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It's Brutal in the Bail Business LA Times Mar. 25, 2005

It's Brutal in the Bail Business LA Times Mar. 25, 2005

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It's Brutal in the Bail Business
By Paul PringleMarch 25, 2005Outside Bad Boys Bail Bonds, somebody had illegally painted the curb red. Again. Neil Angos, Los Angeles operations chief for Bad Boys, said he suspected that his business rivals hadordered the curb lipsticked this time and at least once before to keep prospective customers from drivingup to his door."They really hate us," said Angos, toeing the flaking paint, which was a touch paler than the city's officialred.This is Bail Row -- a trash-blown block of downtown where the competition for freedom-buyers is ascutthroat as it gets. Lately, as growing numbers of companies scramble for fatter and fatter bonds,corruption investigations have targeted Bad Boys and other bail purveyors in Southern California.On Bail Row, about a dozen bond offices are lined shoulder to shoulder in a mustard-colored, carnival-lighted mini-mall and a stretch of neighboring storefronts in need of Windex. They sit across VignesStreet from the Men's Central and Twin Towers jails.The lockups anchor the nation's largest local penal system, a 24-hour-a-day gold mine for the bail sellers.And while it might appear that there is plenty of get-out-of-jail lucre to go around, the enterprises engagein a kind of urban combat for every dollar."It's really a dirty business," said Bertha Comar, owner of Aliso Village Bail Bonds, a tiny firm in a burglar-barred building a few steps from the mall. She sat slumped at her desk in a warren-like office,with a painting of the Virgin Mary on the wall behind her and a poster for the gangster movie "Scarface"to her right.Comar said she could no longer vie with the bigger outfits and was preparing to shut her shop down.Several Bail Row tenants say they manage to stay above the fray, but others complain of having their tiresslashed and windshields smashed. Gripes of petty behavior include prank phone calls from agents posingas clients and even bogus pizza deliveries."It's stupid," said Comar, who told of being tormented by the unwanted pizzas, which she says wereordered by someone at the mall.Then there are the ever-present tow trucks that quickly hook the cars of patrons who park at the mall butmeander to bail offices elsewhere on Vignes or Bauchet Street, Bad Boys among them. The latter have nomall parking privileges.Vince Ebarb, owner of the mall's Anyway Bail Bonds, said the tow trucks "probably make more moneythan anybody.Willie McCray wasn't laughing. "They towed my truck!" he exclaimed, standing at an empty spot in themall lot.The Lancaster resident had been trying to bail out his wife, who was charged with real estate fraud. Heclutched a couple of brochures and a promotional keychain from Bad Boys.
"Everybody's got a different gimmick," McCray said as he looked bleakly down the street for his wheels.Bail can be posted without an agent, providing the court gets the full amount in cash or collateral such asthe deed to a house. But the vast majority of defendants use a bond firm, which normally charges a state-set, nonrefundable 10% fee. Sometimes the fee is spread out in installments.Agents file a written promise with the court to pay the entire bail if the defendant "skips" -- fails to showup for a hearing. That pledge is backed by the agents' insurance companies.Only a small percentage of defendants vanish, and most who do are eventually caught. The low risk of forfeitures, plus the steep profit that a single bond can bring, has broadened the field of vendors, includingthose on Bail Row.In the last eight or 10 years, the number of bail agents in the state has doubled to 2,200, and the average bond in Los Angeles County has jumped from $5,000 to $20,000, according to Frank Repetti, an officer in the Los Angeles and California bail agents associations."You don't have to write nearly as many bonds to make as much money," Repetti said.The easier riches have spelled an end to the days when mom-and-pop businesses ruled the industry andmarketing consisted of a Yellow Pages ad and neon come-ons winking above the door -- "0% Down for Homeowners" or "Collateral Not Always Needed." Newer and larger companies have upped the ante with radio and television commercials -- and, in BadBoys' case, a fleet of vehicles tattooed with images of a beefy man in women's clothing and the slogan,"Because Your Mama Wants You Home."The state-mandated fees limit