cover_story (2006-36)

BONDSMAN TONY TROUTT: Is he looking for you?

Sean Sanford is planted in one of the plastic bucket seats that line the lobby walls at Knox County jail, doing what he’s almost always doing when he’s conscious and sitting still for any measurable period of time—he’s talking on the phone. It’s noonish, and Sanford is dressed casually in blue coach’s shorts, clean white sneakers, and a yellow Sanford & Sons Bail Bonds knit polo which, though new and neatly pressed, is woefully inadequate for the task of containing the whole of his mountainous upper arms.

“You’ve been in jail for three days; there’s probably a reason for that,” he tells a potential client, looking to spring himself from jail in a neighboring county.

“Who’s in jail? Gabe ----? That jackass. He told me he was gonna straighten up,” he says to a caller who interrupts the previous one, this time a fellow Sanford bonding agent on the verge of making another bond.

And to another potential client, obviously one of Sanford & Sons’ frequent fliers: “You need $1,537. Tell Toshiba to give it to you. She’s probably got it under her pillow…. She’s a wild one, Toshiba. Her answering machine message says ‘I’m not home right now, so I’m probably out fucked up somewhere’….”

He stays on the phone for nearly 30 minutes, shuttling calls one after another—calls from other bonding agents making other bails; calls from would-be clients anxious to know whether they have outstanding warrants; calls from bounty hunters looking for bail jumpers in other states; calls from people who want nothing more in God’s world than to extricate themselves as soon as humanly possible from the bleak, soul-deadening milieu of being in jail. “I swear, I get sumbitches promise me the moon to get out,” Sanford says of the latter.

Then there is the matter at hand, that of bonding out Maurice, a young man jailed on charges of both evading and resisting arrest, criminal trespass and double assault, all stemming from a single incident the previous night wherein he struggled with local police. Waiting for Maurice affords Sanford plenty of time to field the incoming calls, as most prisoner-related functions at Knox County Jail take place at roughly the same pace as continental drift.

Sanford is a professional bail bondsmen, a distinction which, in Tennessee, can be held by anyone (law enforcement officers excluded) over 18 with a clean record and proper insurance who petitions criminal court in the counties they wish to operate. And that’s bonding agent, mind you, not bounty hunter, a la “Dawg,” the blond-mulleted roughneck who has put his profession on the map via a popular reality show on cable TV.

Bondsmen do the same things bounty hunters do—i.e. chase delinquent bond skips and put them back in jail—but they also do the more mundane work of setting them free in the first place. Or the second place—bondsmen like Sanford will, under the right circumstances, often re-bond their own freshly recaptured skips.

It’s a weird job, one that requires those who hold it to be at times stern, ruthless, mothering, tight-fisted, diplomatic, generous, tough, courageous, and sometimes flat-out under-handed, often within the space of a couple of hours.

It may also be a vanishing profession, or so says Sanford and his father, Jack, owner of Sanford & Sons. Several states, including neighboring Kentucky, legislatively moved to eliminate bondsmen in recent years. (According to statistics cited by the Tennessee Association of Professional Bonding Agents, the results of such legislation have been no-show rates in court that are higher by a factor of three than those of states where bondsmen are still active.)

Perhaps it’s small wonder that bondsmen as a group have what can best be described as a bunker mentality. “Lawyers and cops don’t like us,” Sanford says. “Cops think we’re letting all the fugitives out of jail. Lawyers hate us because we get paid before they do. And most legislators are attorneys, so they don’t like us either. I do think they (state legislators) are eventually going to get us. It’s just a question of when.”

More appreciative of their services are the people whom they get out of jail, sometimes on a shockingly regular basis, people like Maurice, who has been a Sanford & Sons client once before, or his sister, who arranged for his bail this time and has been a client herself on several previous occasions, and his sister’s ex-husband as well. Not unlike mom-and-pop grocers or used car salesmen, bondsmen depend on repeat customers.

“Come on over here and we’ll look at some paperwork,” Sanford says in a booming voice that somehow manages to come off as commanding and warmly familiar at the same time. “You don’t remember me, because Tony bailed you out last time. I’m better looking… You got a girlfriend, Maurice? (‘No, sir.’) You got 10 of them?”

