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?

The phone at Quick Release Bail Bonds rings twice.

"May I help you?" inquires a deep, gravelly, sleepy-sounding voice.

The caller has a few questions for Bill Atkins, the bail-bond agent who owns the company.

"Well, I don't know why he'd be interested in talking to you," says the voice, sharpening fast. "But I'll ask him -- hold on."

The phone dangles, off the hook, for ten minutes.

Oldest trick in the book.

But then, a lot of people have logged time waiting for Bill Atkins.

They gave him money when they were desperate to bring a loved one home from jail, and when the loved one didn't materialize, they panicked. Some panicked too soon, others with good reason. Caught between employers, caught short for cash, Atkins was "working the deal" -- agreeing to write bonds he couldn't legally post and then passing them on to other bondsmen who could. It's a common but illicit practice, dicier still when the bond never gets posted and the agent tells his frantic client that he passed the money on to someone else to post it.

Atkins eventually found an employer and returned to writing his own bonds, but his problems weren't over. His original employer claimed he owed money for missing powers of attorney, claimed he'd passed a bad check in partial repayment, claimed he'd stolen money from an ATM account.

For perhaps the first time in his life, Atkins was making enemies. Friends said he was juggling, trying to pay debts. Atkins claimed he was being framed.

As usual, it was all about money: Money owed, lost, promised, scraped together and traded for freedom. And money as a lure, bloodying throats too hungry for caution.

Grandmothers and girlfriends, other bond agents and two-bit felons all spent months trying to sort out the truth about Bill Atkins. So did the police and, halfheartedly, the Missouri Department of Insurance, the state agency charged with policing guys such as Atkins.

But in the dark, slippery world of the bail-bond agent, facts hide in crevices.

And it can take a long, long time for the truth to come out.

Vickie Copeland went to the Bel-Ridge Police Department in March, claiming that on January 26 she'd given Atkins $750 in cash and a check for $7,500 to post bond for Donald Copeland but that Atkins had never posted the bond.

He couldn't.

A bail-bond agent needs to be affiliated with a general agent to post ponds, and Atkins' affiliation with C&M Bonding, one of the biggest firms in the state, had ended November 27 -- two months before Copeland gave him the money.

According to the report filed by Officer Chris Evenson of the Bel-Ridge Police Department, Atkins "admitted that he had taken the money from Ms. Copeland. He said that after he took the money, he remembered that he could not write bonds and he gave the money to another bondsman. He would not say who the other bondsman was."

Atkins eventually named Matt Leffert, who used to work with him for C&M. Leffert promptly received a subpoena from the Missouri Department of Insurance. He says he didn't know what the hell they were talking about.

"Before, when Bill didn't have a license, I would do some bonds for him to get him by, and he'd give me a couple hundred bucks," Leffert says with a shrug. "He probably figured I'd think, 'Oh, maybe I did.'"

When Leffert denied receiving any money, Atkins made restitution to the Copelands.

But not before he was charged with a Class C felony, stealing by deceit, in St. Louis County.

Soon other clients started calling court clerks, bond agents and, eventually, the Bel-Ridge, Clayton, St. Louis and St. Louis County police departments, fretting about their own bonds. A worried grandmother even wrote the Missouri attorney general, her handwriting overlarge and trembling. Atkins allayed some of the panic -- there were normal delays in the bond process -- and offered a list of high-priced murder and assault bonds he had posted to everyone's satisfaction. But the formal complaints were stacking up.

On December 7, somebody fired shots through the windows of his North Hanley office.

Meanwhile, Cody Ice of C&M Bonding, the general agent Atkins worked for until November, filed complaints against him in Texas County -- where he has been charged with a Class D felony for passing a bad check -- and in the city of St. Louis -- where a grand jury indicted Atkins on another Class C felony charge of stealing by deceit.

To spring Atkins from jail, his wife secured a cash-only city bond; Phil March, a professional bounty hunter and bond agent who's running for St. Louis circuit clerk, agreed to post the other two.

Other Missouri agents had been friends with Atkins, too, but they wouldn't touch those bonds.

"Everybody shamed him," recalls a grandmotherly bail-bond agent named Hazel Vernon. "Phil, may I say, has balls."

"I'd done a lot of bounty hunting for him, breakin' down doors," says March, a genial and still fearless 25-year-old. "He used to be a nice man."

