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?

As for the complaints about Atkins, Toy says, the officer in charge of the case gets a call every other day.

"In some of them, he's taking money from Dick to pay Jane," Toy says, shrugging. "Everybody in the world's filing charges on him."

Atkins isn't worried. He says an investigator from the Missouri Department of Insurance, Frank Smith, has already cleared him:

Jennifer Silverberg
Atkins cashed a check to replenish the ATM at Liquor Shack. What happened next is anybody's guess.
Jennifer Silverberg
Atkins cashed a check to replenish the ATM at Liquor Shack. What happened next is anybody's guess.

"Frank Smith vindicated me from any wrongdoing as far as the state was concerned and reissued my license."

According to department spokesman Randy McConnell, that's not exactly accurate:

"We have an open complaint file against Mr. Atkins; we are still investigating him. And we don't suspend people: Either you have a license or you don't."

Atkins renewed his license in March; he is an agent in good standing until April 2003, unless the state decides to take action against him.

But because most people filed their complaints with various police departments, the state has only one formal complaint in Atkins' file, "that he took money from persons seeking bonds and turned it over to other persons," says McConnell. "It is a common operating practice by bail-bond agents across the state when they're not licensed in a certain venue. But that does not make it legal."

Amusement sneaks into his even, official tone.

"The other complaint against Mr. Atkins was brought by a bondsman who complained that he had not been given his fee [for posting a bond for Atkins]. When we pointed out that this was not a legal transaction in the first place, he withdrew the complaint."

When Lazelda Jones needed a bail-bond agent to get her fiancé out of jail in February, she decided she didn't want to go around asking people for recommendations.

"I just went to the Yellow Pages," she says. "You figure, going through the Yellow Pages, I wouldn't have any problem."

She found Bill Atkins and told him her fiancé was up on federal charges, with bond set at $50,000. That meant a fee of $5,000 -- and she only had $3,000 at the time.

She remembers the relief that drenched her when Atkins said, "'Sweetheart, if anybody can get this done, I can.'"

And she remembers the moment she realized he couldn't.

Atkins doesn't care to talk about the details, but he admits he still owes Jones money.

Here's Jones' version:

She says she promised to pull together four other sponsors and as much cash as she could scrape up. She gave Atkins $3,000 that night and $955 more as soon as she could.

Then a friend told her Atkins was having some legal problems.

Jones called and told Atkins she didn't feel comfortable with him as the bond agent. She says he reassured her that his problems wouldn't have any effect on her. He was already trying to get her fiancé out, he said, just needed an appointment with a judge but couldn't get in.

"Three or four weeks later," Jones says, "I started getting kind of fidgety, and I did some background-checking. I found out who his underwriters were and spoke with Cody Ice. Then I popped into Atkins' office and said, 'Look, I did some homework. You have more than legal problems. I want you to reimburse my money.'"

She says he told her that would take a few days because it was in escrow. They would meet the following Thursday.

That Thursday morning, Atkins' daughter called to warn Jones there might be a bit of a delay.

Bill Atkins was in jail.

"Put in their little dog cage, treated like a common criminal," he fumed later. "And I knew 'em all. I'm the guy who has bonded out police officers and correctional officers and never charged them a dime because it's good for business."

Jail derailed him. But when he emerged and heard Jones' "I don't know what your fucking problem is, but being that you have my money, you are going to have a bigger problem" on his answering machine, he called her immediately to arrange another meeting.

This time, shortly after she arrived at his office, a Bel-Ridge police officer showed up. Officer Chris Evenson had brought Donald and Vickie Copeland with him to investigate what would become the St. Louis County felony charge against Atkins. The Copelands wanted to know why he'd taken their money but hadn't posted the bond.

Jones says that when Evenson suggested she step outside, she stepped forward instead:

"I'm not going anywhere. I'm here for the same reason they are!'"

She said she was willing to give Atkins time to come up with the money, and she was. But after Evenson left with the Copelands, she had a few more words for Atkins:

"You said you could get this done for me, and I took your word for that. Being that you are a bondsman, I put my money in your hands."

Atkins asked her to give him just a couple more days, and she agreed. But as they talked, she says, "It slipped that he had to take my money to make his bond. I said, 'Ex-cuse you? You give me that receipt, and when you go to court, I'll go with you and get my money. You are now property of mine."

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