We’ve been spotted by two of Houston’s finest. Not that spotting us was all that difficult, even at 2:00 A.M. We’re four white guys in a part of town where we obviously don’t belong, in a gated apartment complex beyond which are heavily fortified convenience stores, junk yards, and rundown beauty parlors advertising various styles of hair weaves. From behind our truck’s rear bumper, a female officer barks: “PUT YOUR HANDS . . .” and we oblige before she gets to “UP!”
She looks Latina, mid-30s. Caramel hair pulled back in a regulation bun. Lovely cheekbones. Big eyes. Very pretty. She swings open the driver’s-side door, demanding to know “what’re ya’ll doing here?”
Paul, our elder, explains the situation, speaking calmly and directly, and includes the fact that he’s armed. He does not mention Cecil’s gun, or Matt’s .45, which he slipped into his bag just before the squad cars pulled up. He kept the taser in his pants pocket.
“She’s a fugitive,” the cop yells over her shoulder. “They’re doing an investigation or some shit.”
The squad lights flash as Paul and the officer continue their back and forth. Paul’s all yes, ma’am/no, ma’am. The fugitive’s story is simple enough: black, female, about five-feet-one, known alias, previous convictions, $5,000 bond. Wanted for felony evading arrest, of all things. The cops tell us the woman’s aunt, who doesn’t even live in this apartment complex, had called them, saying there were prowlers in the area. We’re the prowlers.
“We’re private investigators, ma’am, licensed by the state,” says Paul. The shiny, official-looking badge hanging around his neck says so. His XL black t-shirt emblazoned with The Punisher’s skull insignia should’ve been a dead giveaway.
“They said y’all were hiding in the bushes and stuff like that,” says the cop. We try, unsuccessfully, to suppress chuckles as Paul admits to “stuff like that.” At one point he was also hiding under a car. That goes unmentioned. We’ve still got our hands up.
Finally, her partner, a black male officer, comes out with it. “What, you a bounty hunter or something?”
We’ve come down from the Austin area, where Paul co-owns a company called Texas Bounty Hunters, to close eleven cases worth about $26,000 in bonds. Bounty hunters, or skip tracers, are generally paid ten percent of the bond for each captured fugitive. Capturing the current fugitive means $500 split three ways, though not evenly; Matt and Cecil are still in training. This woman is the first of eleven “skips” they’ve gone after, and she is very good at evading arrest. I call her Gitaway. It’s been eight hours of staking out a rundown club, identifying cars we saw on Gitaway’s Facebook page, then shadowing those targets back to this apartment complex, where she may or may not live. There were a couple confrontations with Gitaway’s crew in the parking lot. We saw what looked like our fugitive emerge from a vehicle, but the figure rushed upstairs while the six-person crew stood firm, denying even knowing Gitaway and telling the skip tracers to step the fuck off. One guy brandished a knife and said he was going to “cut these niggas.” He was dissuaded after a girl duly noted Matt’s taser. “He about to sting you,” she said. Paul never pulled out his gun. Actual bounty hunters rarely deploy that kind of tactic.
“Damn,” says the cop. “I didn’t even know we had those any more.”
That’s not unusual. No one really knows much about the uniquely American security profession of bounty hunting. Bail enforcement laws derive from a Justice’s comments, made in passing, during an 1872 Supreme Court case, Taylor v. Taintor, and for more than 120 years, skip tracers had free rein in pursuing, detaining, and generally whipping the shit out of bond skippers. Occasionally, someone like Steve McQueen would make a movie. Things changed in 1997, when five robbers posed as bounty hunters in Arizona. There were two fatalities, followed by a public outcry against actual skip tracers. Federal legislation was proposed, and states adopted their own rules and regulations. In Texas, for instance, skip tracers are prohibited from entering a premises without express permission from the owner or resident. So there’s a lot of skulking beneath stairwells, under cars, in bushes. Stuff like that.
“Y’all stick out like a sore thumb,” says the male cop after inspecting all of Paul’s paperwork: his driver’s license, gun permit, conceal-carry license, private investigator’s license.
Yessir. That’s exactly what a fellow drove up to tell us, in this very parking lot not thirty minutes ago. Except he was vaguely hostile and said, with a threatening smile, “Y’all in the wrong hood for that shit.” He’d asked why we were looking for Gitaway, whom he knew by name. Then he cackled and peeled out in a shiny Cadillac. Paul relays all of this. It’s the personal details about the skip that are difficult to communicate. Everyone is trying to act PC.
“Her girlfriend’s name is . . .” says Paul.