Then he got tangled up in other people's money.

And now he's out on bond.

Still writing bonds for other people.

Atkins stands six feet; wears immaculate white jeans, a black loose-knit shirt and snakeskin shoes; chain-smokes Salems. They're menthol, and they're sitting on the dash of his Champagne-colored Lincoln, right above his pack of Winterfresh gum.

Coolness, throughout.

Graying at the temples, with fine-drawn features, he suggests an aristocracy the unpaid bills belie. His best friend until recently, Mike Faulkner, remembers Atkins as supremely confident even in his teens. When the two went into the Navy together, Atkins got thrown in the brig for beating up not one but three Marines.

Faulkner says Atkins always aspired to success.

"In a black neighborhood, you've got bourgeois folks and you've got regular folks," says Faulkner. "He was part of the bourgeois -- the foster son of an older couple who provided very well for him -- and I was his gateway to the regular folks."

Atkins makes his living off regular folks now, the ones without enough money to post their own bonds. Relatives and girlfriends come to him in a panic, and he sizes them up, accepts a little less collateral than the other agents want, makes it up in the sheer volume of his business. He listens to garbled stories and calms hysteria: All will be well.

Ryan Massey, a young man who spent a few weeks with Atkins learning the business, remembers one night when Atkins did six bonds in a row, smoothing crisis after crisis as though he were born to it.

Originally Atkins put out real fires. He joined the St. Louis Fire Department in 1978, and by 1990 he'd made captain.

In 1994, he abruptly retired. Four years later, he followed Faulkner into the bond business.

"As a fire captain, Bill made good money," recalls Faulkner. "He went to fundraisers, knew everybody. He likes that type of lifestyle. Bail-bonding was the first thing that offered him that opportunity again."

For a time, the two worked together for C&M. Then the company president, Cody Ice, sent Faulkner packing.

"I told Cody he was betting on the wrong horse," says Faulkner. "But Bill's got a gift for gab and a lucky streak I can't explain."

Atkins says his luck comes from trying to lead a Christian life.

"I'm surprised the church don't burn up," mutters Faulkner.

A family business, C&M Bonding operates out of Houston, Missouri, and Cody Ice is famous statewide. Controversial himself, he exudes a twangy Ross Perot sort of charm, chuckling easily even when he's exasperated.

He still gets a tickle remembering the day he and his vice president, Marvin McAdams, spent waiting for Atkins. They'd come to St. Louis to audit his office, and they'd made a 9 a.m. appointment.

"He calls and says he's tied up, he'll be there later," says Ice. "So we wait. No Bill. Along into the afternoon, he calls again: His son has a dental appointment, so Bill can't be there before evening. We go back in the evening, and I'm ready to say thunder with it. Marvin is writing him a note we're going to stick in the door when these three people drive up, two women and a man. They jump out of the car and say, 'That so-and-so has our money and we're here to get it.

"I told Marvin, 'Sit down. This will be fun to watch.'"

In a matter of minutes, Atkins pulled up.

"They discussed the situation very plain with him," says Ice. "And he did give them their money."

Ice chuckles a little longer. Then he turns serious and begins to talk about the "wild ride" he had with Atkins:

"Initially he was top-flight. He did a tremendous job for us, he was a good agent, he looked after business. Then he got caught up in whatever it was, and he just took a nosedive. I've never seen anybody go into a downward spiral that fast."

It wasn't a spiral, says Atkins; it was a conspiracy to get rid of him because he'd stopped helping Ice with other business. Atkins had been servicing automatic teller machines for C&M Cash Advance, establishing about fourteen locations for the machines. He even brought in a young man to help him.

Then, according to Ice, $13,000 turned up missing from the ATM account.

No one had any proof of who'd taken the money, and Atkins wasn't convinced it was missing. But because he'd promised to be responsible for the young man's work, he offered to pay it back.

He says he'd paid about half when Ice forgave the balance.

Ice says Atkins hadn't paid anything but was doing very well selling bonds, so he forgave the entire debt.

On December 3, another $2,500 vanished.

Officer Terrell Robinson of the St. Louis Police Department noted in his report that Atkins had access to the C&M bank account for the purpose of replenishing ATMs and that he cashed a check for $2,500 representing that it was to replenish the ATM at the Liquor Shack on St. Charles Rock Road. Atkins was arrested and his bond set at $5,000.

