each day. Many bristle when called bounty hunter, preferring instead "recovery agent," "pick-up man" or "skip tracer."

Their best weapon, they say, is not a sawed-off shotgun or pistol, but the telephone.

On it, a good bounty hunter will spend hours at a time making calls and lying to people who might know the person he is tracking. Bounty hunters routinely pose as salesmen offering free stereos, lawyers doling out inheritances and even distant relatives looking for love. With each guise, they subtly try to extract information that could lead them to their quarry.

Usually Not Murderers

What's more, the people they pursue (called "skips" because they skip out on their bail and fail to appear in court) usually are not murderers, rapists or robbers, for whom law enforcement agencies sometimes offer sizable rewards. The bounty hunter's bread and butter are usually burglars, low-level drug dealers, prostitutes, forgers and the like who bail out of jail and do not show up for court.

So why do bounty hunters continue to suffer a "bring 'em back dead or alive" reputation?

"We've been kind of asking ourselves that question," said Las Vegas bounty hunter W. Maurice Jones, a former Texas policeman who is trying to change the public's perception of what he does for a living.

About a year ago, Jones, 45, formed a national association, the "Professional Bail Bond Recovery Agents," whose 75 members are striving to "be more professional."

What that means is hard to say exactly, Jones admitted. Asked if his association has adopted a code of ethics, Jones carefully pondered the question.

"Hmmm," he said after some thought. "Not a bad idea."

Craig Stephenson could have stormed into Zeise's home and grabbed him, and it would all have been perfectly legal.

Under federal case law established more than a century ago, a suspect released from jail on bail technically remains in the custody of his bail bondsman. Thus, if officially representing the bondsman and carrying proper paper work, a bounty hunter "may pursue (a fugitive) into another state, may arrest him on the Sabbath and, if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose."

"But you generally don't go right in," Stephenson said, as he knocked at Zeise's door. "You could get shot."

A shirtless man named Dale appeared. "I'm from the bail-bond agency," the bounty hunter announced. "Jason here?"

Even before Dale could respond, Stephenson was moving past him into the living room. A game show blared from the television. Dale shrugged and retreated to the couch.

A blonde pregnant woman, Zeise's 18-year-old fiancee, sat at the breakfast bar, talking to her mother on the phone. She glanced up, then nervously averted her eyes.

Stephenson caught her look and was already down the hall, in front of a bedroom with its door closed. From inside the room came a click, the sound of metal on metal.

While there are no hard statistics, some bail bondsmen say more and more people who make bail seem to disappear afterward. Some say as many as one in 10 fail to appear in court, affording abundant job opportunity for bounty hunters.

"That judge's black robe doesn't seem to count for much anymore," observed Celes King III, a South-Central Los Angeles bond agent and president of the 5,000-member Professional Bail Agents of the United States.

Many police detectives, meanwhile, contend that their daily caseload has grown so large that they rarely have time to pursue someone they have arrested previously when that person fails to appear in court.

The Los Angeles Police Department's eight-detective fugitive detail, for example, has seen its backlog of cases grow from 1,600 to 2,750 in the last 10 years, with no corresponding increase in personnel.

"We're at the saturation point," said Lt. Keith E. Ross, the unit's commander. "I'm not saying we should embrace the bounty hunter and put him up on a pedestal, but he does serve a definite function. If we don't have somebody like him going after many of these people (who jump bail), we're going to have a bigger problem than we've already got."

Bondsman Responsible for Bail

Bail-bond agents would be the first to agree.

When the defendant cannot pay his bail, a bond agent will do it for him. For a non-refundable fee paid by the defendant, usually 10% of the bail, the agent guarantees to the court that if released, the defendant will show up when ordered or the bond agent will pay the full amount of bail himself.

If the defendant fails to appear, a judge issues a warrant for his arrest and sets a deadline. Should the defendant remain at large after the deadline expires--in California, it is 180 days--the bondsman must cover the bail.

Enter the bounty hunter.

Seeking to avoid paying the full bail, many bond agents hire bounty hunters whose fees generally increase as the 180-day deadline draws nearer. In those waning days before a bond expires, it is not uncommon for a bondsman to offer an experienced hunter one-third or more of the bail amount plus expenses if he can find the skip.

The bounty hunter many turn to the business resident celebrity, "Papa" Ralph Thorson, 61, who lives in a ramshackle house in North Hollywood with a woman named Wanda and a Weimaraner dog named Baron.

"An adult version of hide and seek," is how the chain-smoking, soft-spoken Thorson describes his job. Bearded and bellied, he is a life master at bridge and an opera fan who, in his 40 years as a bounty hunter, has been shot or stabbed eight times while retrieving more than 12,000 skips.