Our female officer is clearly unsure how to tease this out. “Her girlfriend?”
“Her girlfriend. Yes,” says Matt. The conversation has suddenly become a bit awkward. At least the command to keep our hands up had been tacitly rescinded.
“They call each other, like, husband and wife type thing,” says Paul. The photos on Gitaway’s Facebook page say so. There’re also pictures of her flashing signs, and guns, and money. Receipts for expensive jewelry. Cars with dope-ass rims. She’s a budding rapper. Gitaway had planned to drop her new album tonight, during her wife’s birthday bash. The vaguely hostile guy in the shiny Cadillac, we later discover, is her brother. Facebook is an extremely useful tool.
A bit more chit-chat. Things are winding down. Before they leave, the pretty cop apologizes.
“So we blew y’all’s cover, I guess,” she shrugs. Paul waves off the apology, but he does seize the opportunity. His tone changes. I’d heard him talk this way before, during class at his bounty hunting school a month ago. Now, as in class, Paul sounds like he’s shilling Bibles, equal parts proselytizer and pitchman.
“The fact that you’ve come out here and you’re talking to us like we’re civil people,” intones Paul, “these people will realize we’re legitimate, you know? We’re actually performing a real job function. Because right now, I think they think we’re a big joke.” If Paul didn’t spend half his time repossessing cars, he’d make a fantastic car salesman.
“She’s cute,” says Matt, as the cops roll out. Cecil says he was thinking the same thing. “She can handcuff me anytime,” says Matt. “I’m just saying. For practice. Or if she just wants to.” Tasering is out of the question, though.
“You’re who?” squawks the intercom at the Houston police department’s central processing facility. It’s been a long twenty-seven hours. We got four hours of sleep last night inside the cramped truck in that neglected part of town.
“Private investigators,” says Paul, again. “Bail recovery.” They’re always repeating themselves. Cecil and Matt keep close to the captured skip, a young woman in pink handcuffs. As civilians, skip tracers have to do a lot of waiting. “This is the second-longest part of the job,” says Paul, “getting people booked in.” They also do a lot of driving.
We awoke early that morning, skipped breakfast, and drove. Gitaway’s trail had gone cold. Paul said they were “cycling through the cases to get stuff generating.” First there was the stop at an aging apartment complex. The neighbors said the suspect was at her new job. Then, looking for a male skip, we drove to his residence, his parents’ place, his girlfriend’s, and his job at Jiffy Lube. Bondees need a guarantor, often a family member, and bondsmen always demand current address and employment.
At Jiffy Lube, Paul has the boys work without him. Their training period is usually a week but it “all depends on them,” he says as we watch from the truck. Between cases he’ll throw them a few repos, too, because skip tracing, especially at the beginning, might net $20,000 a year. Repos are good experience and help the guys stay afloat while working fugitive cases, like Gitaway’s, that might not pan out.
The boys have worked on about five cases, but they’re not ready-ready. Paul chastised them several times for focusing on faces instead of details like car rims and “they still need to learn to use information at the right time.” When Matt and Paul confronted Gitaway’s friends at the apartment entrance, Matt accidentally revealed how much the skip tracers knew about the birthday party. But talking too much isn’t what upsets Paul this time.
“If I see you spit in front of a customer I am going to wring your neck,” said Paul after Cecil gets in the car. “I don’t care if you dip, but we’re supposed to be professional investigators. That’s not professional activity, bro.” After getting paid, Paul told me that getting respect was the job’s biggest challenge.
Skip tracers usually operate small shops and have previous security experience. Paul was an MP, hunted AWOL soldiers, then spent two years as a cop. His wife, Ashley, is getting her private investigator’s license. The pink handcuffs are hers. Matt worked as a yard bull in California and toured Afghanistan. Another member of the company is former military as well, with a specialty in terrorist apprehension.
The chase is what keeps them going. For Matt, it’s a job he’s good at. For Cecil, it’s “better than deer hunting.” For Paul, it’s “like an adult game of hide-and-seek” but with the strategic maneuvering of chess. “If I were to look at the game, Gitaway’s only put me in check for right now, okay? All I need is that one move, that counter move, and it’s checkmate.”
For the somber girl currently in pink handcuffs at HPD central processing, it was more like a game of phone tag. Someone had called the skip tracers and said she’d returned from work. We drove fast. Paul and Matt donned flak jackets with BOUNTY HUNTER written boldly on the chest. At the door, the team sounded very official—they did have to repeat themselves—before making a standard, cop-like apprehension. Down by the truck, in pink handcuffs, the girl got an earful from her mother.
