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July 2nd, 2008 12:00 am JAMES PITKIN | News Stories


Almost every state lets bounty hunters chase down its most wanted. Why doesn’t Oregon?


IMAGE: Vivian Johnson

A gold pickup rolls slowly toward a quiet cul-de-sac.

Dave Regan, wearing a tangled wig and T-shirt that says “Sexy Time,” checks his weapons along with his backup, Josh Haarbrink, who wears a Bermuda hat in an attempt to look harmless. Their fingers brush quickly over Tasers, pistols and cans of pepper spray.

Speaking into a walkie-talkie, Regan hails a third man in a black stocking cap lying out of sight in the rear of the 2000 Chevy Silverado.

“Try not to jack off back there,” says Regan as he pulls around a corner.

“But it’s so sunny out,” comes the deadpan response.

Like the banter of cops on a stakeout, their talk tends toward crude humor. But their business is deadly serious.

Today Regan and his buddies are hunting Joe Hansen, a burly 25-year-old meth addict with white-supremacist tattoos and a string of convictions for burglary, theft, assault, drug possession and domestic violence. Regan is chasing Hansen because he failed to appear in court a month ago on charges of driving under the influence.

Six hours ago Regan drove by and saw a U-Haul van in the driveway, a sure sign that Hansen was about to flee. It’s crucial to nab him now, Regan says, before he knows he’s being stalked.

“Generally, you get just one chance. Surprise is the biggest thing you have working for you,” Regan says.

But Hansen’s white Mustang isn’t around. Regan makes plans to return after nightfall, when he can peek in windows without being seen.

“We will get this asshole,” he vows.

At age 26, Regan is a second-generation bail bondsman. He’s been tracking and arresting criminals since he was in high school, and orchestrated his first out-of-state fugitive hunt—in Florida—at age 20.

The job normally keeps Regan in his office. But several days a week he takes to the streets, tracking and capturing fugitives with the help of hired guns like Haarbrink.

They are, in essence, bounty hunters—a term Regan despises, especially after Dog the Bounty Hunter, a Hawaiian bail bondsman with a Hulk Hogan mullet, gained tabloid fame as a reality-TV star.

“He’s a douche and he gives us a bad name,” Regan says matter-of-factly. He prefers the term “manhunter,” or “skip tracer,” because he tracks down defendants who have skipped court.

Regan is part of an American tradition stretching back to the early-19th century, when private businesses were first allowed to post bail for prisoners—in exchange for a fee from the suspect and a promise to track them down if they failed to appear in court.

Regan plies his trade across the Columbia River in Vancouver, one of 353 licensed bail bondsmen in Washington. If he tried to do so in Oregon, he’d be breaking the law. Since 1974, this state has banned bail bondsmen from operating inside its borders—one of only four states in the country to do so.

Critics say it’s no coincidence that in Portland alone, there are thousands of wanted criminals walking the streets. Multnomah County is laboring under a backlog of more than 26,000 outstanding arrest warrants for some 21,000 wanted men and women. That’s half the number of warrants out in New York City, which has 15 times the population.

In Clark County, where Regan and a half-dozen other bail bondsman have set up shop, defendants skip court about 5 percent of the time. In Multnomah County, with no bail bondsmen to track them down, 18 percent fail to appear in court.

For all the talk about a shortage of jail beds, or the need to pass tougher sentencing laws, the dirty little secret of Oregon criminal justice is this: There are almost no consequences at all for defendants who simply flip a middle finger at the system and refuse to show up in court to face charges. Unless they commit another crime, or happen to get caught running a red light, there’s little chance they’ll ever be brought to justice.

“If I were a criminal, I’d just be laughing,” says Chuck French, a Multnomah County deputy district attorney.

Multnomah County officials aren’t completely complacent. District Attorney Mike Schrunk and Commissioner Lisa Naito finally persuaded the County Board of Commissioners last fall to pay for two sheriff’s deputies on full-time warrant duty. It was the first time in more than 20 years that local cops have been assigned solely to serving arrest warrants.

The team has since grown to four full-time deputies who have made 240 arrests in 879 attempts. Bob Skipper, who replaces Sheriff Bernie Giusto on July 17, plans to tout its success this month in hopes of getting more funding for the team.

“We could easily double it and still have more than enough to do,” Skipper says.

