The strange and violent world of St. Louis' bail bondsmen

On the evening of December 31, 2004, Jerry Cox was relaxing with his wife on his backyard patio in St. Charles, enjoying the outdoor fireplace he received as a Christmas gift a few days earlier from his two sons. He was interrupted by the sight of a familiar face, a fellow bail bondsman named Virgil Lee Jackson.

Update, November 26, 2008: Maryland Heights Police charge Jerry Cox.

"I need to talk to you — privately," Cox recalls Jackson saying calmly.

The New Year's Eve encounter surprised Cox. He and Jackson had shared a long and acrimonious history. In the 1960s and '70s, Cox was a police officer in Bridgeton, and Jackson was one of the usual suspects. Jackson was convicted of felony robbery three times and, according to court documents, arrested and released on nine other occasions on suspicion of "extremely serious and many violent crimes." By the time he was 35, Jackson had spent more than fifteen years behind bars.

Jerry Cox sits in the office of his St. Charles-based company, Cox Bail Bonds.
Jennifer Silverberg
Jerry Cox sits in the office of his St. Charles-based company, Cox Bail Bonds.

In the late 1990s, they were competitors in the cutthroat St. Louis bail bond industry, squabbling over territory in surrounding counties and fighting for the chance to get accused criminals out of jail and collect a 10 percent commission on their bonds.

Ultimately, in late 2000, the pair set aside their differences to become officers in the recently formed Missouri Professional Bail Bond Association (MPBBA), where they worked with a lobbyist and other bondsmen around the state to secure legislation beneficial to their business.

Unsure of what the occasion was for Jackson's unexpected visit, Cox asked his wife to excuse herself and offered his guest a seat. Cox, in a recent interview, described what happened next.

"I leaned over to stoke the fire, and I feel this pressing against the side of my head, and I hear this 'click,'" Cox says, recalling the sound of the hammer cocking on Jackson's chrome-plated, semiautomatic pistol. "He says, 'I'm here to kill you.' I said, 'You're a fucking punk. Why would you come to my home and do this? Not even the fucking Mafia does this.'"

Though Cox talked Jackson into leaving peacefully, it was not the end of their feud — not by a long shot.

In September 2005 Jackson was arrested by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and charged in the Eastern District of Missouri federal court with masterminding a murder-for-hire plot on Cox and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

In a plea-bargain agreement reached last November, prosecutors dropped the firearms charge, and the 67-year-old Jackson pleaded to the murder-for-hire charge. He's now serving a ten-year sentence in Milan Federal Correctional Institution, 45 miles south of Detroit. Prison officials denied a request for a phone interview, and Jackson did not respond to a letter from Riverfront Times.

Glen Thomas Dotson, the alleged accomplice in Jackson's plot, goes on trial next month in St. Louis. According to court documents and the testimony of an ATF agent, the 43-year-old Dotson was a bounty hunter who worked for Jackson, helping him to beat up people who failed to appear in court while out on bond. Currently free on bond, Dotson is charged with providing Jackson the revolver that, according to court documents, was to be used in the murder-for-hire scheme.

As news of the botched plot spread following Jackson's arrest, details began to emerge about campaign contributions from the MPBBA and Jackson's employer, a bondsman named Jack Allison, to Bob Behnen, then a Missouri state representative.

Campaign finance reports show that the group paid the Kirksville lawmaker $1,250 on January 31, 2005, after he sponsored legislation that allowed felons to become licensed bail bondsmen if they'd been clean for fifteen years. The law became effective January 1, 2005. Jackson (known by his middle name Lee) himself wrote a portion of the 82-page omnibus measure and gave it to Behnen to introduce.

It is now known in the industry as the "Lee Clause."

"To my knowledge, I know of no other state that allows felons to be licensed as bail bondsmen," says Bill Kreins, spokesman for the Professional Bail Agents of the United States. "Convicted felons absolutely should not be in the bail bond business. They just do not fit."

When Virgil Lee Jackson was issued a bail bond agent's license in 1996, the decision caused some consternation.

"I immediately called Jefferson City," remembers Darrell Tullock, a St. Charles-based bondsman. "I said, 'What are you doing? This guy is a convicted felon. How can you make him a bondsman? He was caught burglarizing a post office.' They said, 'Oh yeah, I think he mentioned he stole some stamps.'"

Once licensed, Jackson needed to find an employer, known in industry parlance as a "general," as in general bail bond agent. A general agent is the boss. Bail bondsmen write bonds, backed by their general's assets, and split the profits.

Eventually, Jack Allison became Jackson's general. According to the Department of Insurance, he's currently the third largest general agent in the state, supervising 38 of Missouri's 858 bail bond agents.

Over a breakfast of grits and fried eggs at the St. Charles Cracker Barrel, Allison, a bulky, bald-headed man in his early 60s, recalls Jackson as a model employee. "The whole time that Lee worked for me he was professional," says Allison. "He did everything the way you're supposed to do it."

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