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?

Technically, the vigilante act is legal; it's up to presiding judges to banish a bad bondsman from their courts.

Otherwise, the 1872 U.S. Supreme Court opinion Taylor v. Taintor still holds in Missouri:

"The bail have their principal on a string, and may pull the string whenever they please."

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.

Would that the state had the bail on such a string.

Even a felony conviction might not stop someone from being a bail-bond agent. That person could not hold license as a general agent, but he or she might be allowed to continue as a regular agent, says Volkmer:

"The Department of Insurance might turn them down, but they could appeal to a judge."

Volkmer says it's easier to revoke a regular agent's license if a felony conviction connects directly with the bail-bond business, though -- like the bail-bond agent in Columbia, Missouri, who was trying too hard to stop his fugitive client and took a couple of shots at him on the street.

"Another one went into someone's house to get him and decided the guy owed him for his time and so took his computer," adds Volkmer. "Well, that's stealing."

Yes, it is. But most infractions are less clear-cut. And definitions of "good moral character" vary.

Mariano Favazza, St. Louis circuit clerk, says he's just glad Atkins hasn't reapplied to write bonds in the city.

"I haven't had to cross that bridge, as to whether or not having a pending criminal action is a disqualifier from doing business. What we would do with the application, I'd rather not speculate," Favazza says.

Every few years, some earnest legislator suggests reforming the bail-bond industry to regulate the agents and bounty hunters more closely.

The agents warn that limiting their powers would turn the U.S. into a nation of fugitives.

Criminal-defense attorneys echo their sentiments, calling the bail-bond industry a constitutional necessity and a guarantor of freedom.

Besides, bondsmen bring them business.

But as originally conceived in England, the bail-bond system traded on honor and familial obligation. People signed up to bear responsibility for their black sheep, and the wayward sheep didn't want to disappoint them.

The modern U.S. version trades in cold, impersonal cash. The more vulnerable the client, the greater the chance for exploitation.

"At best," wrote Justice Arthur J. Goldberg in 1965, "it is a system of checkbook justice; at worst, a highly commercialized racket."

It's also a ruthless one, filled with lies and cutthroat competition.

But if an agent's sharp, there's a lot of money to be made.

"I warned Bill," sighs Troupe. "I said, 'All money is not good money.' It's a very unique business; there are a lot of pitfalls and temptations. Everybody's got a deal. You can't get excited by the money that you see on the table."

Atkins' radio commercial for Quick Release Bail Bonds was still running on KLOU-FM when the St. Louis County grand jury indicted him. His office was open, the penholder chock full of fluorescent Quick Release giveaway pens, the glass and chrome desk piled with files.

He was available to be someone's bail.

Some etymologists trace "bail" to the Saxon word for "safekeeper" or "protector," others to old French: baille, meaning "to deliver."

But baille has a second meaning.

It's the bucket used to dip water, faster and faster, out of a sinking boat.

June 19, 9:30 a.m., Division 25 of St. Louis Municipal Courts. Atkins shows up and sits on the front bench, this time wearing black slacks and a white knit shirt, as well as the snakeskin shoes. The judge grinds through the docket. Atkins nods to people he knows, checks his pocket for his cell phone and looks around every time the door opens. Then, head cocked, he stretches both arms out along the back of the bench and drums the wood with his fingers. He hates waiting.

Half-an-hour later, he loses patience and approaches the clerk. He bends close, whispers his situation. He's thinking about changing lawyers. She gives him a continuance, and he strides from the courtroom.

"I've got a couple bonds to do," he murmurs.

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