October 23, 2002 News & Features » Cover Story


Strong Bonds 

A Life spent bailing people out of jail isn't for everyone. But somebody's got to do it.

The police said they wanted to take him in for being drunk in public. Just drunk in public. But once they got him to jail, she says, they charged him with driving under the influence, reckless driving, hit and run. "They lie," she says with worn-out anger. "They lied to us."

Jonathan Mills, bail bondsman, sits next to the woman with the waterfall of braids and flowered shirt, half-listening while he fills out forms. He's not a friend, exactly — but here, he's the closest thing to one.

She fishes a wad of 20s, 10s and fives from her wallet for the bond. Her brother was a bounty hunter, she says. "I'm used to all these rules," she says. "Rules and regulations. That's what I always taught my son, to live by rules and regulations." Somewhere in the boxy government complex, he waits, invisible.

"It was jammin' last night," says the bondsman. He leans back in his office chair, legs sprawled under the desk. "It was slammin'. Apparently, everybody and his mother got locked up last night."

Now it's afternoon on a brilliant, blue-skied Saturday. Downtown Petersburg is quiet, holding its breath until nightfall. Sycamore Street is a row of dim storefronts: Crazy Discounts, its windows crammed with wigs and silk roses. BA African Hair Braiding. The Muhammad Study Group.

The one spot that never sleeps is a modest office tucked next to an old bank, its plate-glass window labeled BONDS. This is the operations center of Mr. Bail.

Just across the street stands the Petersburg General District Courthouse, the closet-sized magistrate's office and the dismal city jail. Inmates plod out slowly, escorted by brown-shirted deputies. In baggy suits with broad Technicolor stripes of orange or green, they look like movie crooks.

For a bail bondsman, there's no better spot to call home. The residents across the street are, after all, Mr. Bail's customer base. "I don't want to say inmates," Mills says. "Our clients."

Thomas Nixon started the business in August 2001, in a small office in Church Hill. He moved to Petersburg, he recalls, after an unfortunate wino was tossed through his window one night. The man lay on the floor, covered in glass, until Nixon found him the next morning. His agents get people out of jail from Goochland to Richmond to Henrico. The company motto is simple: "Any Court, Any Jail, Anytime."

Nixon's forearms are marked with tattoos of Hot Stuff the cartoon devil, Chinese characters and a steadily staring lion. A thin tendril of smoke curls from his cigarette. "I do have a bad habit of smoking," he says. "Excuse me."

Beside the ink and smoke, nothing about Nixon, 35, matches the film archetype of a scruffy, seedy, ill-tempered bondsman. His voice is gravelly but polished. He wears understated suits or "Mr. Bail" T-shirts, neatly tucked in.

As a kid he wanted to join the police, he says, but became instead a private investigator in Philadelphia. After several years, Nixon tired of that job and came to Richmond to set up his own business as a bondsman.

Nixon came here, he says, for good business opportunities and the school system. He's the father of three boys, 13, 9 and 6 years old. "Virginia's a good place to raise kids," he says.

Mills, Nixon's protégé, has been in the business since April. A big man with a calm demeanor, the loudest thing about him is his ever-present cell phone. It blares an electronic rendition of the "William Tell Overture," which Mills — and no one else — delights in hearing.

"Don't want to hear that mess," says his colleague, Willie Toppin.

"Gonna lose your phone," Nixon warns.

Mills just smiles and nods his head in time. Da-da-dum, da-da-dum.

Toppin, 28, got into bail bonding "just for the adrenaline rush," he says. Though not an agent yet, when it's necessary to chase someone he's the runner. "Tom smokes and he eats," Toppin says, gesturing toward Mills.

When Toppin's not out with clients, he prowls neighborhoods in search of future clients, passing out business cards. "You go to the hood or the trailer parks, whatever — they don't talk to suits and ties." Toppin's inordinately pleased when anyone recognizes him as the star of the Mr. Bail television ad that ran for a year on UPN 65, in which he played an inmate walking out of jail.

Nixon employs two other bond agents, both women, and a Virginia State University student named Tammy who takes calls in the office. Her family is also in the bonding business, in South Carolina, Nixon says. It's fairly common in the industry for families to stick together.

"I'm hoping my boys help Dad out," Nixon says. "My 13-year-old wants to be a bounty hunter. I'm trying to scare him away from that."

"I used to call him 'baby son'," she says. "He said, 'Mama, don't call me baby no more.' Now he got a daughter, so I call her grandbaby. When she gets to be 15, 16, she'll say, 'Mama, don't call me grandbaby in front of my friends.'"

