- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Jon Fitzpatrick looks the part of a bounty hunter — tall, rugged, and occasionally forbidding. He packs a gun, opts for Johnny Cash black when forced to wear a suit and isn’t afraid to tackle a fugitive when the situation calls for it.But he’d really rather you called him a “fugitive-recovery agent,” and says his profession is mostly about research and shoe-leather tracking than busting down doors and bringing in bad guys at gunpoint.

“I like to find people who don’t want to be found,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said recently. “Ninety-nine-point-five percent of the time, they will say: ‘OK, can I get my shoes?’”

Mr. Fitzpatrick spends most of his time tracking down small-time bail jumpers for a few hundred dollars apiece. He says television and movie portrayals of big-money bounty hunters give a false impression of his profession as action-packed and glamorous, luring in novices with more aggression than sense.

So he’s pushing Washington lawmakers to rein in his shadowy and largely unregulated trade, concerned that the bare-knuckle tactics of his less-responsible colleagues might get somebody killed.

“People say: Oh, you’re a bounty hunter, so you like to kick in doors and screw guns in people’s faces,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said this month as he testified before the Legislature. “It gives my company a bad name.”

That stereotype hit too close to home last year, when a 19-year-old novice bounty hunter pointed a shotgun at a woman and her baby at a Starbucks coffee shop before handcuffing and hauling away an innocent man — one of Mr. Fitzpatrick’s friends.

Figuring it was an abduction, bystanders called police, and the bounty hunter wound up charged with assault and kidnapping.

Although prosecutors say such incidents are very rare, it could have gone terribly wrong, spraying a busy street with deadly shotgun pellets.

So this month found Mr. Fitzpatrick, dressed in black from shoes to necktie, sitting uncomfortably in a hearing room at the Washington Legislature.

For him, it’s more than just the personal affront of having a fellow recovery agent abduct one of his friends. It’s the possibility that violent invasions might turn normally docile fugitives violent.

“The next time I have to come to that house, they’re going to be armed, they’re going to be booby-trapping the doors,” Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

Washington and some two dozen other states don’t regulate bounty hunters at all, said Scott Olson, president of the National Institute of Bail Enforcement, a 3,000-member organization based in Chicago that supports regulation of the industry.

“What really hurts us is that we get these rogue bounty hunters out there,” Mr. Olson said. “They go and kick in doors and do their thing.”

Without state regulation, bail bondsmen and their agents enjoy broad powers to break into houses and drag away fugitives — known as “bail skips” — without a warrant. Under an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court decision, people surrender many of their civil rights when a bondsman bails them out of jail.

“They become, in essence, property,” said state Rep. Mike Carrell, the sponsor of the Washington licensing bill. “It’s a contract, and the bail bond company says, ‘You are now mine. You don’t run away.’”

Mr. Carrell’s proposal would limit the trade to people with appropriate education or experience, including instruction in relevant laws, the appropriate use of force, training in firearms, and no felony convictions.

Agents would need a concealed-pistol license, effectively limiting the profession to those over 21. The plan also would require agents to notify police when they plan to force entry into a home.

A look at Mr. Fitzpatrick’s working life gives insight into why he wants a more regulated profession. Like many people in dangerous businesses, Mr. Fitzpatrick is careful almost to the point of superstition.

He doesn’t carry a cell phone or pager when he’s hunting fugitives because he’s afraid a beep could break his concentration at a crucial point.

He saves the black suit for formal occasions, mostly wearing jeans and a multicolored fleece pullover that hides his gun and makes him look like thousands of other working-class Northwesterners.

Sometimes his cases are just a matter of walking up to the front door and knocking. In other cases, guile is required. Mr. Fitzpatrick says he once bought $400 in casino vouchers, hired a limo, and told a skip that he’d won a free casino trip. When the sharply dressed fugitive hopped in the limo, Mr. Fitzpatrick and a partner jumped in on either side and nabbed him.

Last month, Internet and courthouse research led Mr. Fitzpatrick to a bail skip who was hiding out at his grandmother’s house in a rural area south of Olympia.

Unusually, the young fugitive bolted, leading Mr. Fitzpatrick on a rough chase through heavy brush before giving up. Mr. Fitzpatrick cuffed him, but brushed mud off his face and let him hug his grandmother before hauling him off to the courthouse.

On the drive, he helped the man smoke a cigarette and told him: “You’re not the first to run, and I’m pretty sure you won’t be the last.”

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