Sanford chortles and slaps him on the back with a big hand that might easily snap his shoulder blades, save for the fact that Maurice is 5’10” and weighs all of 280 lbs. Then he escorts Maurice to the jail parking lot and his waiting Mazda miniature SUV, and drives straight to the bank, where they retrieve most of the $737 (cost = 10 percent of bond, plus $37, as mandated by state law) needed to pay Sanford for his services.

“Y’all treat me with respect,” says Maurice, who seems pretty friendly for a fellow who was taser-shocked twice by police for allegedly resisting arrest less than 24 hours ago. “Anytime y’all come get me, I’ll jump in the car every time.”

“Don’t hurt no one, Maurice,” Sanford says as he drops the humbled man off near his home, which isn’t far from Sanford & Sons office on Magnolia. No sooner has he done so than his cell phone starts crying out once again, this time with a call from another frequent flier.

“Cynthia, how much bond they gonna put on you?… Mmm-hmm. Cynthia, what am I gonna do with you? You ain’t got no money now? You know I’m gonna whip your ass for this. Well, you call me when you get booked and we’ll see.”

He hangs up and shakes his head, pulls his blue Mazda back on the road. “I’m not making her bond for no money,” he says. “She can kiss that ass goodbye.”

More so than any other trade—with the possible exceptions of politics and organized crime—the bonding business is a family affair. Sean Sanford is a third-generation bonding agent; family legend has it that his grandfather Hite Sanford ran his own shoestring one-man bonding operation before coming into his own by winning title to the larger Tennessee Bonding Company in a poker game in the mid-1930s.

Hite changed the name to East Tennessee Bonding Company before his death in the late ’50s; ETBC was run by a trust until 1970, when Hite’s son Jack, with a year of college behind him, was called upon to take over managerial duties. At the time, every one of the eight or so bonding companies operating in Knoxville (there are more than 20 today) were stationed in one of a series of tiny two-room cinderblock buildings lining the alley across from the old city jail on Broadway. “Cigar smoke and spittoons and carpets that hadn’t been cleaned in years,” Jack remembers. “They were dumps.”

His own introduction to the business was mostly a matter of trial-by-fire, overseen by a grim, taciturn man named Witt, who had been hired by the trust to oversee ETBC until Jack and his two sisters came of age. The first time Jack made a bond, he was sent to an outlying town with no directions or counsel; he picked up his first bail-jumper with even less preparation.

“Mr. Witt told me this guy just owed us some money, but what he’d really done was skip bond,” Jack remembers. “I didn’t know that. His mother came to the door and said ‘I don’t know what to tell you; you’ll have to come in and get him.’ I asked where he was, and she said he was in there hiding in the closet. Thank God he didn’t give me no trouble.”

Seated in the living room of his comfortable home in South Knoxville, 58-year-old Jack Sanford is somewhat the worse for wear now, with thinning white hair, a bit of a slouch, and two arthritic knees still scarred and swollen from a recent surgery. But his son remembers him from his younger days as a solid six-footer, 210 lbs., with thick, curly black hair, and a short fuse. Despite his rough initiation, Jack took to his inherited trade quickly and with some relish, managing the business and bonding side of the company as well as tracking most of his own skips.

“I was young, and I enjoyed getting out and chasing bail jumpers,” he says. “It’s a fairly exciting job, if you like to live on the edge. I went all over the United States, and Mexico a time or two, and Canada.”

Sean, the elder of his two sons, began working part-time for ETBC in 1986, as “an errand boy and a bill collector.” By the time Jack decided to split from the family company—which he left under the ownership of his sisters—and form Sanford & Sons in 1990, Sean was a full-fledged bondsman, though well on his way to degrees in Sociology and Education from the University of Tennessee. After forays into high-school teaching and coaching, Sean Sanford has been primarily a bonding agent since 1998, and he now acts as CEO of Sanford & Sons while his father enjoys semi-retirement.

Big and blustery, but also affable and essentially even-tempered, Sean Sanford’s comportment is well suited to both ends of the business. At 6’ and 225 well-distributed pounds, he looks like nothing so much as a de-larded offensive lineman. He cuts the imposing sort of figure that tends to inspire placid cooperation in potentially recalcitrant bail jumpers.

More often, though, he leaves the chasing to a small stable of regular Sanford employees, most especially Tony Troutt, Sean’s dependable right hand, a lean, stoic 29-year-old with deep family roots in the bondsman’s trade; and Jeremy Hancock, a 23-year-old human bowling ball, a buzz-cutted and tattooed youth whose girth belies his surprising agility—a pairing of physical traits that comes in handy when push comes to shove.

