Dying breed lives to chase: Bounty hunters thrive on adrenalin
By John Strahinich
He writes poetry and packs a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson automatic. He can quote the ancient Greeks and curse like a South Boston dockworker.
He operates out of a low-rent bungalow in Manchester, N.H., but he can earn $5,000, $10,000, $20,000 and more in a single day's work.
The catch is, those days are few and far between.
Meet Lance Allen Wilkinson, president of Recoveries by L.A.W.
By many accounts, including his own, Wilkinson, 60, is New England's foremost bounty hunter, though he prefers the modern term: bail enforcement agent.
His corporate motto: ``He escapes who is not pursued.''
It comes from Sophocles, naturally.
``We are to the criminal justice system what Federal Express is to the U.S. Post Office,'' Wilkinson explains. ``We expedite matters.''
By any name, bounty hunters are back in the limelight, owing to the popularity of two new reality TV shows: HBO's ``Family Bonds,'' starring New York bounty hunter Tom Evangelista and his colorful clan; and A&E's ``Dog the Bounty Hunter,'' starring Hawaii's Duane ``Dog'' Chapman and his family.
But despite the renewed interest, bounty hunting remains a niche business and tough way to make a living.
Changes to the law and bail procedures have left only a handful of them in the region. Massachusetts has virtually outlawed them, while fewer than a half dozen are licensed in New Hampshire.
Nationwide, there are roughly 2,000 bounty hunters, but only about 400 of those chasers actually work full-time, says Bob Burton, director of the National Institute of Bail Enforcement, a Chicago-based industry group. ``New interest surfaces every four or five years,'' says Burton, who wrote a book on bounty hunting that was used as the basis for the Robert DeNiro movie ``Midnight Run.''
``But business has basically been static. The blessing for society is our evil. There's less crime, so there's fewer fugitives.''
There are fewer still, thanks to Wilkinson.
Indeed, in his 20 years as a bounty hunter, Wilkinson says he has captured 1,284 fugitives, or ``skips,'' as he calls them.
`He's made his bones,'' said Burton, who has worked cases with Wilkinson. ``He knows the business intimately.''
Added one New Hampshire bail bondsperson, who requested anonymity: ``He's our No. 1 (go-to) guy. He's very good at what he does.''
``He's a big part of the system.''
The way the system works should be familiar to anyone who watches ``Law and Order.''
When criminal defendants are arraigned, judges can jail them, free them on so-called ``personal recognizance'' or set bail. The size of the bail generally can vary between a few hundred dollars to upwards of $1 million, depending on the severity of the crime and the defendant's flight risk.
An accused drunken driver, say, might be assessed bail of $1,000-$2,000, whereas someone charged with armed robbery or aggravated assault would likely be looking at between $100,000 and $250,000 or more.
In courts that allow it, defendants can contract bail bondsmen to post surety bonds - essentially an insurance policy. For this service, bondsmen generally charge 10 percent of the value of the bond.
When all goes right, said defendant shows up for trial.
Exit defendant, though, and the bail bondsman is on the hook to the court for the full amount of the bail.
Like most bounty hunters, Wilkinson usually charges between 10 percent and 20 percent of the bond's value, plus expenses. On occasion, however, Wilkinson's cut can come to 50 percent.
Needless to say, his is pretty much a feast-or-famine existence.
Wilkinson's best score ever: a major drug dealer who skipped out on $230,000 bail to the Dominican Republican.
Wilkinson won't say how much he got when he nabbed the dealer in Santa Domingo. But his smile says it was more than somewhat.
Burton says bounty hunters net between $50,000 and $70,000 a year on average. But that represents only part of the reward.
``For every dollar you make,'' he says, ``you make 1,000 in adrenalin.''
Adds Wilkinson: ``This gets in your blood, when you do it right.''
In his case, doing it right means using every trick in the book. Of course, that's not surprising since he wrote the book on the subject, ``Fugitive Recovery and the Law.''
``Forget looking for your guy,'' Wilkinson advises. ``Find the other person in your guy's life. That person will have roots and a job. Find that person, and you find your guy.''
Wilkinson's partner and friend, Hadley Dorfman, amplifies on Lance's Law.
``Sons usually try to go home to their mommies,'' says Dorfman, 49, a former New York detective who joined Wilkinson four years ago. ``Daughters go back to their daddy. Husbands to their wives, or even ex-wives. And wives go back to their husbands.''
And when they do, this bounty-hunting duo will be there to grab them.
``With his methods and mine combined,'' said Dorfman, ``the bad guys don't have a chance.''
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