But bail bondsmen say they can do the same job more efficiently, and they’re talking about a push to bring the industry back in Oregon.

“We want to break Oregon open,” says Jeremy Hubbard, vice president of the Washington Bail Bonds Association. “We’re more motivated, and we can do the work at no cost to the public.”

In a time of overstretched cops and shrinking budgets, bail bondsmen offer a proven solution that Oregon so far has declined to accept: a small army of private manhunters, motivated by profit to hunt down fugitives.

Regan boasts a near-perfect 95-percent capture rate—far better than the new Multnomah County team. Cops and prosecutors in Clark County whom WW interviewed agree bail bondsmen are a valuable asset.

“I’m not gonna lie. I’m pretty good,” Regan says. “I have a reputation for finding people. I’d like to see the police do better.”

After spending a day with Regan, it’s hard to argue with his self-assessment. In one 14-hour stretch he used disguises, computer work, bribery, aggressive driving, drawn weapons, double-talk, police sources and underworld snitches to arrest two fugitives.

Over the years, he’s disguised himself as a pizza-delivery guy, a disabled man on crutches, a gay man, and a meth head to catch criminals. The day he spent with WW, Regan offered trailer-park dwellers a $40 reward for information on the whereabouts of 20-year-old Michelle Gaul, wanted for theft.

“These guys really want to party with you,” he said, rubbing two Jacksons together. No one took him up on the offer.

After tracking Gaul for seven days through some of Vancouver’s worst drug houses and apartment complexes, Regan arrested her last week along with her boyfriend, Wyatt Krahn, whom police wanted on multiple counts of forgery and ID theft.

Krahn wasn’t one of Regan’s cases, but Regan turned him over to police as a favor. Krahn fought back when Regan showed up alone at the house they were visiting.

“I had to whack him on the back of the head,” Regan says. Blood splattered. But it’s rare that Regan must use violence. Usually he can close in so quickly there’s no time for a fight.

“I’m not kissing my own ass,” he says, “but there’s a reason the cops come to me.”

In the hunt for Joe Hansen, Regan was relentless.

The case dates to February, when Hansen’s mother walked into Regan Bail Bonds, the business Regan runs out of a small, one-family house one block from the Clark County Courthouse.

Her son was in jail on suspicion of drunken driving and driving with a suspended license. Bail was set at $2,500. Regan’s staff looked at Hansen’s history and his mom’s credit, and agreed to take the case.

Hansen’s mom paid a nonrefundable fee of $250, or 10 percent of the bail. In exchange, Regan signed an agreement with the court: If Hansen failed to appear for his trial, Regan would bring him back to jail or pay the full $2,500.

Until his case is resolved, Hansen is essentially Regan’s property. Regan can arrest him at any time, with or without a warrant. Licensed by the state, Regan can carry guns, break down doors and hire licensed “recovery agents” like Haarbrink to help.

When Hansen failed to appear in court May 14, the hunt was on. Regan’s staff called Hansen and gave him a chance to turn himself in. Hansen promised to give them a fight if they tried to capture him.

After Hansen’s Mustang went missing in the afternoon, Regan returned after dark with Haarbrink and another recovery agent. They turned off their headlights as they approached the house.

The three crept toward the two-story suburban home and crouched behind bushes in a neighboring yard. When Hansen appeared in front of the house, Regan ran back to his truck and sped around the corner to block the driveway. He leaped from the truck and ran toward Hansen. All three moved in with guns and Tasers drawn, screaming, “Get on the ground!”

Hansen lay down on the asphalt driveway and was handcuffed without incident. On the drive to Vancouver’s jail, he said he’d been a meth addict for 15 years and was about to leave for Texas. “We would have been out of here in a day,” Hansen said of himself and his girlfriend. “It’s bad timing.”

The closest thing Portland has to a bail bondsman is Todd Shanks, a Multnomah County sheriff’s detective who’s been serving warrants full-time since October with the newly formed Warrant Strike Team.

Shanks, who is also head of the deputies’ union, starts his day in a T-shirt, cargo pants and sneakers in the DA’s office on the top floor of the county courthouse, where his new warrant assignments are handed to him in a stack of small manila envelopes.

“Living the dream,” he jokes on his way up the elevator.