discounting, so firms like Bad Boys try to outdo the competition byoffering more creative financing arrangements. For example, Angos said, "We'll get 20 co-signers" on a bond agreement.Bad Boys also issues bonds for bail amounts as low as $500, which some agencies reject as not worth thetrouble."The greed comes in," said Joel Diaz, an agent for Eddie Nardoni Bail Bonds. "There are people herewilling to sell out their moms."Seven years after it was founded, Bad Boys says it generates $300 million in bail annually, making it No.2 in the state after Aladdin Bail Bonds. Bad Boys joined the battle on Bail Row three years ago, movinginto a cinder-block building at the side of the mall. The company was not warmly received."I think I'm safer in the wilds of Africa than I am on Vignes Street," Bad Boys President Jeff Stanley saidin a phone interview after he returned from a safari on that continent.He said his security cameras once captured a competing agent knifing the tires on three cars belonging toBad Boys workers. The slasher was confronted with the tape and agreed to replace the tires, Stanley said.He would not identify him."We constantly have vandalism going on with our employees' vehicles and threats made to our employees," said Stanley, a former bounty hunter whose firm has three offices in California. "We haven'texperienced anything like that anywhere else.”
The company has struggled for 14 months to rid its curb of red. Twice, parking officials ordered the illicit paint removed. But the city has since granted the mall landlord's request to keep the red.Bad Boys has another fight on its hands. The Los Angeles County Grand Jury has indicted the companyon more than 40 counts of perjury, forgery and offering false evidence for allegedly lying to the courtabout efforts to track down clients who skipped. Bad Boys has pleaded not guilty.Deputy Dist. Atty. Shirley Sun said unscrupulous agents, aided by regulations that bail lobbyists helpedwrite, can flummox judges with technicalities and dog-ate-the-homework excuses to avoid making goodon forfeited bonds. Some have lied that defendants fled to Mexico or died, Sun said.Ongoing state and local investigations have focused in part on allegations that volume-selling agencies broke the law after fronting bail for too many people with too little collateral, costing counties and citiesmillions in potential revenue from unpaid bonds, plus the expense of pursuing defendants on the lam.Whittier-based American Liberty Bail Bonds closed on Bail Row after authorities raided its offices lastsummer and charged the owner and five employees with kidnapping clients and extortion, among other offenses. They have pleaded not guilty.Rumors fly on Bail Row of raids and indictments to come. The day-to-day drama, though, is of the dust-up variety. Agents recount shouting matches in the parking lot, the occasional punch thrown over a towedcar and countless instances of a competitor snatching a customer from the doorstep."Everybody be stealing bonds," said Guy Quinteros, a fidgety 34-year-old who recently lost his agent's job at Aliso Village. "I hate it."Much of the prevailing animosity stems from the all-hours action on the sidewalk.Bad Boys innovated the use of street teams -- employees who pass out fliers and key chains to jail visitors but are not authorized to negotiate bail. The company successfully sued the city of Los Angeles for  permission to deploy the teams."A lot of bail agencies think what we're doing is illegal, but it's not," Angos said.He was working late in his office, perhaps the most corporate on Bail Row, with its pods of sleek, dark furniture. The former software manager wore a business suit, an equally uncommon sight in the shadowof the jails.On the corner outside, homeless people, many fresh from a cell, howled obscenities in the night. Drugdealers and pimps use the parking lot as a way station, ratcheting up the tensions for agents."One of every 10 guys who parks here has a gun in his car," said Bert Potter. He stood in the lot as yetanother car was towed. "They're going to visit someone in jail or they're leaving dope around for someoneto pick up."Potter and Eddie Nardoni are Bail Row's grizzled old-timers."It's a good business, with good revenue," said Nardoni, sporting a baseball cap and a snowy mustache.He was wrapping up an afternoon behind the long counter in his office, where clown paintings hang onthe walls. His face grew clouded."But the revenue isn't what it used to be because of more competition," he said.

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