"Bond is predicated by the person's prior record and their flight risk," Atkins notes. "I should have been gone on my own recognizance. This young guy at court told me, 'Your bond is $5,000, cash only, because you have caused us so many problems."

Four months later, Atkins was indicted by a grand jury for felony stealing by deceit.

He insists he is innocent.

He says he went to the bank with a friend who used to help him stock the machines, and they withdrew $2,500 to replenish the Liquor Shack machine in time for the holidays.

"The machine takes heat-transfer tape; I'd been buying it out of my own money," he says, explaining that he'd stopped doing much servicing because he'd been angry with Ice. He says he couldn't get the machine replenished properly without the tape, so he and his friend put the money in the safe and called C&M to tell them the machine was loaded but not up and running.

"And lo and behold, this $2,500 comes up missing."

First a bail-bond agent will say how noble the industry is, how many righteous agents there are, how easily their collective reputation can be damaged. Then the agent will proceed to diss at least two other agents: She's a drunk. He's a crook. And so on. The ritual ends with woeful head-shaking as the agent bemoans how cutthroat this business can be.

But honest bail bondsmen do exist. They brace themselves in the stream bed and watch the neon eels and bottom-feeders dart through slimy rocks, swimming fast, currying favor with low-level court and jail functionaries, taking money to bond somebody out even when they know there's already another warrant that's going to land that person back in jail. There's little honor among the eels, and truth is hard to winnow from their dealings.

Responsibility slides too easily.

The bail-bond agent who handles the actual transaction with the client is the one who decides whether to take the risk and how much collateral to demand. But the bail-bond agent doesn't bear that risk himself. He collects the client's fee, posts the bond and keeps track of the client. The fee is supposed to be split with his general agent, who holds the powers of attorney that guarantee the bond. The general agent is ultimately responsible for repaying the bond if the client vanishes. And the general agent is often insured by a large company that knows nothing of the individual transactions or agents.

Although Atkins still holds a Missouri bail-bond agent's license, he cannot post bonds without the backing of a general agent. He is like a real-estate agent, working off someone else's license.

This loose structure leaves bail-bond agents plenty of room to dance between the lines, regulators say. Some have used the powers of previous employers to post a bond that looks legal and tidy, and as long as the client doesn't skip, no one knows the difference.

Except that the agent keeps the whole fee.

The industry needs heavier regulation, the honest agents say, and the Missouri Department of Insurance needs more authority. In other states, bounty hunters are either banned or required to pass tests and be licensed. In other states, a bail-bond agent who'd raised as much dust as Atkins might have already lost his license.

Keith Morgan, bonding supervisor for St. Louis County, explains the dilemma: "Until the state does something with his license, he can still post bonds. And until the court does something, the state's hands are tied. And if the state's hands are tied, then my hands are tied."

Bondage, indeed.

Atkins still doesn't see anything wrong with accepting bonds, then quietly passing them on to agents qualified to post them. He sees his downfall not in terms of broken rules and debts and delays but in scenes of Othello-and-Iago pitch, filled with jealousies and hatred, plots and greed.

He insists that his problems started back in February 2001, when, at Ice's suggestion, he took on two more agents. Atkins believes that one of them, Jerry Cox, was a mole, planted to learn the secret of his success so C&M could get rid of him but keep his volume.

"Cody Ice and I had such a good relationship, he called me nine or ten times a day," says Atkins, "until Jerry Cox came on board, and I was lucky to hear from Cody twice a month."

He sounds hurt.

"It was a conspiracy to put me out of business," he says.

But Ice says he was just trying to get his share of the bond fees.

Last fall, he and McAdams conducted several audits. They were looking for the individually numbered powers of attorney that the agents keep in an inventory so they can post bonds. Once an agent posts a bond, he attaches a power to it, reports that power used, collects the bond fee and splits it with the general agent.

"We found a lot of bonds that had been written and not reported," says Ice.

Atkins says his subordinates had used the powers without reporting to him. Because as supervising agent he was responsible for forwarding all fees, he says, he wrote Ice a check for $12,000 to pay the missing premiums. Then, he says, he wrote another check for the balance, $2,265.29, and asked Ice to hold it until he had the money.

"He put his arm over my shoulder and said, 'Not a problem,'" says Atkins. "The sonofabitch took the check to the bank and deposited it the next day."

