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Real bounty hunting's far from a 'Dog's' life

Bounty hunter "James Dillon" often travels out of state to bring fugitives back to Georgia.

Bounty hunter "James Dillon" often travels out of state to bring fugitives back to Georgia.

— — As soon as the woman screamed, James Dillon knew he was in trouble. Almost before the echoes of her cries had bounced back to him off an adjacent building, as many as 40 curious and angry-looking young men were walking Dillon’s way.

“It was like I’d stepped on an ant bed,” Dillon, an independent bail recovery agent who is referred to as "James Dillon" because he only agreed to the interview if his real name were not used, said of a recent encounter in Jacksonville, Fla. “As soon as this woman started hollering — in the time it took me to walk her off her porch to the ground — the walkway was lined with men, all of them demanding to know what was going on.

“I could see more men coming, and I told the female recovery agent who was with me, ‘Get her in the car and get yourself in the car. Now! We have to get out of here.’ I didn’t stop to fix the handcuffs on this woman until we were well out of that neighborhood.”

Dillon smiles wistfully as he tells that story, his aw-shucks grin lighting up features that belie the years and miles he has on his odometer. The anecdote is one of many Dillon shares with a visitor as he tries to explain what life is like for a real bounty hunter, not some television-created celebrity whose exploits have little to do with the realities of the profession.

“People see something like ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ on TV, and they think this is some glamorous life of riding up and down the roads talking with some big-breasted woman on a two-way radio while chasing tough-guy criminals,” said Dillon, who became a licensed recovery agent three years ago after retiring from a position with BellSouth. “There’s a lot more to it than that.

“You have to find a starting point from which to gather information and then start adding pieces to the puzzle. Talking with one person might get you another name, then you have to track that person down. There’s a lot of computer work, a lot of leg work, a lot of trying to get information from people you don’t know.”

IT TAKES PATIENCE

Dillon, who grew up in Southwest Georgia, got a call from a friend in trouble a little more than three years ago. His friend had put his house up as bond for someone he knew, and when that person skipped out on a court appearance, Dillon’s friend was in danger of losing his house.

“My friend asked me to help him find the guy,” Dillon said. “I had the time, so I gathered as much information as I could get and started tracing him. Within a week, I was about six months behind him; within a week and a half, I was three months behind.

“It took me 3 1/2 weeks to run this guy down, but I learned a lot by doing it.”

So much so, when another friend asked for similar help a short while later, Dillon decided to get a state bail recovery agent license and try his hand at tracking down bail skips.

“In order to do this the right way, you have to get licensed,” Dillon said. “You have to be 25 years old, be a legal citizen of the United States, obtain a pistol permit and take an eight-hour class. Once you’re certified, you have to take annual continuing education classes.

“That sounds pretty simple, but people looking to make an easy buck need to think hard about it. There’s not a lot of work out there to go around, and you could starve to death waiting on a case. Plus, you’ve got to prove yourself trustworthy before anyone’s going to put their faith in you. It’s their money on the line, and if you do anything illegal, they’re held liable for your actions.”

In the three years that he’s been a licensed recovery agent, Dillon has worked between 60 and 70 cases. His reputation has kept him in demand locally, and he’s chased bail skips into Florida, Tennessee, Virginia, Missouri and Illinois.

Bondsmen who put up the money to get people who are arrested out of jail collect a percentage of the bond they stand for when that person shows up for his or her day in court. But if that person does not show and can’t be located within a prescribed number of days, the bondsman becomes responsible for paying the entire amount of the bail.

“Obviously, if it’s a significant amount of money, the bondsman — or any indemnator — is going to do anything he can to get the skip back,” Dillon said. “My fee for local work is usually around 10 percent of the bond, but if I am required to go out of the area or even out of the state, there are expenses to cover.

“Sometimes the amount the bondsman might lose is not worth the cost of finding the skip, but sometimes it’s the principle of the situation. If a bondsman gets a reputation for not going after skips, he might have more and more people not show up for court. That, of course, is bad for business.”

WILLINGNESS TO LIE

That’s why Dillon was dispatched to a distant state to bring in a recent skip.

“When I found her, she said, ‘My mother told me there was no way you’d go across four states to come after me,’” Dillon says with a grin. “I told her, ‘You messed with the wrong bounty hunter’.”

Dillon said he and other recovery agents use the Internet, court records, information supplied by family and friends of the skip, reward money for information and even outright lies to bring their man or woman in.

“You have to be willing to lie, to tell people what they want to hear,” he said. “I found the cousin of this guy I was looking for and instead of asking a bunch of questions that would make him suspicious, I told the guy I was looking for his cousin to do a lawn maintenance job for me.

“It worked. He came right to me.”

Dillon has all kinds of stories to tell. There was the tough guy he picked up in Florida who cried all the way back to Georgia. The elusive lady he caught in Tennessee by giving her nephew 50 bucks to keep him abreast of her movements.

But there is a definite element of danger.

“You’re going into someone’s house where, if there’s anyone present, they’re going to be hostile toward you,” Dillon said. “I was in one guy’s hotel room, and I had to pull a gun on him. He threw a drink in my face, and then jumped on me. I got free and told him I was going to shoot him, so he jumped off the second story balcony of the hotel and ran.

“He didn’t know that I knew where he worked, though, so I waited until the next day, went to his job and as soon as I saw him I put my taser on him. He just smiled, said ‘You got me’ and came along.”

Dillon carries handcuffs and a .45-caliber handgun with him at all times, but his most useful weapon is a Taser similar to the ones used by law enforcement agencies.

“I went to one guy’s house, and when his wife called him to the door, he saw me and started cursing, calling me names,” Dillon said. “I pulled my Taser, put that laser dot in the middle of his chest and told him if he made any move to get away I would tase him. He slowly turned around, put his hands behind his back and waited for me to cuff him.

“A gun will kill you, but most of the people I chase seem to be more scared of the Taser.”

LITTLE TRICKS HELP

When Dillon gets a bead on a skip’s whereabouts, he’ll stake out the area and watch. His patience is often rewarded.

“I’ve sat for three or four hours at a time waiting for someone,” he said. “It’s not the most exciting part of the job, but I don’t mind it. I’ll listen to Rush (Limbaugh) or Sean Hannity, but you won’t catch me doing crossword puzzles. I’m there to watch, not entertain myself.”

Dillon said the longer he’s worked at his new profession, the more he’s learned. And the better he’s gotten.

“You learn little tricks that help you,” he said. “If you go into a house, you look for insulation or paint chips under the attic stairs that might indicate someone’s gone into the attic. You learn how to ask questions and who to ask to get information that can help you.

“Danger is part of the equation, but you want to minimize it as much as possible.”

Dillon had that last bit of wisdom in mind when he went after a recent skip. He traced the man to a house of a relative and went inside the home to look for him.

“It was dark in there, but I saw evidence that the guy might have gone up into the attic,” he said. “I went up the stairs and quickly popped my head in to see if I could see anything. When nothing happened, I eased up and started shining my flashlight around in the attic. My light passed over a pile of old clothes, and after I went past it, it dawned on me that there were feet at the bottom of that pile.

“I said, ‘What are you doing up here?’ and shined the light at the top of the pile. The guy I was chasing weighed about 350 pounds, and he slowly stood up. When the light hit his face, it landed on a row of gold teeth that were shining in a huge grin. He said, ‘You got me,’ and came on down.”

Just another case closed in the career of a real-life bounty hunter.