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Bounty Hunter : A Character Out of Past in Comeback

September 09, 1987|DAVID FREED | Times Staff Writer

ORANGEVALE, Calif. — 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.

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