Mills has been waiting for half an hour or so. His client's mother is just warming up to her story.

"I told that officer he was trembling all over," she says, thinking of the night before. "He just kept asking for a light for a cigarette, over and over." But they wouldn't even let him have a smoke, she says. They wouldn't even tell him the full charges.

"You ain't supposed to lie if you're wearing a badge," she says, rapping hard on the wooden bench for emphasis. "He said, 'Man, be honest. Tell me what you're going to charge me with.' When he got here, the whole thing changed."

At intervals, Mills nods and makes little listening sounds.

Her son has been in trouble for drugs before, she says, but now he's straightened out his life and has a steady job. "He doesn't want his daughter ever on welfare," she says, "as long as he's got two legs and a feet."

She stares down the cinderblock hallway. Her boy's father is dead, she explains. "He was sitting on the steps waiting for his dad to get him," she says. "His daddy was killed by a crime when he was 1 year old."

Politely, Mills interrupts. "You have a car, miss?" He is thinking about collateral.

Yes, she tells him.

She still can't believe her son's in jail. He was just trying to get himself home safely, she says. "There is no designated driver," she explains. "So you try to designate yourself to the safest spot." Which, as it turned out, was the neighbor's front yard.

"What makes a 21-year-old go and drink? He thinks that's the solution."

Mills grunts noncommittally.

"But he's not no bad child," she says.

The office of Mr. Bail looks more like it belongs to an insurance adjuster than a bondsman. It boasts floral-print sofas and an arrangement of silk flowers, a gurgling water cooler, tidy desks and computers. "We don't have no guns in no drawers." says Mills. A dry-erase calendar on one wall is printed in bright marker with the agents' birthdays.

On a quiet Friday morning, an episode of "Moral Court," with static-pocked applause, unfolds on the television. It's slow today. "Let it be a nice, quiet night — it's not a good night for us," Toppin says. Rain and cold keep people inside and out of trouble. But on a hot summer night, people feel the urge to roam and the phones will inevitably ring. Sometimes on a Saturday night, young people dressed to dance will stop by Mr. Bail on their way to a nightclub. "Some of 'em say, 'Give me your card, 'cause I'm getting drunk tonight,'" says Nixon.

At Mr. Bail, every day is a business day. The agents must be ready to go at any hour, and there are no days off. "You lose a lot of credibility if you don't get up for these people," Nixon says. "Sometimes you only get one call."

Agents must also be speedy. Mills says he can make Goochland in 45 minutes, Henrico in 20, Riverside (and the women's prison) in seven. Their range includes six counties and thousands of inmates — all potential clients.

Nixon pays his staff not just to make bonds, but to answer phones, enter data and keep track of his clients. He works about 60 hours per week, and is always on call. Yet he enjoys the job, he says. "I'm educated, so I could find another line of work, another business to go into."

To be a bond agent, the agents say, you need memory. Speed. Patience. And an indefinable toughness. "It's not for everybody," Nixon says. "It can be strenuous on you." But, he adds, "It can be profitable for someone who's willing to put in the time."

"That's all it is," Mills adds. "Just time."

"When I first started in the bond business I thought the police wouldn't like us," Nixon says. "They put these people in jail and we put them back on the street." But they maintain a mutual respect, he says.

Relationships between different bond companies are friendly, for the most part. For instance, Nixon got advice on starting an agency from veteran Grace Zimmerman, the first female bond agent in Richmond. And agents will pass jobs to each other when they're too busy to handle even one more.

Nevertheless, competition is high. The state doesn't keep track of exactly how many bail bond agencies exist in Virginia, because bond agents' licenses are lumped with insurance agents'. But the greater Richmond area phone book alone lists more than 40 agencies, many with multiple locations. The "Bail Bonds" section of the yellow pages is splashed with costly full-page color ads and bold-type slogans. Competition extends to the alphabetical order of names: A Aabacus Bonding Co. just barely gets in ahead of the A Aabate Bail Bonding Co.

The bail business isn't as wild as it was, and Nixon, for one, is glad of it. Only a few years ago, he says, all you had to do to become a bondsman was pay $15 for a background check and $15 more for a license. "Basically, you had anybody and everybody writing bonds. It was ugly," Nixon says. "Back in 1999 you had bondsmen fighting out in front of the magistrate's office over bonds."

Now the state keeps a closer watch over the industry. Any bondsman who, like Nixon, relies on an insurance company, not his own collateral, to back up his bonds must get a property and casualty insurance license from the state, after taking an insurance class and passing an exam. The state Bureau of Insurance regulates surety agents, while one circuit court judge in each county is responsible for watching over local companies.