The warrant team is a sweet assignment for a cop, with little paperwork and plenty of action. But after 20 years with the sheriff’s office, Shanks doesn’t approach the job with swagger. A soft-spoken father of two from Iowa, he never pounds on doors when he can knock, nor does he interrogate people when he can ask them for a favor instead.

“We treat people with the respect that’s due to them,” Shanks says. “Because when we take someone away, often it’s going to be for a long, long time.”

Unlike bail bondsmen with their disguises and surprise raids, Shanks sticks mainly to straightforward cop tactics: knocking on the door of the suspect’s last known address and asking permission to take a look around. Often the addresses are out of date and the trail’s gone cold.

One day last month he was hunting for Joseph Collins, a 45-year-old wanted for escaping from a halfway house in North Bend, where he was undergoing treatment for alcoholism in lieu of serving the final two years of a four-year prison sentence for larceny.

Shanks arrived at Collins’ last known address, a run-down green house on Northeast Sumner Street near the Alberta Street arts district. Candace Collins, Joseph’s sister, answered the door, while her boyfriend watched The Price Is Right and a toddler played on the floor with a toy basketball hoop.

She said Joseph didn’t live there. After speaking with Shanks for about 10 minutes, she gave him a phone number where Collins could be reached.

Shanks used a reverse directory to find an address for the phone on Northeast Knott Street and 142nd Avenue. Driving among the aging ranch homes in that neighborhood, Shanks spotted a man walking down the sidewalk who matched Collins’ picture.

“Police! I need to talk to you,” Shanks shouted. Collins looked back and then sprinted between two houses. Shanks leaped from the car, ran across three backyards, jumped over a wooden fence and landed on top of Collins, who lay crouched on the other side. Neither was hurt.

Once he was in handcuffs, Collins explained he was on his way back to the house after buying a 22-ounce Steel Reserve. He said his only mistake was not finishing it on the way home, before he was caught.

While bail bondsmen don’t exist in Oregon, bail does. Anyone but those suspected of murder or treason can have a family member or friend post bail. For 10 percent of the bail amount, the suspect walks free with a promise to show up later in court.

If they “forget” their court date, their name could end up on Shanks’ desk. But that’s likely to happen only if they’re wanted for a felony. The county still lacks the resources to hunt down people for most misdemeanors, including drunken driving and domestic violence.

Regan, on the other hand, has sent agents across the country to capture Clark County fugitives for DUII. And Regan’s authority in some ways exceeds that of the police. He can arrest that person at any time, even without a warrant. He can break down doors, though he’s only done so a handful of times in 10 years.

Those aren’t the only reasons Regan boasts a better capture rate than the police. Shanks’ job has a different focus. With such a massive number of outstanding warrants, part of his job is simply to document that he’s tried to find the fugitive. That way prosecutors can keep the case alive longer in court.

Shanks is unlikely to spend multiple days tracking a fugitive unless the crime is especially serious—like the case of Texie Hendricks, a 73-year-old man wanted on 22 counts of sex abuse. Shanks tracked Hendricks last fall to the Central Oregon town of Oakridge. It was the warrant team’s first major hit.

But with limited resources, Shanks can’t devote that kind of energy to every case.

“It’s feast or famine,” he says. “We had one day where we arrested six people. Other days we won’t arrest anybody. What we’re trying to do is just instill some more credibility in the justice system.”

Across the river in Vancouver, Regan scoffs at the tactics Shanks relies on. Knocking on the door—generally Shanks’ first move—is a last resort for Regan because it tips fugitives off. Many are transient and won’t return to that residence again.

“That’s what you call burning an address,” Regan says. “You only do that if you’ve hit a dead end and you’re out of options.”

Regan instead relies on intelligence from underworld sources, cops and concerned family or friends to learn where fugitives are. Then he arrives on the scene and moves quickly to put them in handcuffs.

Regan also has access to powerful law-enforcement databases replete with personal information. Before he signs a bond he makes the person paying give up detailed contact information about the suspect’s family, friends and job. He starts work midmorning and often goes past midnight, the best time for bail bondsmen to hunt.

But determination can also court controversy for some bail bondsmen. Last month, bail bondsman Nathan Hingson was arrested in Lake Stevens, Wash., after he opened fire in a grocery store parking lot while trying to make an arrest. The woman he was pursuing got away.

A 2007 U.S. Justice Department study shows defendants are more likely to appear in court if a bail bondsman is on the case. They clearly have more incentive—not only will someone such as Regan be after them, but the relative or friend who paid to spring them from jail stands to lose their car or their home to the bail bondsman.

