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?

And now he's out on bond.

Still writing bonds for other people.

Bounty-hunter Phil March: "If I don't come get you, somebody else will."
Jennifer Silverberg
Bounty-hunter Phil March: "If I don't come get you, somebody else will."
Atkins' radio spots for Quick Release Bail Bonds were still airing when he was indicted.
Jennifer Silverberg
Atkins' radio spots for Quick Release Bail Bonds were still airing when he was indicted.

Atkins stands six feet; wears immaculate white jeans, a black loose-knit shirt and snakeskin shoes; chain-smokes Salems. They're menthol, and they're sitting on the dash of his Champagne-colored Lincoln, right above his pack of Winterfresh gum.

Coolness, throughout.

Graying at the temples, with fine-drawn features, he suggests an aristocracy the unpaid bills belie. His best friend until recently, Mike Faulkner, remembers Atkins as supremely confident even in his teens. When the two went into the Navy together, Atkins got thrown in the brig for beating up not one but three Marines.

Faulkner says Atkins always aspired to success.

"In a black neighborhood, you've got bourgeois folks and you've got regular folks," says Faulkner. "He was part of the bourgeois -- the foster son of an older couple who provided very well for him -- and I was his gateway to the regular folks."

Atkins makes his living off regular folks now, the ones without enough money to post their own bonds. Relatives and girlfriends come to him in a panic, and he sizes them up, accepts a little less collateral than the other agents want, makes it up in the sheer volume of his business. He listens to garbled stories and calms hysteria: All will be well.

Ryan Massey, a young man who spent a few weeks with Atkins learning the business, remembers one night when Atkins did six bonds in a row, smoothing crisis after crisis as though he were born to it.

Originally Atkins put out real fires. He joined the St. Louis Fire Department in 1978, and by 1990 he'd made captain.

In 1994, he abruptly retired. Four years later, he followed Faulkner into the bond business.

"As a fire captain, Bill made good money," recalls Faulkner. "He went to fundraisers, knew everybody. He likes that type of lifestyle. Bail-bonding was the first thing that offered him that opportunity again."

For a time, the two worked together for C&M. Then the company president, Cody Ice, sent Faulkner packing.

"I told Cody he was betting on the wrong horse," says Faulkner. "But Bill's got a gift for gab and a lucky streak I can't explain."

Atkins says his luck comes from trying to lead a Christian life.

"I'm surprised the church don't burn up," mutters Faulkner.

A family business, C&M Bonding operates out of Houston, Missouri, and Cody Ice is famous statewide. Controversial himself, he exudes a twangy Ross Perot sort of charm, chuckling easily even when he's exasperated.

He still gets a tickle remembering the day he and his vice president, Marvin McAdams, spent waiting for Atkins. They'd come to St. Louis to audit his office, and they'd made a 9 a.m. appointment.

"He calls and says he's tied up, he'll be there later," says Ice. "So we wait. No Bill. Along into the afternoon, he calls again: His son has a dental appointment, so Bill can't be there before evening. We go back in the evening, and I'm ready to say thunder with it. Marvin is writing him a note we're going to stick in the door when these three people drive up, two women and a man. They jump out of the car and say, 'That so-and-so has our money and we're here to get it.

"I told Marvin, 'Sit down. This will be fun to watch.'"

In a matter of minutes, Atkins pulled up.

"They discussed the situation very plain with him," says Ice. "And he did give them their money."

Ice chuckles a little longer. Then he turns serious and begins to talk about the "wild ride" he had with Atkins:

"Initially he was top-flight. He did a tremendous job for us, he was a good agent, he looked after business. Then he got caught up in whatever it was, and he just took a nosedive. I've never seen anybody go into a downward spiral that fast."

It wasn't a spiral, says Atkins; it was a conspiracy to get rid of him because he'd stopped helping Ice with other business. Atkins had been servicing automatic teller machines for C&M Cash Advance, establishing about fourteen locations for the machines. He even brought in a young man to help him.

Then, according to Ice, $13,000 turned up missing from the ATM account.

No one had any proof of who'd taken the money, and Atkins wasn't convinced it was missing. But because he'd promised to be responsible for the young man's work, he offered to pay it back.

He says he'd paid about half when Ice forgave the balance.

Ice says Atkins hadn't paid anything but was doing very well selling bonds, so he forgave the entire debt.

On December 3, another $2,500 vanished.

Officer Terrell Robinson of the St. Louis Police Department noted in his report that Atkins had access to the C&M bank account for the purpose of replenishing ATMs and that he cashed a check for $2,500 representing that it was to replenish the ATM at the Liquor Shack on St. Charles Rock Road. Atkins was arrested and his bond set at $5,000.

"Bond is predicated by the person's prior record and their flight risk," Atkins notes. "I should have been gone on my own recognizance. This young guy at court told me, 'Your bond is $5,000, cash only, because you have caused us so many problems."

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