Outlaw Blues

With a modem, handcuffs, and a strong right arm, Houston bounty hunter Janis McCollom keeps bail jumpers looking over their shoulders.

WITH HER PAGER ON ONE HIP and her cell phone on the other, Janis McCollom swaggers like a gunfighter through the glass doors of Hooters, past the regulars drinking cold beer at the bar and into the cool interior. It’s well past high noon on a sweltering summer day as McCollom sits down to a glass of lemonade at her favorite watering hole and recounts her morning spent capturing another outlaw. This isn’t a western—it’s modern-day, air-conditioned Houston. But don’t tell McCollom this isn’t the Wild West.

“I’m sorry you missed this one, sweetheart,” McCollom says in her raspy, two-pack-a-day voice, lighting up a Kool. “I thought this lady was going to be a piece of cake, but she tried to run on us. She was scratching me, clawing me, raising hell—even popped my partner in the eye. She didn’t get nowhere, but, goddam, I hate chasing women. I’d rather go into the worst neighborhood after the biggest, baddest man than go after a little bitty female.”

Against the backdrop of the city’s urban sprawl, McCollom is the unlikely inheritor of a mythic, distinctly male role: the bounty hunter. With a faded rose tattoo on her right arm, mirrored sunglasses, and hulking wrestler’s stance, McCollom looks the part. She plays it pretty well too, locating 125 to 175 fugitives a year—a recovery rate of roughly 85 percent, which makes her one of the most coveted bounty hunters in Harris County. “She is without a doubt the best recovery agent in the city of Houston,” says Tina Lyles, the owner of Jailbusters Bonding Company, one of the largest bail-bonding companies in the city.

Before finding her calling in 1982, McCollom had drifted for a few years between dead-end jobs in Dallas, stocking shelves at a 7-Eleven and selling porn magazines at an adult bookstore. She had dropped out of high school and moved out of her mother’s house at the age of seventeen, leaving behind her three sisters (“Real salt-of-the-earth, good people,” McCollom says of them, “but, hell, could we fight”) and not knowing where life or her vague hopes of becoming a cop would take her. After it became clear that her mind-numbing grunt jobs were leading nowhere, McCollom followed the lead of a close female friend who had been doing recovery work for local bondsmen and pulling in good money. McCollom learned a few tricks of the trade and soon relocated to Houston, where she began bounty hunting in earnest.

Fifteen years later, McCollom, 41, knows how to find people who don’t want to be found. She uses age-old methods—knocking on doors and visiting old haunts (“Nobody has ten true friends,” she says)—as well as cutting-edge technology—accessing comprehensive online databases (“You have to find the weak link in the chain”) and tapping away on her PC until she finds a current address and license plate number. “I’m just an old hunting dog you don’t want to have snapping at your heels,” she says. “I ain’t happy if I ain’t hunting.”

The fact that McCollom uses her modem as often as her handcuffs is not the only way her job differs from that of her nineteenth-century counterparts. Unlike the days when crude Wanted: Dead or Alive posters put a price on any scofflaw’s head—making the murder of an outlaw just as lucrative as his capture—modern-day bounty hunters must deliver fugitives to justice rather than take justice into their own hands. Nowadays bounty hunters also like to call themselves more-respectable names—skip tracers, recovery agents, fugitive finders, or bail enforcement agents. But they all serve the same function: to scour their turf, and sometimes the rest of Texas and beyond, for “skips,” or bail jumpers, who must be arrested and taken back to court.

A bounty hunter is hired by a bondsman when a defendant who was previously released on a bail bond does not appear on his scheduled court date. Unless the bounty hunter can track down the defendant, the court will cash the bond and the bondsman must ante up. When a defendant jumps bail, not only is the bondsman’s money at stake but so is his livelihood; bondsmen whose clients regularly disappear will quickly go out of business, because insurance companies will refuse to underwrite their bonds. Bondsmen depend heavily on accomplished bounty hunters (McCollum says that so far this year she has saved them $481,800), as do the police, who don’t have the manpower to track down and bring in every bail jumper.

“We have tons and tons of felony offenders—let alone misdemeanor offenders—who we don’t have the time to locate and arrest,” says Officer J. R. Dees of the Houston Police Department’s fugitive detail. “Oftentimes bounty hunters will put in ten times as much effort into locating an individual than we will because they want their money. We don’t get paid a bounty every time we put a crook in jail—they do. So who do you think looks harder to find that person, them or me?”

No reliable data exist on how many bounty hunters are currently operating in Texas or nationwide, since bounty hunters are largely unregulated—a fact that caused much outrage during the clamor in September over an Arizona couple’s murder. (Five ski-masked intruders, who falsely claimed later to be bounty hunters, shot and killed the young couple in a botched robbery attempt.) But there’s plenty of bounty hunting to go around in Texas, particularly because the state—with its wide-open spaces and easy access to Mexico—is enticing to fugitives. Jumping bail is not uncommon, according to a recent study conducted by the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics. The bureau examined 34,831 felony defendants who were released in May 1992 in the nation’s 75 largest counties. Of those who were bailed out, 14 percent failed to show up in court, but—thanks in large part to the efforts of bounty hunters—only 3 percent remained fugitives after a year.

In the artfully constructed bail bond system—a $4 billion a year industry in which Texas is third,

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