Driving to HPD, the poor girl was squeezed into the backseat between Matt and Cecil. She didn’t say much, and the guys were gentle, much more so than an average cop might have been. Privately, the skip tracers were hilariously vulgar and crude, offensive to anyone with polite notions of race, weight, or sexual orientation. They quoted movie lines and made dick jokes. That all disappeared the moment they were among members of the public, even those in pink handcuffs. Paul would say they were “professional,” but it was more than that. They were respectful.
Paul gives the girl some genuinely helpful legal tips. How to bond out. What to tell the judge. “If you got a public defender,” advises Paul, “I’d stay on them.” An old bailiff, slightly bent with bowed legs, shuffles out the steel door. He is everyone’s kindly grandfather. He looks tenderly at the girl. “You scared? I bet you are,” he says in a voice made for lullabies. “Everybody who said they ain’t scared, they scared.” He guides her through the steel door, without the pink handcuffs.
Waiting around to fill out the necessary paperwork takes another forty-five minutes. Then we eat pizza. Time for another stab at Gitaway.
It’s well after midnight and we’re in front of a lovely suburban home with lush grass and a two-car garage, all expertly placed in one of those pleasantly bland subdivisions. This is nothing like the prowling we’d done at that apartment complex on Friday. There are several cars in the driveway, one of which sports Gitaway’s rims. Inside, they’ve shut off all the lights and pulled the shades. When we first rolled by, a small crew was on the porch; now they’re barricaded inside. Gitaway even deleted her Facebook account. Over the radio, Matt and Cecil say they heard heavy objects being moved around. The boys are set up around the back entrances.
“Remember what I told you, a game of chess?” Paul wears a groggy but satisfied smile. “Checkmate.”
Houston’s finest have already been here. Someone reported a gun-wielding prowler (it was a taser), but the cops are calm. They know all about us now. They chatted casually with Paul and even approached the house with guns drawn. The district attorney gave approval to make an arrest but their sergeant won’t let them bust down the door, arguing that no one saw Gitaway run inside. We saw her clothes run inside, her shadow, but not her face. Several police officers hang around, their squad cars parked nearby. One of the cops asks Paul if “staying here all night is worth $500.”
“It’s not the money,” Paul says. “It’s the contract with my client. That’s what’s important. That’s what’s worth staying up all night for”—for what is now, per hour, less than minimum wage. Some cases are easier. Once Paul got a skip’s paperwork then stopped at Quiznos before starting the investigation. The guy was right there, working the line. Paul made the apprehension after finishing his ham sandwich.
“It is what it is,” says Paul as we sit on the curb across from the house, spitting sunflower shells. “This is what I’ve been talking to you about since the beginning. We want to legitimize bounty hunting. And now, they’re starting to see, ‘Okay, there’s a group out there that is operating legitimately.’ And that’s what makes it all worth it for me.”
The sun’s coming up. Somebody has to come out eventually. It’s Monday.
More cops arrive. Finally, a middle-aged man and woman come out. She’s dressed for work and wants to know what is going on. Paul and a couple of officers explain the situation. The woman turns out to be Gitaway’s aunt, the one who originally reported prowlers. The man denies that his niece is inside. Paul speaks respectfully but directly. “Sir, this isn’t my first case. If she’s not here, call me a liar.” Then Paul speaks to the aunt. “Ma’am, if we find her here, that’s hindering apprehension.” He gestures at her husband. “He could possibly go to jail.” The woman says she can’t afford that.
“She’s scared,” says the aunt, who goes inside to speak with Gitaway. Checkmate.
Gitaway emerges. Her aunt asks for a minute to say goodbye. I watch Gitaway sit down, deflated. Her head drops. She looks like she’s crying. There’s nothing of the tough rapper persona we saw on Facebook.
The cops cuff Gitaway and put her in a squad car. Skip tracers can fulfill their contract in several ways. They can capture the skip, facilitate the arrest by cops, or even accept straight-up cash to cover the entire bond. Paul doesn’t care too much for glory. His contract is with his client. It’s almost noon.
As Paul’s leaving, the uncle wants to know, how the hell did you know to come to this house?
Paul points to the shiny Cadillac in the driveway. Using Facebook to identify Gitaway’s taunting brother, the skip tracers then found his home address. They couldn’t have done it without him.
We celebrate at McDonald’s. A parade of dazzling lowriders with outrageous hydraulics goes by. I wonder if any of the drivers have outstanding warrants. The skip tracers still have nine cases to work.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.