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Zeke Unger, Professional Problem Solver, Separates the Truth from the Hype

Ever think of just dropping out and running off to an exotic island where no one will find you?

Sounds nice sometimes: leave your problems and bills behind… move to a new state or tropical part of Mexico… no one would know, right? Calgon, take me away!

Ahh… a fun little fantasy for some of us. But for others, hide and seek is a serious, grownup game.

People who get in trouble with the law and skip town sometimes think that hiding from their problems will make the trouble go away. As a bail bondsman in Los Angeles, I have the occasional need to find someone who doesn’t want to be found. While people often think this is what bail agents do, it’s really a very small aspect of the bail bond business.

Bounty Hunting is a Job for Professionals

It's not easy to find someone who doesn't want to be found; so professional bail bondsmen rely on the experts: “fugitive recovery agents” who specialize in finding and bringing people to justice.  Contrary to the media image, most recovery agents, known as bounty hunters, are well trained and experienced professionals who conduct their business in a careful, legal manner.If you use our bail company and decide to skip bail you’ll have the opportunity to meet Zeke Unger: a second-generation bodyguard and professional bounty hunter.  He has over 20 years experience, and his clients include Fortune 500 companies, individuals in the entertainment industry and bail agents. Unger describes himself as "a professional problem solver who specializes in difficult recoveries."

When it comes to bounty hunters, Unger says that it's "important to separate the truth from the hype." He wants people to understand how his work helps keep the jail and court system functioning smoothly:

"Without a way to bring people back to court, bail agents would be less likely to write bonds and people would stay in jail longer than they have to. Think about how overcrowded the jails are as it is!  The police can't chase after all these people. Sure, police do find fugitives, but it's usually by accident when they stop them for speeding or having a headlight out or a DUI, not because they're actively looking."

"No Assumptions" When Looking for a Fugitive

When a defendant intentionally fails to appear, meaning his absence wasn't due to a misunderstanding, illness, or accident, he or she becomes a fugitive. Unger has a basic checklist he follows when asked to locate a fugitive, although Zeke cautions: "Every case is different. Once you get complacent, you make mistakes – sometimes big ones."

He starts with the most obvious and moves on, never assuming anything.  "This profession doesn't work well with assumptions."

  1. Make sure the defendant isn't already in custody somewhere else. The defendant may have been arrested in another jurisdiction or be in immigration custody.
  2. Conduct thorough data research. Look for green card information, Social Security number, addresses, phone numbers, employers, etc.  This involves a lot of online research, as well as phone and legwork.  Agents must interview employers, friends, and family members.
  3. Employ ruses as necessary. Sometimes, friends and family members aren't willing to share information – even when they're the indemnitors on the bond and on the hook for the full amount of the bail.  So the agent may use various ruses to coax information out of them. Unger doesn’t share many details about this step, for obvious reasons! But, as you can imagine, this is where his work becomes interesting.
  4. Use the information to find and return the defendant. At times, this is as simple as traveling across town, but it may also entail travel to other states or even outside the country.

The bail bondsman plays an important role from the beginning, Unger says, because his first task is to study the bail application. The bail application is a legally required document. Some bail clients  think personal information requested invades their privacy, but it's necessary.  From the legal system's perspective, the bondsman is guaranteeing appearance in court.  If the application isn't filled out completely and accurately, Unger says the bounty hunter's job is a lot harder.  "I've seen paperwork that was only half complete or had fake phone numbers and other information. If the bail bondsman doesn't verify everything before writing the bond, it makes my job ten times harder later on."

That's why most reputable bail agents are careful to conduct a thorough bail interview before agreeing to write a bond.

International Tracing is Complicated and Expensive

Often, Unger says the family tells him from the beginning that the defendant has left the country.  But he's learned not to rely on that.

"One thing we don't accept as fact is that the person has left the country.  Ordinary people think that will make the problem go away, and crime families have been taught to give misinformation. If we just accept their word, we could be looking all over Mexico while the guy is staying with friends a mile away.  We exhaust all avenues locally and domestically before going international"

Unger is considered by many in the bail industry to be among the best at international recovery. He does it right – and legally. The recovery process is more expensive and time-consuming if the defendant actually has left the country. "It's more difficult, obviously, to work outside the United States," Unger explains, "but it's not impossible." Unless the defendant is accused of a serious, violent felony, most district attorneys and prosecutors aren't inclined to extradite him even when the defendant is found, because the return process is expensive, time-consuming, and involves tons of paperwork.

Even so, the bail bondsman is required to try to find and return the person. The bail bond company can't simply claim that the defendant has fled the country and ask the court to release the bond.  The court requires proof that the bail bondsman has found the fugitive and provided the prosecutor with the necessary documentation. If the prosecutor decides to take no action, then the court releases the bail, exonerating the bond – often called "getting off" the bond. The bail bond company and the indemnitor are released from responsibility for the bond.

Providing the proof is far from easy.  Identifying and locating an international fugitive a lengthy, multi-step process for the bounty hunter:

  1. Locate the fugitive. This can be difficult, and - according to Unger - "may involve extensive travel, subterfuge, even bribes to the family and others."
  2. Make a positive identification. You waste a lot of time and money chasing the wrong person.
  3. Get cooperation. Once found, the recovery agent has to reassure the defendant that he won't be extradited and convince him to cooperate. The agent also has to work with local officials to get proof that the person is in their community.
  4. Prove you've found the right person. With the cooperation of the fugitive and local officials, Unger arranges a meeting at the local police station.  He gets the fugitive's photograph, fingerprints, and documents from the local police that prove the person is living in the community.

With that information, the bail bondsman can prove to the court that the person has been found.  It's the prosecutor's decision to extradite or not.  Usually they don't, and the bail bondsman can petition the court to release the bond.

Unger recently traced one of our skips to a small town in Mexico. It took nearly ten months, the hiring of a local investigator in Mexico and costs us as the bail company five times what we made on the bond.

Think Before You Bail Someone Out of Jail

The term "bounty hunter" is inaccurate because it implies that the bail recovery agent is receiving a reward for finding the fugitive.  Actually, a bounty hunter's fee is a percentage of the bail amount – usually about 10% for domestic recoveries and as much as 35% for international tracking – plus travel, research and other expenses.

The process of tracking down defendants and returning them to the court is expensive and time-consuming for the bail bond company.  That's true no matter where the defendant is hiding.  Bail bond companies are careful when they write bail bonds because there's a lot of money at stake.

Remember how bail bonds work. The bond guarantees that a defendant will return to court to deal with the charges. If the defendant fails to appear (commonly called "skipping bail"), the judge issues a bench warrant for the person and requires the bail bondsman to bring back the defendant or pay the entire bail amount. The bondsman then looks to the indemnitor (the person who signed the bail bond contract) for the money.

When you sign a bail bond contract, you agree to accept full responsibility for the defendant to appear in court. If the person fails to appear and cannot be located, you're liable for the entire amount of the bail contract – not just the 10%.  The only way to avoid that payment is to find the defendant and return him to the court's jurisdiction within six months.  If a bondsman uses a bounty hunter, you’ll be billed for that expense as well.