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Phoenix Deaths Reveal Fatal Flaws of Bounty Hunting

Law: Terrifying raid at wrong house brings new look at profession's Wild West ways and calls for restrictions.

September 03, 1997|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — Bounty hunter Linda Ownbey knew something was wrong when the two men stepped into her Phoenix office looking for work.

"I took one look at them and thought: No way. These guys are trouble," she recalled Tuesday. "They were wearing black pants, black T-shirts and combat boots; and they had a 'we're big and bad' attitude." She ran them off twice.

Ownbey counts 20-year-old Matthew Brackney and his father, David--suspects in a bungled raid that left a young Phoenix couple dead--among the problem fringe element of her trade.

That problem may have surfaced at 4 a.m. Sunday, when five men calling themselves "fugitive recovery agents"--clad in black clothes, ski masks and body armor--sledge-hammered through the front door of a house in Phoenix in search of a California bail jumper.

But it was the wrong house.

Two of the masked men, authorities say, tied up Luisa Sharrah, who had been asleep in a bedroom with her two daughters, ages 12 and 16. After binding Sharrah's hands and feet with cord, one of the intruders held her, the girls and her 11-year-old son at gunpoint. The others kicked down the door to a bedroom where Christopher Foote, 23, and his girlfriend, Spring Wright, 21, were sleeping.

Foote grabbed a 9-millimeter handgun, emptying his clip in self-defense and wounding two of the bounty hunters in their arms and legs. There were 29 bullet holes in the wall behind the couple's bed and an adjacent hallway.

The next day, relatives tearfully scrubbed off bloodstains in the home where Foote had lived for 13 years.

Police arrested Matthew Brackney and Michael Martin Sanders, 40, both of Phoenix, and charged them with two counts each of second-degree murder. David Brackney, 45, who was injured in the gun battle, was expected to face similar charges upon release from the hospital.

An intense manhunt continued Tuesday for two accomplices. They are regarded by police to be armed and dangerous.

In the wake of the incident, law enforcement authorities are dusting off old lawbooks and facing the fact that bounty hunting is the most unregulated arm of the American justice system.

"It is unconscionable that we allow these powers to private citizens," said Herb Kutchins, a professor of social work at Cal State Sacramento. "This is one of the secret shames of the justice system."

Operating under broad powers granted by the Supreme Court more than a century ago, the nation's estimated 2,000 bounty hunters routinely strap on bulletproof vests and long-barreled handguns to enter homes and automobiles without search warrants. They are held to looser standards than conventional law enforcement officers. And they enjoy almost carte blanche to use deadly force in self-defense when tracking down and apprehending their prey: wanted criminals who skipped bail.

As it stands, these guns for hire remain all but unregulated, although organizations such as the 1,500-member National Assn. of Bail Enforcement Agents offer their own classes, training manuals and equipment.

But for those wanting to bypass classwork and get right to work nabbing "skips," there is a "hunter starter kit" on the market that sells for about $205. It contains a black tote bag embossed with the word "agent" in gold on the sides, as well as a black jacket, black cap, black T-shirt, handcuffs, pepper spray and leg irons.

In most states, including California, there is no formal licensing process for these pseudo-cops. Only Indiana and Nevada require licenses, and Texas requires bail jumpers to be apprehended either by a licensed security guard or a private investigator.

With prisons overflowing and more people being released on bail, the bounty hunting industry is booming. Experts say about 35,000 people jump bail annually in the United States. They estimate that 87% are brought to justice by bounty hunters, who are paid up to 50% of the bond. These bounty hunters can break into homes if they believe a fugitive is inside. But they can be sued or face criminal charges if they are mistaken.

"There's been little change in the law since the territorial days when bounty hunters were used by sheriffs to look for people who had robbed stagecoaches," said Arizona state Sen. John Kaites, a former Maricopa County attorney.

"That was when law enforcement authorities were few and far between, and they accepted even crude and unsophisticated help," he said. "In 1997, we need other means to keep innocent people from getting hurt."

Law enforcement authorities across the nation Tuesday were calling for legislative inquiries into the industry--and curbs on the powers of bounty hunters.

Kaites is drafting legislation to require prospective bounty hunters to undergo extensive background checks and a formal permit process. It would also require that they notify police before entering an occupied structure.

"I was deeply disturbed by Sunday's shootings," Kaites said. "It made me think about my family and my loved ones being the innocent victims of bounty hunters who have the wrong address."

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