The Bailout Artist

Bill Atkins, the bail bondsman who is free on bond himself, still takes money to get people out of jail. Why is that?

The phone at Quick Release Bail Bonds rings twice.

"May I help you?" inquires a deep, gravelly, sleepy-sounding voice.

The caller has a few questions for Bill Atkins, the bail-bond agent who owns the company.

"Well, I don't know why he'd be interested in talking to you," says the voice, sharpening fast. "But I'll ask him -- hold on."

The phone dangles, off the hook, for ten minutes.

Oldest trick in the book.

But then, a lot of people have logged time waiting for Bill Atkins.

They gave him money when they were desperate to bring a loved one home from jail, and when the loved one didn't materialize, they panicked. Some panicked too soon, others with good reason. Caught between employers, caught short for cash, Atkins was "working the deal" -- agreeing to write bonds he couldn't legally post and then passing them on to other bondsmen who could. It's a common but illicit practice, dicier still when the bond never gets posted and the agent tells his frantic client that he passed the money on to someone else to post it.

Atkins eventually found an employer and returned to writing his own bonds, but his problems weren't over. His original employer claimed he owed money for missing powers of attorney, claimed he'd passed a bad check in partial repayment, claimed he'd stolen money from an ATM account.

For perhaps the first time in his life, Atkins was making enemies. Friends said he was juggling, trying to pay debts. Atkins claimed he was being framed.

As usual, it was all about money: Money owed, lost, promised, scraped together and traded for freedom. And money as a lure, bloodying throats too hungry for caution.

Grandmothers and girlfriends, other bond agents and two-bit felons all spent months trying to sort out the truth about Bill Atkins. So did the police and, halfheartedly, the Missouri Department of Insurance, the state agency charged with policing guys such as Atkins.

But in the dark, slippery world of the bail-bond agent, facts hide in crevices.

And it can take a long, long time for the truth to come out.

Vickie Copeland went to the Bel-Ridge Police Department in March, claiming that on January 26 she'd given Atkins $750 in cash and a check for $7,500 to post bond for Donald Copeland but that Atkins had never posted the bond.

He couldn't.

A bail-bond agent needs to be affiliated with a general agent to post ponds, and Atkins' affiliation with C&M Bonding, one of the biggest firms in the state, had ended November 27 -- two months before Copeland gave him the money.

According to the report filed by Officer Chris Evenson of the Bel-Ridge Police Department, Atkins "admitted that he had taken the money from Ms. Copeland. He said that after he took the money, he remembered that he could not write bonds and he gave the money to another bondsman. He would not say who the other bondsman was."

Atkins eventually named Matt Leffert, who used to work with him for C&M. Leffert promptly received a subpoena from the Missouri Department of Insurance. He says he didn't know what the hell they were talking about.

"Before, when Bill didn't have a license, I would do some bonds for him to get him by, and he'd give me a couple hundred bucks," Leffert says with a shrug. "He probably figured I'd think, 'Oh, maybe I did.'"

When Leffert denied receiving any money, Atkins made restitution to the Copelands.

But not before he was charged with a Class C felony, stealing by deceit, in St. Louis County.

Soon other clients started calling court clerks, bond agents and, eventually, the Bel-Ridge, Clayton, St. Louis and St. Louis County police departments, fretting about their own bonds. A worried grandmother even wrote the Missouri attorney general, her handwriting overlarge and trembling. Atkins allayed some of the panic -- there were normal delays in the bond process -- and offered a list of high-priced murder and assault bonds he had posted to everyone's satisfaction. But the formal complaints were stacking up.

On December 7, somebody fired shots through the windows of his North Hanley office.

Meanwhile, Cody Ice of C&M Bonding, the general agent Atkins worked for until November, filed complaints against him in Texas County -- where he has been charged with a Class D felony for passing a bad check -- and in the city of St. Louis -- where a grand jury indicted Atkins on another Class C felony charge of stealing by deceit.

To spring Atkins from jail, his wife secured a cash-only city bond; Phil March, a professional bounty hunter and bond agent who's running for St. Louis circuit clerk, agreed to post the other two.

Other Missouri agents had been friends with Atkins, too, but they wouldn't touch those bonds.

"Everybody shamed him," recalls a grandmotherly bail-bond agent named Hazel Vernon. "Phil, may I say, has balls."

"I'd done a lot of bounty hunting for him, breakin' down doors," says March, a genial and still fearless 25-year-old. "He used to be a nice man."

Then he got tangled up in other people's money.

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