"I like the fact that [regulation] is required, because I think it really changed the business from the hustler to the businessman," Nixon says. Bonding companies that post their own collateral, however, aren't regulated by the state. And abuses still happen, in both kinds of companies. The most common, says Katha Treanor, a spokeswoman for the State Corporation Commission, are agents failing to report bonds to their insurance companies or agents practicing without a license.

Nixon says there's more. He's seen one bail company charge Latino families the full amount of the bond instead of 10 percent, he says. "They'll pay it. Because they just want to get out of jail." Another company, he says, won't give back the collateral required of the co-signer. "It makes a bad name for the industry."

Nevertheless, Nixon says, he's glad that Virginia allows bail bonding to be a private enterprise. In some states, like his native Pennsylvania, the state runs the bonding process and ends up losing track of too many people, he says. "Philadelphia has 73,000 active warrants on the street," Nixon says. "They don't have the resources to locate the people and put them in jail."

Over and over, Nixon says he staunchly believes independent bail bonding is essential to the community. "I'm not defending the business because it's the business that I'm in. It's a needed service," he says. "I had some misfortunes when I came to Virginia. If no one got me out on bond.…"

Mills echoes his feelings. "You can't do nothing in jail for yourself," he says. "By being back out on the street you can find your lawyer, get your witnesses…. The judge, he puts you in jail, but who's going to pay your bills for you?"

Outside the Henrico magistrate's office, a happy reunion is taking place. A young woman, just released, swings a small child up into her arms and hugs the others who have come to get her. The sound of laughter rings through the double glass doors.

Mills and the mother watch the commotion. They've been waiting for about an hour and a half.

She's helped raise lots of kids, she says, babysitting to make ends meet. She's been a hotel maid, too. So many jobs, she says. She doesn't sleep much.

"You're like my mom," Mills says. "A strong black woman. You take care of everybody."

She nods. "I raised my son all my life to trust the system," she says. "I know Douglas Wilder. I even know Chuck Richardson."

Another family is reunited in the hall. Two young women and a girl about 8 years old greet their brother, neat and smiling in a suit. "You lost 20 pounds!" one says, admiring. They waste no time in walking out the door.

For many, this is as familiar a spot as the post office.

The bail process has a way of bringing families together. Just yesterday, Nixon says, a family arrived from Florida to consult him about posting bail for a young man arrested in Virginia. The mother was distraught, telling him, "I just want my son out of there. He's never been in trouble, he goes to church, he's a model student."

The agents listen politely to people's pleading, their anger, their fear. The bond, however, doesn't budge.

There's a local man, an employee at Philip Morris, who has posted bail for his son three or four times. The agents at Mr. Bail know the kid by now. He's a joker, always making them laugh, but "he just stays in trouble," Nixon says. Every time the father vows, "I'm not getting him out this time. I'm not getting him out this time." And then he relents. "Tom, I need you to go get Matt."

Nixon's seen hundreds of families scrape up the cash for their sons, daughters, brothers and fathers in trouble. "They're grateful, once everything is done," Nixon says.

Hard-luck stories are as much a part of the job as the hard wooden benches outside magistrates' offices. But even veteran bondsmen hear stories that make them shake their heads, like the man who recently called Mr. Bail, frantic, because he'd been arrested on a $5,000 bond for failing to obtain the proper work permits. That's $500 his family must find, Nixon says, while "he's only trying to work."

Some times are tough for raising bond money, such as holidays and the start of school. That's when Nixon sees lots of larceny cases; people stealing for Christmas gifts, for school supplies. But that's also when paychecks have already been spent and families just don't have the money for bail.

Then there are the domestic-violence cases. Too often, Nixon says, two or three hours after a man's arrested for beating his girlfriend or wife, "she's calling us, trying to get her husband out." He doesn't allow victims to act as the co-signers, he says, because the few times it happened, "a week later she's calling me, saying, 'I want to put him back in jail.'

"We learn by our mistakes, basically," Nixon says.

Her son was named by a lady who talked in tongues, says the mother. When he was small he used to tell her, "Mama, I got a reason why I'm here." She listened and wondered what he would become. The supernatural has always hovered over him, she says — like the day of his father's funeral, when her tiny son stood silent by the grave, transfixed. "It was like he was spellbound by gravity to earth," she says. "I could not even pick my own son up."

Now he is grown, 21, with a 5-month-old daughter of his own. "I love him," she says. "I'm not going to let the streets take my child."

