Bob Burton, the nation’s premier bounty hunter, has been punched, shot and had his head bashed. He describes his sometimes-lucrative job as “97% boredom and 3% terror.”
Burton travels nationwide in search of people who got bondsmen to post their bail and then skipped out on court appearances.
“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,” Burton said.
“But,” he added, “there is adrenaline.”
“I’ve been punched, had human waste thrown at me. I’ve picked up a 400-pound biker to have his 120-pound wife hit me in the back of the head with an iron. Knocked me out. He escaped.”
With a life like that, Tombstone--"the town too tough to die,” with its image of desperadoes and the lawmen who might cut corners to catch them--was an irresistible address for Burton.
“This town has got a romance to it,” he said of the one-time frontier mining boom town where Wyatt Earp shot his way into legend at the OK Corral.
Bounty hunters--some prefer “bail-enforcement agents"--collect 10% to 30% of a fugitive’s bail amount from the bondsman who was left on the hook.
Burton says a full-time agent could easily make $50,000 to $60,000 a year; he won’t say what he earns.
Burton says he gets his man, or woman, nearly nine times out of 10. He handles up to 200 cases a year and says only 3% to 7% of fugitives resist arrest.
“On the professional level, he has no peer,” said bounty hunter Alan Jacobs of Greensboro, N.C., who trained under Burton.
Burton, an ex-Marine, ex-insurance agent and one-time writer for Soldier of Fortune magazine, started chasing fugitives in 1959, and went into the business full-time in 1981.
He trained under the late Ralph (Papa) Thorson, inspiration for the Steve McQueen movie “The Hunter.”
Burton himself was a technical adviser on the Robert DeNiro film “Midnight Run” and has written two bounty-hunting books.
For police agencies, bounty hunters can be a help as long as they operate professionally, said Sgt. Bob Casey, a fugitive specialist with the Santa Barbara County sheriff’s department in California.
“When they do the right thing, they’re a great help because they help us get people off the street,” said Casey, adding that Burton is probably more active in the business than anyone else.
Jacobs acknowledged there are some “bad apples and cowboys,” but said they don’t last long.
“We weed them out ourselves,” he said.
Burton moved to Tombstone last year from West Palm Beach, Fla., bringing along his school, the National Institute of Bail Enforcement.
He offers a 23-hour course on techniques for finding fugitives and the legalities of the trade, which is allowed in every state except Illinois, Kentucky and Oregon.
Outside those three states, federal court rulings allow bounty hunters acting for a bondsman to enter a fugitive’s home without a warrant and take him across state lines without going through extradition.
Bounty hunters and bondsmen account for 22,000 fugitive arrests a year, Burton said.
Burton also heads the 700-member National Assn. of Bail Enforcement Agents. About 50 to 70 of the members are full-time bounty hunters.
Despite his rough-and-ready image, Burton says he prefers to get the job done with “trickery and mental work.”
He once mailed a woman a phony letter granting her presidential amnesty, enclosing round-trip plane fare from Detroit to New Orleans.
She was arrested at the New Orleans airport.
Burton made $8,000 without leaving home.