Outlaw Blues

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

November 1997By Comments

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, behind California and Florida—both the lure of making money (for the bondsman and the bounty hunter) and the threat of losing it (for the defendant or his family and friends who put up collateral) are what keep participants in line. A bounty hunter is paid for nothing more than her expenses if she returns empty-handed. But if she finds her man, she will receive anywhere from 5 to 20 percent of the bail bond amount—a substantial sum if the bond is in the high five-figures or beyond. “I don’t care if it’s $300 or $300,000,” says McCollom with a slow smile, looking out at the freeway. “It’s the chase that I love.”

Later that day, as the sun sets over Houston, McCollom sits in her home office, frantically making phone calls under her collection of glazed ceramic bald eagles, talons outstretched, ready to seize their prey. She and one of her partners, Duane, are trying to get more information on a white male in his mid-twenties who faces a felony charge for writing hot checks. According to a recent tip from an informant, the suspect is expected to be waiting tables at a seafood restaurant that evening. After several hasty calls and online searches to determine the make and model of his car, his license plate number, and any possible aliases, McCollom heads out the door, grabbing a Polaroid of the man, handcuffs, a Maglite flashlight, a voluminous city map, and a mini—tape recorder that will record the entire episode. “I usually keep my tape recorder in here, in case I have to tussle,” McCollom says, patting her white, V-necked T-shirt. “Bras come in handy for a lot of things.”

One thing McCollom doesn’t conceal or even carry on the job is a handgun. Doing so could make her more susceptible to accusations of false imprisonment or kidnapping. She could also be charged with impersonating a police officer. “I can carry a shotgun,” she explains, “but that’s just like hollering, ‘I’m coming to getcha.’” Instead, her backup is provided by one of her partners: Duane, “the talker,” who has a knack for eliciting information; Julio, “the muscle,” who can bench-press 325 pounds; or 68-year-old Cliff, “the old man,” a former federal informant and bodyguard for Ann-Margret who has worked enough investigations to know more tricks than McCollom. “He’s the ace up my sleeve,” she says.

Because of an 1873 U.S. Supreme Court case, McCollum may do several things the police cannot. According to Taylor v. Taintor, bounty hunters “may pursue [a fugitive] to another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath, and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose.” Bounty hunters may enter a residence without a warrant, impersonate anyone other than a peace officer, and pay informants for information. A 1987 state law imposes one restriction: A bounty hunter must hold a private investigator’s license to arrest a fugitive in Texas.

McCollom and her partners have chased fugitives as far as Florida, greased palms for good leads, and disguised themselves as everything from a Domino’s pizza deliverer to a City of Houston water department worker to get fugitives to open the door. McCollom’s mentor and the former owner of Best Lil’ Ole Bail Bonds in Texas, Jo Betncourt—known to some in Houston bail-bonding circles as Grandma Bail—has dressed as a nun to get information. These tactics work, but often fugitives turn out to be just as tricky as the bounty hunters, changing their names, addresses, license plate numbers, and appearances until they’ve left nothing behind but a cold trail. And then there are the unanticipated kinks. McCollom recently tracked down a woman, only to discover that she had an identical twin sister. “I talked my way into their living room, but then I couldn’t tell who was who,” she says. “I remembered that the woman I was looking for had a three-year-old daughter, so I asked the little girl in the room, ‘Which one of these pretty ladies is your mama?’ The girl pointed right at her, so I took her downtown.”

This evening McCollom expects to get her suspect without a hitch. “With most of them, it’s just a cat-and-mouse game,” she says, negotiating traffic as Duane peers at the map. “It’s just a matter of time before I catch up with them.” After several wrong turns she pulls up to the seafood restaurant where the suspect is supposed to appear. A Harris County Sheriff’s office and a fleet of parked patrol cars happen to be right next door, so McCollom and Duane meet briefly with the constable—“Just so there won’t be any trouble”—and get the go-ahead. Once inside they sit at a table with a good view of the kitchen door, next to a wall decorated with fishing nets and a weather-beaten sign that reads “Eat ’Em Raw,” and order poorboys. They’ve studied the suspect’s photograph; all they can do now is wait. “This is the part I’m not good at—waiting,” McCollom says, distractedly lighting another cigarette.

An anxious hour and several glasses of iced tea later, the suspect materializes, adjusting his tie as he walks through the swinging kitchen door. McCollom winks at Duane and quickly strides over to her prey. Within seconds she has whipped out her handcuffs and placed his hands on the table in front of him. “I’m here to arrest you for your failure to appear in court,” says McCollom matter-of-factly, identifying herself as a licensed private investigator and clicking the handcuffs shut around his wrists. “I’m sorry we had to meet under these conditions.” While Duane covers her back, she leads the suspect—who first looks incredulous and then hangs his head in embarrassment—through the kitchen, past the prep cooks who have stopped tossing salad to stand and gape, and into the back seat of her pickup. As she has done more than a thousand times since she started bounty hunting in 1983, McCollom drives downtown and drops her fugitive off at the Harris County Jail.

Not all cases go so smoothly. Often, when a bounty hunter is hot on the trail of a fugitive who may be armed and dangerous, she will call in local law enforcement. (A bounty hunter is paid even if a police officer arrests the fugitive, as long as the bounty hunter’s sleuthing led to the fugitive’s arrest.) Sometimes police officers will provide backup; other times they won’t. Cops are often busy with other cases, but their reasons for not helping bounty hunters are more complex, stemming from the fact that law enforcement and bail enforcement have a long-standing love-hate relationship. “We’re all trying to accomplish the same thing, for different purposes: to get bad guys off the street,” says Officer Dees. “The more people that we’ve got doing that, the better for society. The problem is this: We work separately, so we basically have no communication with them. I could have something set up that I’ve been working on for weeks with an informant—trying to get the suspect to a certain location so I can make the arrest—and bounty hunters could be doing work on their end that leads them to the exact same place at the same time. They could waltz in there and blow everything, scare the guy off, and then I’ve got to start all over again. They’re not trained like we are, and their inexperience can cost us.”

Law enforcement’s perception of bounty hunters as a rogue, irresponsible bunch is frustrating for McCollom, especially if it results in a lack of police backup that means going in alone. She has been shot at and has gotten roughed up a few too many times, but she keeps doing what she loves. “I’m on call seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day,” she says. “Saturday, the day the computer system goes down, is my Sabbath. I’ve gotten up at three to chase them; I’ve left Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. My job comes home with me at night. I lay in bed at night thinking about how to catch those sons of bitches, especially the ones who are giving me a hard time.”

For all the bullets flying and the hours dragging, McCollom can’t see doing anything else. “It’s the adrenaline; it’s a high. When you go through a door, you never know what you’re going to find,” she says. “One day I’ll have to hang it up and get off the streets, but, damn, when I’m sitting in my rocking chair, I’ll have a lot to remember.”

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