Mills sprawls on another bench in the hall, making soft snoring noises. He rouses himself and yawns. The mother looks over. "You and me been up all night together," she says.

It's 5 p.m., two hours since Mills arrived to rescue her son. "This is the boring part," he says. You can never tell how long the county jail will take to free a man.

"Where he at?" Mills asks, mostly to himself. "I think I heard his voice," says his mother, and pauses. "This system should not take this long to get somebody out."

A teal pickup truck pulls up outside Mr. Bail on Sycamore Street and a man leaps out. He runs up to the door, pokes his head inside and announces, "You see me, right? I'm right here." As soon as the agents acknowledge him, he races back to the truck and speeds off.

Nixon's mantra is "Minimize risk." That's why he requires clients to check in at least once per week. And that's why his agents ask clients for personal information and take their pictures. Then, they'll call the jail to verify the facts, "'cause they'll tell you anything to get out of it," Mills says matter-of-factly.

People sometimes try to scam him, Mills says. "They tell you anything in the world about they have this, they have that. … 'You get me out, I'll get you money in 20 minutes.'"

Thus the bond agents require the client to name a co-signer — someone dependable, because "initially, I'm going to go after them to collect the money," he says. If the client lives out of state, the co-signer provides collateral worth 10 percent to 15 percent of the bond. He or she is responsible for the client showing up on the appointed court date.

When clients protest, Mills gets tough.

If they say they have no co-signer: "You going to tell me that you don't have no friends. You don't have no mother or father? How did you get into this world?"

If they're reluctant to surrender information: "Either you fill this out or I'll put you back in jail."

And some don't understand exactly how the business works, despite the contract they sign. After their trial, clients often call to ask, "Can I get my money back?"

The bondsman records the charges and court date, and will often call the client to remind him or her to go. The majority who skip their initial hearings in court simply forget, Mills says. Tracking down someone gone missing, he says, is usually as simple as calling his mother's house or asking around on the street.

If someone skips town, the bondsman has 60 to 90 days to locate the fugitive and bring him or her back before the court claims the full amount of the bond from the company.

Since Mr. Bail opened, it hasn't had one forfeiture, Nixon says. And that, he says, is because they're careful.

"Some bondsmen get up at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning and basically say, 'Just sign the thing,'" he says. Nixon and his agents examine each case carefully. A client's a risk if he gives false information on the phone. Or if he lives out of state, or if he's known to have skipped before, or if he has a high-dollar bond.

Nevertheless, "it's hard to be judgmental," Nixon remarks. When he first started, he decided "that rape's not a bond I want to do, murder's not a bond I want to do." Now, he says, he'll take such cases with careful consideration. Everyone's innocent until proven guilty, after all.

A big part of this job, Mills says, is "just trying to get into people's heads and see what's going on." Nixon won't take a client if he's verbally abusive on the phone, or worse, if he's already discussing how he'll get revenge on his release. When clients let slip threats like, "I'm gonna deal with him when I get out," Nixon replies, "No. You're not getting out then, not with me.

"We don't want to see harm come to anybody because we post bond," he explains.

Of course, it's not uncommon for a client to commit another crime while out on bail, he says — just the other week, he heard, a man freed by another bondsman Wednesday night got into trouble. By Thursday morning he was in jail again. "Apparently, he don't like to be free," Mills says with a chuckle.

At the Henrico courts complex, the minute hand creeps toward 6. She heaves herself up to go look outside, to see if by chance they missed him. Maybe her son is waiting by the car.

While she's gone, the magistrate calls Mills into her office. A dot matrix printer starts up: zeet zeeeet zeet. The only other sound is the soft exhalation of the air conditioning.

The mother returns with her husband, who has come to greet his stepson. A thin man with a quiet smile, he stands while she uses the pay phone to call one of her nieces. The girl gets frightened when she's home alone, the mother explains. "No, there's no such thing as the boogieman," she says in a soothing voice. "Old houses make strange noises. It's the ground moving."

She hangs up.

Suddenly, with no warning, he is here. He walks out with a bit of a swagger, wearing a blue work shirt with his name embroidered on the left breast.

Once outside, he lights a cigarette and Mills hands him some forms to fill out. He seems more irritated at the delay than relieved to be free. The sheriff's office lost his paperwork, Mills discovers, and no one knew he was supposed to be released this afternoon.

The bondsman snaps a few digital pictures of the young man, who grins for the camera. His mother asks if he's hungry, but all he wants is a pack of smokes. Mills watches them leave.

Then once again, it's the "William Tell Overture" sounding at Mills' side.

"Damn," he says. "I got to turn this phone off." S



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