Sanford describes the oddly matched pair as “a little like good cop/bad cop. Tony’s always real nice to his people. Jeremy… sometimes, he’s not as nice.” He recalls an incident when Hancock caught up with a particularly unrepentant bail jumper and threatened to “eat him like a goddamned Twinkie.”

Troutt and Hancock have been chasing Randy X for two weeks now, and tonight Troutt expects they’ll find him. They may also find trouble.

A stocky itinerant construction worker in his late 20s, Randy has outstanding warrants for unpaid child support in addition to his delinquent bond with Sanford & Sons. That makes his recapture all the more difficult for the Sanford crew; facing no less than five months in jail upon his re-arrest, with a history of violence and hard drinking, Randy looks like a fight waiting to happen.

According to Sanford, about three out of every 10 bail clients fail to show up in court. Of that number, most are caught quickly. People who skip rarely skip far; they mostly seek refuge in obvious places—homes of relatives or bosses or close friends, like small children crouching behind the living room furniture in a game of hide and seek. As one of the bondsmen puts it, “Everyone eventually needs to get some supper, and a place to lay their head.”

Every one of the Sanford crew has stories about pulling skips out of closets or attics, or out from under piles of clothes. And most of them go quietly, once they’re found, sheepish and scared and sometimes apologetic, usually giving voice to some variant of the same theme: “I just didn’t want to go back to jail.”

But for the few that struggle, bondsmen come prepared, with handcuffs, beanbags, stun guns, cans of mace. And real guns, too. Sean totes a .38 handgun, while Hancock and Troutt both favor 9 mm Glocks. Back in the day, Jack Sanford carried .38 snub-nosed, then a .357 magnum, before switching over to the more efficient 17-shot Glock.

The weapons are strapped and loaded when Troutt, Hancock, and Sanford & Sons part-timer Quentin Bumby park a pair of Caravans on the lip of the road in a quasi-suburban East Knoxville neighborhood around 9:30 p.m., two houses up from the residence of Randy’s uncle, who is also his current employer and who is letting him sleep in an old camper parked in the corner of his backyard. The trio hold a brief parley next to the Caravans, then deploy according to their standard operating procedure—hulking Jeremy veering toward the front door, while the quicker Tony guards the back. They vanish into the black, the only indication of their whereabouts coming from the occasional burps of white noise from the walkie-talkies strapped on belt loops next to their Glocks.

A minute passes… then two… then three… four. Then Hancock comes lumbering out of the shadows, empty-handed, the other bondsmen close behind. Three nights ago, they would likely have found their man. But Troutt believes Randy was warned after the bondsmen made inquiries at his parents’ home two days ago.

New bondsmen learn quickly that family loyalties tend to wax and wane with shocking frequency. Today’s protected son is tomorrow’s unwelcome houseguest, especially when armed bail enforcement agents (which is the title inscribed on the official-looking badges that all of Sanford’s bondsmen carry) persist in showing up at mama’s front door.

“If anyone in the family co-signed the bond, we usually get a lot of cooperation out of them,” Hancock says with a broad smirk. “Grandmas are good for helping you find people, too. Grandmas never lie.”

Tonight, the trio work these principles with the aplomb of experienced detectives; when Randy fails to materialize at his uncle’s home, they revisit his parents, back across town off Sutherland Avenue. This time, perhaps weary of seeing these burly men seemingly every time he dons a pair of pajama bottoms, the father lets slip that Randy has been seen of late spending time with his best friend, who lives only a few streets away.

Within minutes, the bondsmen are pulling in next to two men standing in an ill-mown yard, near-empty six-packs in hand, pondering the necessity of yet another beer run.

“Who the fuck are you?” Randy shrills as Hancock rolls up on them like a Sherman tank come from nowhere.

“Who the fuck are you ?” Jeremy retorts with his characteristic bravado, the insouciance of a man who takes for granted that he is inevitably larger and stronger than anyone he should happen upon. The two men visibly wilt when they note his size, his badge, his sidearm, and the two men of estimable stature walking up behind him. The arrest is uneventful.

Sean Sanford says most of his bondsmen’s arrests occur without violent incident. In his 20 years in the business—his father first enlisted him for office help and chasing skips when he was but 18 years old—he’s drawn and raised his handgun only once, without firing a shot. “When it gets rough, people get hurt,” says Sanford, who despite his intimidating mass and hurly-burly football coach demeanor, demonstrates a higher-than-average capacity for diplomacy. “It also causes lawsuits, and costs money.”

