- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Montgomery County police have arrested four bounty hunters who are accused of impersonating police officers and violating the rights of Hispanic fugitives they detained, one of whom they held for ransom.

Police on Tuesday charged Neville Lawrence, 44, of Laurel; Joe Matthew King, 26, of Columbia, Md.; Craig Christopher Lawrence, 19, of Burtonsville; and Robert Donald Powell, 48, of Baltimore, with burglary, false imprisonment, impersonating a police officer, destruction of property and theft.

Police said the men operated a business called Capital Fugitive Recovery Agency Inc., which subcontracted for bail-bond agencies to track down persons who miss court appearances and fugitives.

Police began investigating the men in December after authorities received at least 10 complaints of abuse from members of the Hispanic community.

Police said the men apprehended a man on Dec. 15, took him to a hotel where they held him overnight and forced him to call his family and ask them for $10,000. Police said the man thought the money was for his release. The victim’s family called authorities, who freed the man.

“The victims were wanted,” said Lucille Baur, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Police. “But the greater crime was the method of which [the agents] tried to bring them into custody.”

Ms. Baur said the victims were wanted on immigration violations and that she did not know the status of their cases.

During the incidents, the bounty hunters dressed in black flight jackets that had the name of the company on the back. They also wore badges, camouflage or black pants and flak jackets, and always were armed.

Police said in several cases, the agents identified themselves as police officers or immigration agents. In some cases, they forced open doors of fugitives’ homes and interrogated the occupants about their identities and their knowledge of the fugitives. Sometimes, the interrogations lasted up to two hours, police said.

Several victims reported that money and credit cards were stolen during the incidents.

Montgomery County Police Capt. John Fitzgerald said many bounty hunters are legitimate, but that “this is a total abuse.” He called it “an over-the-top case.”

Bail-bonds companies are regulated by law; bounty hunters are not.

Bounty hunters are agents or subcontractors who search and apprehend fugitives and have broad authority. They can forcibly enter a residence and ask about the whereabouts of a fugitive.

However, the bounty hunters cannot represent or identify themselves as police officers or immigration agents.

“We think the problem could be more far-reaching than we know,” Ms. Baur said.

Police ask anyone with additional information about the case to call 240/773-5070. Police said they are not interested in immigration status.

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