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?

Four months later, Atkins was indicted by a grand jury for felony stealing by deceit.

He insists he is innocent.

He says he went to the bank with a friend who used to help him stock the machines, and they withdrew $2,500 to replenish the Liquor Shack machine in time for the holidays.

Atkins says he's a victim of "a conspiracy." Some clients and former partners disagree.
Jennifer Silverberg
Atkins says he's a victim of "a conspiracy." Some clients and former partners disagree.

"The machine takes heat-transfer tape; I'd been buying it out of my own money," he says, explaining that he'd stopped doing much servicing because he'd been angry with Ice. He says he couldn't get the machine replenished properly without the tape, so he and his friend put the money in the safe and called C&M to tell them the machine was loaded but not up and running.

"And lo and behold, this $2,500 comes up missing."

First a bail-bond agent will say how noble the industry is, how many righteous agents there are, how easily their collective reputation can be damaged. Then the agent will proceed to diss at least two other agents: She's a drunk. He's a crook. And so on. The ritual ends with woeful head-shaking as the agent bemoans how cutthroat this business can be.

But honest bail bondsmen do exist. They brace themselves in the stream bed and watch the neon eels and bottom-feeders dart through slimy rocks, swimming fast, currying favor with low-level court and jail functionaries, taking money to bond somebody out even when they know there's already another warrant that's going to land that person back in jail. There's little honor among the eels, and truth is hard to winnow from their dealings.

Responsibility slides too easily.

The bail-bond agent who handles the actual transaction with the client is the one who decides whether to take the risk and how much collateral to demand. But the bail-bond agent doesn't bear that risk himself. He collects the client's fee, posts the bond and keeps track of the client. The fee is supposed to be split with his general agent, who holds the powers of attorney that guarantee the bond. The general agent is ultimately responsible for repaying the bond if the client vanishes. And the general agent is often insured by a large company that knows nothing of the individual transactions or agents.

Although Atkins still holds a Missouri bail-bond agent's license, he cannot post bonds without the backing of a general agent. He is like a real-estate agent, working off someone else's license.

This loose structure leaves bail-bond agents plenty of room to dance between the lines, regulators say. Some have used the powers of previous employers to post a bond that looks legal and tidy, and as long as the client doesn't skip, no one knows the difference.

Except that the agent keeps the whole fee.

The industry needs heavier regulation, the honest agents say, and the Missouri Department of Insurance needs more authority. In other states, bounty hunters are either banned or required to pass tests and be licensed. In other states, a bail-bond agent who'd raised as much dust as Atkins might have already lost his license.

Keith Morgan, bonding supervisor for St. Louis County, explains the dilemma: "Until the state does something with his license, he can still post bonds. And until the court does something, the state's hands are tied. And if the state's hands are tied, then my hands are tied."

Bondage, indeed.

Atkins still doesn't see anything wrong with accepting bonds, then quietly passing them on to agents qualified to post them. He sees his downfall not in terms of broken rules and debts and delays but in scenes of Othello-and-Iago pitch, filled with jealousies and hatred, plots and greed.

He insists that his problems started back in February 2001, when, at Ice's suggestion, he took on two more agents. Atkins believes that one of them, Jerry Cox, was a mole, planted to learn the secret of his success so C&M could get rid of him but keep his volume.

"Cody Ice and I had such a good relationship, he called me nine or ten times a day," says Atkins, "until Jerry Cox came on board, and I was lucky to hear from Cody twice a month."

He sounds hurt.

"It was a conspiracy to put me out of business," he says.

But Ice says he was just trying to get his share of the bond fees.

Last fall, he and McAdams conducted several audits. They were looking for the individually numbered powers of attorney that the agents keep in an inventory so they can post bonds. Once an agent posts a bond, he attaches a power to it, reports that power used, collects the bond fee and splits it with the general agent.

"We found a lot of bonds that had been written and not reported," says Ice.

Atkins says his subordinates had used the powers without reporting to him. Because as supervising agent he was responsible for forwarding all fees, he says, he wrote Ice a check for $12,000 to pay the missing premiums. Then, he says, he wrote another check for the balance, $2,265.29, and asked Ice to hold it until he had the money.

« Previous Page
Next Page »