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?

She says Atkins tried to soothe her -- "'Now, Ms. Jones, there's no need to get upset'" -- and she said, "Oh yes there is, because you are out on the street and my fiancé's still incarcerated."

He wanted her to give the police a statement indicating that she was trusting him to pay her money back and offered to type it up himself.

"I think not," she said. "You are not gonna run that game sweet-talkin' me. When you return my money, I'll drop those charges."

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.

When he hadn't paid her by May, she told him she was going to the police.

"'I can't afford to make another bond,'" he protested.

She looked at him wryly.

"Well, join the club."

Atkins says he's paying Jones back. He's already repaid the Copelands, he adds, and he's sure that case will be dropped -- although the grand jury did just indict him. In the Texas County case, his attorney, Bill Green, negotiated with the prosecutor.

"We managed to get a very favorable disposition worked out," says Green, stressing that this is not an admission of guilt. "That case should never have been filed there; it's in the wrong venue. We thought it would behoove us to make sure the victim was taken care of so it didn't show up here."

On June 14, Atkins says, "I have until June 19 to make restitution, the face value of the check, which I'm going to do. I'm waiting until the last minute."

Atkins did indeed, at the eleventh hour, make restitution. He's now hoping the Texas County case will be dropped, leaving only the ATM felony in the city to resolve. Meanwhile, he still holds his license with the state, and he's still writing bonds.

"So you see how things are going?" he asks eagerly.

People have always liked Bill Atkins. Jones says even the police assured her that he was a good man, that he'd just run into some problems. Bonding supervisor Morgan says, "It wouldn't be right for us to not allow him to post bonds. He's just got, maybe, some bad work habits."

A clerk in Division 25 of the St. Louis Municipal Courts, seeing a stranger peruse Atkins' file, asks why, explaining warmly that she's known "Billy" for years.

He's counting on that kind of goodwill to restore his reputation -- that and cash judiciously applied, and shrewd negotiations, and the inertia of passing time. He's been sued before: for unpaid taxes; unpaid mortgage; unpaid credit-card, furniture and hospital bills. Always the suits were for relatively small amounts of money. Many were dropped along the way for failure to prosecute. A few tried to garnishee his wages through the wrong employer and gave up. At least one creditor is still waiting.

Atkins argues well; he once claimed he shouldn't have to pay child support because although he'd lived with the child's mother, he was sure he hadn't had sex with her during the three months in which the child could have been conceived.

That time, he lost.

Division 42 of St. Louis County Circuit Court, Tuesday, June 4. Slowly the benches of the courtroom fill, the defendants' summer clothes awkwardly bright beside their lawyers' dark suits. The lawyers are the ones joking, though, leaning over casually to ask last-minute questions their clients answer in monosyllables.

The judge moves through the docket swiftly. At 9:30 a.m., she calls for William Atkins, charged with stealing by deceit.


"William Atkins, William Atkins, William Atkins," she recites, scanning the benches. No one rises to come forward.

Her gavel slams.

"That will be a warrant."

Informed later that morning that his client -- or, in Old English terms, his prisoner and property, bound body-for-body -- did not appear, March does a double-take.

"He missed court? I got him on that [$10,000] bond!"

Another beat, and the realization sinks in:

"I gotta go pick him up."

March leaves the city jail and heads out to St. Louis County to get a certified copy of the bond. This piece of paper provides the only authority a bond agent needs to break and enter, cross state lines, use whatever force is necessary to deliver his client to the court. Once he has it, he'll get his "crew" together -- the bounty hunters, otherwise known as "the dogs," who hunt in a pack whenever possible.

Bounty hunters, in Missouri, can do pretty much as they please. Other states ban or license bounty hunters, but Missouri doesn't even know how many it has. Often they're people who can't get a bond agent's license because of a criminal conviction. Yet, as agents of the bondsman, they possess his powers -- powers that can exceed those of the police.

March used to bounty-hunt for Atkins, but he doesn't mind reversing. He likes hunting what some in the business call "the ultimate prey." Last year, he says, he "kicked in a door at a hotel, Goodfellow and Natural Bridge behind the Goody-Goody, and the guy was having sex with his girlfriend. He jumped up, butt naked, and put a .38 next to my heart."

March backed out slowly, knowing the cops were outside. And when the guy threatened to have March killed, he just shrugged.

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