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ON THE LAW

Bounty Hunters Are Stalking a New Image

A 1999 state law designed to rein in renegades has produced a new breed. But respect can still be hard to earn.

January 25, 2002|STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was Friday night and party time at a Pico Rivera nightclub, and young men in cowboy hats and women in tight dresses lined up to get in. As they chatted, little did they know that a pair of binoculars was trained on them from 200 yards away.

"Hey, check the white hat," Reed McInroy, a tall hulk of a man, said as he passed the glasses to his partner in their rented Isuzu sport utility vehicle.

"Nope, not him," Bob Shandrew said after a quick look. Shandrew had a 9-millimeter Smith & Wesson strapped to his hip, McInroy a .45. Both wore protective vests.

The pair are bounty hunters. They make money tracking down people who have a price on their heads.

For six months, their prey has been an "armed and dangerous" ex-con from Sonoma County who skipped bail on a dozen burglary-related charges. If they don't bring him in, their employers will be out $100,000. And they will miss out on a $10,000 bounty.

The men are part of a new breed of bounty hunters, trained and regulated under a 1999 state law designed to rein in renegades and tame the Wild West spirit that had tarnished their profession for more than a century.

These days, newcomers to the field prefer to be called fugitive recovery agents.

The law requires bounty hunters to receive state-approved training on arrest procedures and use of firearms. It excludes ex-cons from their ranks. And it requires the recovery agents to give police six hours' notice before making an arrest in most circumstances.

There are 15 to 20 full-time bounty hunters in California and 50 to 70 nationwide, with an unknown number of part-timers, according to state and national bail association officials.

Shandrew, 44, a 15-year Army veteran, splits his time between bounty hunting and being a bail bondsman. McInroy, 33, has been a full-time bounty hunter for three years.

Although determined to catch this fugitive, they say they will not do anything rash.

"If shots are fired, we retreat," said Shandrew, a big, calm man whose gray goatee and cap make him look like an undercover cop.

They're not police officers. But in some ways they have more power. Armed with a bail agent's authority, they can pursue fugitives into most other states and bring them back without going through extradition proceedings.

Bounty hunters possess their power because they represent the bail agents who posted the bond for defendants who then broke their promise to return to court. Such fugitives not only lose their bail but also face the prospect of being hunted down and recaptured by bounty hunters.

"In the old days, bounty hunters were outlaws ... who had decided it was more lucrative to chase bad guys than it was to rob banks," Zeke Unger, a veteran bounty hunter, said from his office at World Executive Protection in Van Nuys. "Since the beginning, bounty hunters have always been on the edge."

Even with the recent reforms, the shadowy image persists. The field continues to attract "the worst and the best," said McKenzie Green, a San Francisco bail agent and bounty hunter who wrote part of the bail for the fugitive Shandrew and McInroy seek.

Just last month, two bail agents got into trouble in Los Angeles County. On the trail of a drug defendant, they encountered the fugitive's girlfriend and allegedly forced her to accompany them in the hunt. They got their man, but they were later charged with kidnapping. One was accused of raping the woman. The charges are pending.

Bounty hunters say such incidents obscure the fact that they have captured thousands of dangerous fugitives without incident. And sometimes, they get blamed for things they didn't do.

That happened in 1997 in Phoenix when five armed robbers, wearing body armor and posing as bounty hunters, broke into a house at 4 a.m. and kicked down a bedroom door as a terrified man grabbed a firearm in a futile attempt at self-defense. He and his girlfriend were killed.

The assailants carried documents seeming to back their claim to be bounty hunters. By the time they were exposed as bogus papers, cries for reform had swept the nation.

California, with its Bail Fugitive Recovery Persons Act, is among the many states that have since passed laws to regulate bounty hunters.

"They've gotten more professional [since then]," said veteran Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Larry Landreth.

But not everyone in law enforcement agrees, saying some bounty hunters still illegally claim to be cops.

"I think they served a great role in the Wild West," said Burbank Police Capt. Gordon Bowers. "I'd be hard put to say the good outweighs the bad."

But he concedes that bounty hunters do serve a function, because police would rarely spend weeks tracking bail jumpers by staking out homes and haunts.

Shandrew and McInroy started tracking their current quarry when he failed to appear at a preliminary court hearing in Sonoma County.

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