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?

"Everybody says they're going to kill me. I tell them, 'If I don't come get you, somebody else will.'"

It's a dangerous profession, and a changeable one. An hour later, March calls off his dogs: Atkins -- who says he was so busy doing damage control on his assets, he forgot the court date -- has called one of his lawyer friends, Ben Capshaw, to get him a continuance. The bond will not be forfeited.

The judge will have to wait.

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.

Who will speak well of Atkins now, in his hour of need? He brightens, rattles off a few names. The first is Anthony Francis, charged with homicide two years ago in California. Atkins flew to the West Coast and got him out on a $1.5 million bond. Now both Anthony and his brother Robert have been charged here in St. Louis with conspiring to distribute crack cocaine. Anthony's jury hung, but Robert was convicted. Scott Rosenblum, one of St. Louis's most famous criminal-defense attorneys, will represent Anthony at his California murder trial.

"I do a lot of work with Scott Rosenblum," Atkins says proudly.

When the comment is relayed, Rosenblum arches an eyebrow:

"I refer bonds to any number of bondsmen. There were a couple cases, period, where he did bonds for me." By last fall, Rosenblum says, "It was clear that Bill had run into some problems. During that period of time, I was not going to refer clients to him at all, and I told him that. I wish him the best recovery."

Robert Francis, meanwhile, wants a refund of $25,000 he says he invested in C&M Cash Advance. When he invested the money, which he says was a $20,000 check and $5,000 cash, he wasn't counting on needing it for legal fees.

Ice says the total was only $20,000 and that he has already repaid it by forgiving some of Atkins' debt to him.

Francis says that's not good enough. So Atkins has promised to help him try to get the money back.

Atkins' mentor, Ernest Troupe Jr. ("If you want to be free, call me") just shakes his head at Atkins' various and messy obligations.

"I met him a few years ago, when he was just beginning," says Troupe. "He seemed to be a very prolific person, up and on it. From time to time I would try to give him advice. I think he probably got overwhelmed by the business; he wasn't ready for it. So many people come to you with so many things, and you must draw a line and constantly watch yourself. I've had attorneys try to fast-talk me into things. So I go to continuing-education classes every year; we talk about do's and don'ts. I tried to get Bill to go, but he wouldn't."

Atkins must have figured he had plenty of business already. He treated clients respectfully, he moved fast, he had a big ad in the Yellow Pages.

"I figured anybody with an ad that big had to be good," recalls Massey, the aspiring bond agent who asked Atkins to teach him the trade.

"I answered phones in his office for two weeks, rode with him," says Massey. "One day a guy called from the pen, asking for Mr. Atkins. Bill was standing right there -- he said, 'Nah, I'm not here.' The guy said, 'You tell that motherfucker I want my $15,000 back.'"

Massey passed his licensing exam but decided not to join Atkins after all.

"What attracted me to him was the volume -- it was phenomenal. But he wanted me to put $10,000 in my and his name, hold it in what he called the buff fund. That right there was the big red flag."

Other bond agents say that requesting collateral wasn't out of line; it's common practice with a young agent. But Atkins readily admits that the only reason he insisted was "basically, I'm broke. Any agent that comes aboard with me at this point of time is going to have to bring some money."

There was a time, not long ago, when agents would have flocked to him regardless.

One of Atkins' former colleagues at C&M, Randy Hampton, says that when some people say Bill Atkins is a nice guy and others say he ruined their lives, "both are correct. When I first met him, he was a great guy. Then he developed some practices I couldn't cope with, like taking money for bonds when he didn't have a general agent. He's a BS artist, and he's slick. If you wear loafers, he could sell you shoestrings."

His luck is changing, though.

As another bond agent put it:

"Bill Atkins has run out of friends and excuses."

In Missouri, bail-bond agents must pass a test, then renew their licenses annually. They must be at least 21 years of age and "of good moral character."

In exchange for meeting those perfunctory and vague criteria, they receive vast powers.

"They have a lot more rights than even police officers in some cases," remarks state investigator Volkmer. "If a bondsman decides he doesn't want to bond you anymore, you're too much of a risk, he can come get you before the court date -- kick in the door, grab you and take you away. We've had people who bond you out and four hours later come and get you and take you back to jail and keep the money. And we have some who are cowboys, strong-arming people for the money."

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