Ice's account sounds like a script for an entirely different movie.

He says the $2,265.29 bad check came by mail and was the only check proffered.

"I wish I had gotten a check for $12,000," Ice chuckles.

He says he's still missing eighteen or nineteen powers of attorney, the documents that must be attached when a bond is posted. He signed out hundreds of these powers, carefully numbered and recorded, to Atkins' office. The agents were to keep them in inventory and attach them to bonds as needed, then report the bonds and split the fees.

Ice says that if the powers were used, he never saw the fees.

"It's my opinion that he doesn't know whether he used them himself," he says. "We terminated him for failure to report because we were not able to get paid."

Atkins wrote to Missouri Department of Insurance investigator Bob Volkmer, saying, "I demanded of Ice that I be dismissed from my charge as their supervising agent.... How ironic that a couple days later I received a whole lot of letters of suspension. Over the fax, regular mail, registered mail, certified mail, by air and maybe even by sea. My question to Ice was, 'Did you suspend the real criminals?'"

To this day, Atkins maintains, "Cody got every report he was ever due."

Atkins' phone rings.

"You're out?" he says. "You got some money for me? I could use it."

Two minutes later, the phone rings again: a guy calling from prison.

Atkins speaks kindly to him, then hangs up and turns melancholy.

"When I first began to walk the halls of justice -- I like to use that term -- and encountered a few old-time bondsmen, they said, 'You are writing for Cody Ice? You are a damn fool.'"

According to Ice, it was Atkins' clients who felt like damn fools.

"We got numerous calls," says Ice. "I don't blame them for being quite irate. It's sad, and I don't like to use the word 'comical,' but how he's gotten by with this -- you wonder who's watching the store."

After Atkins left C&M, he floated.

"I was basically a clearinghouse," he says. "I'd tell [prospective clients], 'Let me call you right back -- I'll see what I can do.' Never did tell them I couldn't do the bond, because that wasn't good for business. My daughter, who was my office manager, passed on the money and paperwork to other bondsmen."

It's called "working the deal," and it's similar to kiting checks.

It's also illegal.

Finally, on February 5, Atkins landed a job with a new general agent: Edward Braaten of Lee's Summit.

"He lasted about two-and-a-half weeks," says Braaten, "and I fired him."

According to state records, he lasted two months.

Third time's the charm, though. Atkins went to work for Rick Adams. He's still there.

"Yeah, I'm still his general agent," says Adams. "I think you've got to give a person the benefit of the doubt. He's not writing bonds in the city now, just in the county."

Hazel Vernon works for Adams, too. When she hears Atkins' name mentioned on her car phone, she bursts into a raucous laugh and veers off the highway.

"Just squashed an orange pylon," she reports cheerfully. "Bill Atkins the bad bondsman? Yeah, he gave us all black eyes. He's got a problem, I understand."

She'll say no more.

But Atkins has decided that "innocent until proven guilty" is bullshit, at least among bail-bond agents. He calls them "a pool of sharks" and worries that the rumors have already convicted him.

He says Cox poisoned his clients' minds against him, even started a rumor that he was on crack cocaine.

Atkins levels clear brown eyes:

"Do I look like I'm on drugs?"

Waving the Denny's waitress over, he orders a second French-vanilla cappuccino with whipped cream.

"During the time I was idle, passing on bonds, because everybody else doesn't move as fast as I do, they can't reach me, they get nervous," he says. "Cox told them I'd stolen their money and they should call the police. If he can discredit me, telling my clients Bill Atkins is on drugs, they will remember him. It's just a form of stealing business.

"My telephone usually rings constantly, and now it's idle," he says, waving the silent cell phone in disgust. Stale Salem fumes float from the mouthpiece.

Then it rings.

"May I help you?" he asks, deepening his voice.


"He must be in a meeting right now. Let me give you another number."

He hits "end call" and smoothly resumes his narrative.

In November, he filed his own report at Bel-Ridge, accusing Cox of breaking into his office and stealing 130 files to ruin his business.

Bel-Ridge Detective William Toy says, "There's no proof to substantiate the complaint, but the case is still active." A wanted-for-questioning notice went out on Cox, who was held downtown until his lawyer appeared to ask why.

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:

"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."

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."

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.

"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.

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."

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."

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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