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Bounty Hunter : A Character Out of Past in Comeback

September 09, 1987|DAVID FREED | Times Staff Writer

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.

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