It was on Thorson's life that the late actor Steve McQueen based his final movie, "The Hunter" in 1980. This is a licensed private investigator (most bounty hunters are not) who relies on astrology charts to help him locate fugitives. And although he has packed a .45 semiautomatic pistol, Thorson favors a non-lethal weapon called the "Prowler Fowler," which uses compressed gas to fire bean bags filled with buck shot.

After McQueen's movie, Thorson appeared on the Merv Griffin show and was featured in a host of TV news magazines. People asked him for his autograph.

"After the movie, everybody was saying, 'Oh, that looks like fun; I can do that; I can make a lot of money,' " Thorson said recently, sipping whiskey at the bar in his living room. "They keep ballyhooing all the excitement and the money. What excitement? What money?"

Like fishermen, many are lured into bounty hunting by dreams of catching lunkers--nonviolent felons with fat rewards on their heads--but invariably end up landing misdemeanor minnows.

Such has been Ernie Lopez's lament. After going through a messy divorce three years ago and "realizing I needed a change of life," Lopez, 38, quit his staid job in "mid-management project operations" for a Los Angeles-area aerospace firm and learned bounty hunting from a childhood friend, a Vietnam-trained tracker who he says was pulling down $6,000 a week.

Lopez has not come close to that yet. His biggest score, $2,000, came last year when he hunted down a reputed gang leader from Compton who had skipped out on $25,000 bail after being arrested for attempted murder. It took a full two months of "intensive investigation," including five nights of sleeping in the rain, to nab him.

Staked Out in Pomona

One warm evening not long ago, Lopez was staked out in Pomona, hunting an Orange County woman who had skipped out on bad-check charges. Forgetting for a moment the $150 he stood to earn if she showed up, Lopez opened his briefcase and pulled out a weathered reward poster. It promised $10,000 for the arrest of cocaine dealer believed to be heavily armed.

Had Lopez been a cartoon character at that moment, dollar signs would have begun dancing in his eyes.

"So help me God," he said, pounding the coke dealer's photograph with his trigger finger, "if I saw this dude on the street, for $10,000, I'd drive my car right through a steel door to get him."

If anyone has grown rich bounty hunting, it is probably Leonard Padilla of Sacramento, a straight-faced, bespectacled man with a law degree and a penchant for black Stetson cowboy hats. He openly boasts of earning more than anybody else per case--often 40% of the bond--but says he accepts pay only when the hunt is successful.

The secret to his success is likely the fact that his former wife, Rose, runs a string of bail-bond agencies that steers all of its business his way.

"A guy can make $250,000 to $300,000 a year in this business if he can think," Padilla said, refusing to say exactly how much he makes.

Nonetheless, he admits that he recently bought his 22-year-old son a $165,000 airplane and is footing his 20-year-old daughter's tuition at Stanford. His 16-year-old son wears a $3,000 emerald-and-cut-diamond ring, attends private school and drives a new pickup truck.

Looking for new challenges, Padilla in 1983 co-founded his own law school.

Like Thorson, Padilla rarely works the street anymore, preferring instead to send out other hunters, among them Stephenson and Mike Phelps, 39, a menacing-looking weight-lifter with a shaved head whom Padilla calls "the gorilla."

"I know if I can locate the skip and can put the Gorilla next to him, I'll get my money every time," Padilla said.

Stephenson turned the knob and opened the bedroom door. Jason Zeise, clad only in a pair of shorts, was standing on the bed, trying to pull himself out a sliding window. He had dyed his blond hair red and his wispy mustache a mousy brown.

"Get down, Jason!" Stephenson ordered, grabbing the skinny fugitive by one arm and the back of his shorts and hauling him to the floor. Zeise wrenched away from Stephenson's grasp. He was breathing hard, trembling.

"I've got a gun; I don't want to use it," Stephenson warned as Zeise continued to struggle. "Now put your hands behind your back."

"OK, man, OK." Stephenson put the cuffs on him.

They marched through the duplex past Dale, who was still watching TV; past the fiancee, who was crying; past the neighbors, who were gawking outside, and into Stephenson's car.

Jason Zeise was heading back to jail and marveling at his luck.

"If the cops had picked you up, they would have taken your girlfriend for harboring a fugitive and you would have been eating cement," Stephenson said as they drove toward Sacramento. "It wouldn't have been pretty."

"I'm glad it was you," Zeise agreed. "So how'd you find me, anyway?"

The bounty hunter smiled.

"It's my job," he said.

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