Federal statistics also show bail bondsmen are more efficient at capturing fugitives. In systems like Oregon’s, 31 percent of defendants who fail to appear remain fugitives a year later. If there’s a bail bondsman on the case, only 19 percent remain free after a year.

That’s partly because there are more bail bondsmen than cops serving warrants—seven in Vancouver versus four warrant cops in Portland. And bail bondsmen also are motivated by money, with thousands of dollars on the line if a fugitive escapes.

But Regan rarely loses money if that happens. Usually he can collect the full amount of the bond from the friend or relative who got the person out of jail. It isn’t profit that motivates him in the hunt, but rather the unique role he plays in the justice system—which is, after all, his greatest job security.

“Anybody can just write the court a check. That isn’t what the judges want,” Regan says. “They expect us to bring these people in.”

The man credited with driving bail bondsmen out of Oregon in 1973 is William Snouffer, a retired Multnomah County judge. At the time, he was a law professor at Lewis & Clark College volunteering as a lobbyist in Salem for the American Civil Liberties Union.

States across the country were taking a fresh look at the bail-bond system, which is unique to the United States and the Philippines. Bail bondsmen had a reputation for corruption, and there were concerns that the industry put poor people and minorities at a disadvantage.

Snouffer, now 68, stands by his decision today and says it would be a mistake to bring the industry back.

“Bail bondsmen will come up with wonderful stories of derring-do where they capture people,” he says. “Those kind of stories make good press, but I think it’s the regular law-enforcement agencies that are getting people to show up in court.”

But some of Portland’s most violent crimes are committed by fugitives with outstanding warrants who were never captured.

There’s Richard Koehrsen, who failed to appear in court and was wanted on multiple warrants when he slashed a man’s throat in a drunken rage outside Jake’s Famous Crawfish in 2006. Or Bobby Barnes, who was wanted on a warrant for violating probation when he left a man dead at home in a pool of blood in 2006.

Oregon officials, however, remain skeptical of bail bondsmen.

Schrunk, the Multnomah County DA, was just starting out as a lawyer when bail bondsmen were abolished. He admits the system was effective. But he’s against bringing it back, saying he’d prefer to provide more money for law enforcement.

Skipper, the new Multnomah County sheriff, helped lobby to abolish bail bondsmen 35 years ago as a deputy for the county. Not surprisingly, he resists bringing them back, saying law enforcement is better equipped for the work.

Clatsop County District Attorney Joshua Marquis is opposed to bail bondsmen for the same reasons they were abolished. But he admits that in Oregon, few people are aware of the potential benefits they bring.

“Most of the people practicing law now, whether as attorneys or police, never knew a time when there were bail bondsmen,” he says. “It’s simply not in our collective knowledge.”

Meanwhile, Regan and other bail bondsmen in Washington are more than annoyed that Oregon doesn’t let them operate inside its borders.

They’re free to pursue fugitives in almost any other state. But across the Columbia River in Oregon, they can’t make an arrest without the help of police. And cops in Portland help only with felony warrants, Regan says.

That leaves Portland a safe haven for drunken drivers, wife beaters, petty thieves and meth heads wanted for misdemeanors. Shanks and his team don’t serve most misdemeanor warrants. And Washington bail bondsmen can’t pursue them here either.

“You’d be a fool to think criminals don’t know that,” Hubbard says. “Oregon is a laughingstock, and everyone knows it.”

Bail bondsmen are banned in Oregon, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Illinois. There are about 14,000 licensed bail bondsmen nationwide.

Bail bondsmen in Washington are required to be licensed both with the state Department of Licensing and the state Office of the Insurance Commissioner. Required training covers civil and criminal law, self-defense, weapons and prisoner transport.

Regan won’t reveal how much he makes, saying only that it was more than $75,000 last year. It may have been quite a bit more. He posted bonds for 1,545 people, at an average $5,224 bail apiece. With his 10 percent fee, that’s $807,000 gross, before expenses.

Half of Portland’s arrest warrants are for probation violations. The rest are mainly for people who were indicted but didn’t appear in court, or who failed to show up in court after they were bailed out of jail.

Of the 177 predatory sex offenders living in Multnomah County, 25 are wanted on arrest warrants but are still roaming free.

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