Lawsuits are part and parcel of the profession, he says, perhaps because accusations of violence against bondsmen are more likely to have purchase with judges and attorneys than similar charges against cops. Sanford & Sons currently has one case pending against it, Sanford says, though the plaintiff’s charges in that instance do not include allegations of excessive force.

He says any lingering taste for the adrenaline rush of serious confrontation was flushed out of his own system by an incident a few years ago, when he tried to convince a distraught client—a man who missed court on a mundane truancy charge—that he should open the door for the Sanford bondsmen standing outside his home.

“I was on the phone with him, and I could hear my guys knocking on the front door through the receiver,” he remembers. “Then I heard him yell, ‘Oh God, they’re coming in!’ and I heard ‘Pow!’ ‘Pow!’

“My bondsman got on the phone and said, ‘Sean, call an ambulance.’ This guy had fired two .22 caliber shells into his own skull,” he says somberly. “He lived. But I’ll never forget it.”

Sanford has the look of a man who is rapidly reaching his threshold for bullshit as he sits at his desk in the front of Sanford & Sons’ aging, modestly apportioned offices just off Magnolia, drumming his fingers and listening to a local bounty hunter drone on with colorful details of his own derring-do. He claims to have cleared up a handful of Sanford’s delinquent bonds, a service for which he is entitled to a commission of 10 percent per. Despite his history of stretching the truth, Sean pays him the money—it’s what Jack Sanford wants—then calls Troutt as soon as he leaves.

“Tony, your hero was just here,” he says with undisguised contempt. “Yeah, he’s a devout liar, a legend in his own mind. I believe five percent of what he says. Every time he comes in, he’s been in a fight. People who talk about being tough… well, let’s just say talk is cheap.

“This business is a clusterfuck,” he says when he gets off the phone. “The bounty hunters, the legislators, the attorneys… Everyone is always gouging you one way or another.”

Whether that’s true is an open question; most bondsmen have a chip on their shoulder concerning their chosen profession, and it’s often hard to discern truth from institutional paranoia.

Sanford says there’s a perception that bondsmen are wealthy greedheads, living in luxury off the misfortunes of their marginalized clients. Though he makes a decent living himself, he’s hardly a rich man, and his health benefits come courtesy of his wife, Donna, a teacher with Knox County Schools. He takes pride in noting that his eight-year-old Mazda has more than 140,000 miles on it, and that he will probably drive it until the engine dies on its mounts.

There’s also a perception that bondsmen tend to be roughnecks and renegades, brutal cowboys who bend rules and bust heads when they’re on the hunt for skips. There’s an element of that, he admits, though it’s chiefly found in less reputable, fly-by-night operations, rather than established bonding companies who depend on the good will of repeat customers to sustain their business.

Whatever the motivation, the Tennessee state Legislature over the last 12 years has either enacted or tried to enact a series of measures that threaten to squelch the industry. Among them is an effort at eliminating bail enforcement agents outright in the mid-’90s and also a law that was passed in the most recent legislative session that would charge bondsmen $75 every time they make a motion in criminal court. The latter represents a sizeable burden, given that bondsmen must make such motions every time they catch a bail jumper, or whenever they seek an extension of the 180 days they are normally allotted in the wake of a skip.

All of which, bondsmen will argue, simply serves to erode society’s best mechanism for performing certain vital law enforcement services—i.e. enforcing warrants and ensuring that defendants appear in court—that police are historically disinclined to do. “The bottom line: We save taxpayers money,” Sanford says.

As if on cue, Sanford’s phone, which has scarcely rung since lunchtime, suddenly starts blowing up again. Job-like patience again takes the place of ire in the tone of his booming voice: “Don’t go jackassin’ around and get arrested tonight. Stay in one place and we’ll get this taken care of tomorrow,” he tells once caller.

To another: “Stop right there, ma’am. The only way you can change a court date is to have an attorney do it. You can’t have your parents call the courthouse….”

Finally, a fellow bounty hunter beeps in, after six calls and nearly a half-hour have gone by. “Lionel, I swear I’m going to throw this phone out in the yard,” he says. “I’m telling you, this is one big pain in the ass.

“People watch Dawg the Bounty Hunter on TV, and they think this is glamorous,” he snorts. “Glamorous, like hell. I could tell them a thing or two.”