If you get arrested and charged with a crime in America, a judge will generally set your bail—the amount of money you can put down to stay out of jail until your trial. Many people can't afford bail, a situation which has led to some calls for reform, but it's generally possible to get a bondsman to put up bail for you. If you don't show up for court, a warrant will be issued for your arrest and the court sends a notice to the bondsman saying they have 180 days to produce you or forfeit the full bail amount.
That's where Uyen Vu comes in.
Vu is a Las Vegas-based bounty hunter who says she's been shooting guns since she was three and says she got her second-degree black belt from the Shaolin Temple in China; according to her, she's the only active female bounty hunter with a license in the state of Nevada. Bondsmen hire her to bring in the criminals who've skipped bail and sometimes left town.
In the past, she's chased sex workers across state lines in the company of their pimp, and once witnessed an elderly lady scale a six-foot wall. We caught up with her to discuss the ins and outs of her odd career.
VICE: How did you become a bounty hunter?
Uyen Vu: I grew up watching Bruce Lee movies and I became a martial arts instructor—I owned my own school. After I sold it, I was looking for a change. My friends in law enforcement suggested I try working with them, but I didn't want to wear a uniform, drive a cruiser, or work my way up.
I have a hard time taking orders from people, especially if they're dumber than me. I've been shooting a gun since I was three years old, so they said: "Have you ever thought about being a bounty hunter?" I did some ride-alongs with bounty hunters I got connected with to get the feel of it—and I was hooked!
How do you become licensed as a bounty hunter?
In Nevada it's an 80-hour course. It's eight hours a day, until the hours are up—no days off. There's a lecture part that lasts three or four days, covering criminal law, how bonds work, and how to work with bail bond agents. Then there's training in firearms and hand to hand combat. I went on to become the instructor for those classes.
How did you start building a name for yourself in this profession?
When I first started, I went around the bondsmen's offices and they gave me the cases they'd given up on. It was no risk to them—if I didn't solve the case, I wouldn't get paid. So I worked the cases no one else wanted to work anymore and I produced results. That weeds out a lot of people getting into the industry because they can't afford to spend their own time and gas money working these cases. There's a big portion of people who don't make it.
Do any of your past cases stand out as especially interesting?
There was a prostitute from Reno who skipped bail on a $10,000 bond. I called the guy who'd put up her bail. The file said he was her boyfriend, but I said to him: "Let's be real—you were her pimp." He didn't want to help me find her, but I said, "Right now, you're on the hook for $10,000—just for the bond. I haven't even given you a bill for my services yet." When I investigate people, I charge by the hour—the longer I spend looking for her, the more my fees are going to rack up.
He agreed to help me look for her. I drove six hours to Reno to pick him up from his mother's house. I was wearing my badge, with my gun on a holster. We drove to San Francisco but when we got there, we heard she'd moved on to Santa Maria in California. We drove another six hours. I was tired but it wasn't like I could say, "Hey, you mind taking the wheel for a minute?"
As we were getting to Santa Maria, I started getting frustrated and began wishing to myself: Dear Lord, please, I just want to get there and see her walking around! The funny thing is, a block from the exit, the pimp saw her. We drove towards her, but she saw the pimp and started running. We began to chase her and then the police stopped the car. I told 'em I'm a bounty hunter and I showed them the case file. They said, "You know the rules, you're meant to call us when you're coming into town." I said I just got off the exit and they let us carry on.
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So I'm back on the chase and I saw her running ahead. She hops into some random stranger's truck and the pimp says, "What do we do now?" I say, "Dude, she's hopped in some random guy's truck, what's she going to do?" He goes, "She'll probably offer him some services."
The pimp said the girls use a website when they work where they post their pictures, what area they're in, and their rates. So we went to the motel she was staying at and waited for her to show up. Forty minutes later, the truck pulls into the motel. I speak to the motel owner and show him my badge and my case file and ask if this girl was renting a room from him. He points to her room and I said, "I need the keys. If you don't give me the keys, I'm gonna kick your door down and you're gonna have to repair it, so which one d'you want?" The owner's like, "Here's the keys!"
So I go to the door and listen to her talking the guy through her rates. I wait 'til she's into the act, 'cause that way she can't run as fast—then I open the door. She's on her knees and I say, "This is not a good day for you." Then I say to the guy, "Sorry bro but you ain't getting what you think you're getting!"
Are there any other cases you won't forget?
I had a traffic warrant for a 60-something-year-old lady. She didn't stop at a stop sign, she made an illegal lane change—basic stuff. So we go to this lady's house and I told my partner to cover the back. There's a brick wall at the back of her garden and my partner says, "She's in her 60s and this wall's six feet tall—where's she gonna go?"
So we both go to the front and knock on the door. There's movement in the house—I see the blinds moving. We get into the house but she's run out the back, jumping the six-foot wall. Why would a 63-year-old lady run away from some traffic warrants?
We search the house and upstairs we found a sealed off room where she was growing weed inside. The police confiscated all the weed; she could have avoided that if she didn't hop a wall.
How do you charge for what you do?
I can charge by the hour, plus a flat rate of $350, or 10 percent of the bond—whichever's greater. As you build up your clientele, you can negotiate your fees. I send an itemized list of my expenses and when I travel out of state, my rate automatically doubles.
Once the defendant is in custody, my payment is due on demand. My clients know I get results. They put a blank check in the mail when I take on a case. If I have a new client, I tell them, "You gotta have the cash when I show up with the defendant in cuffs. If you don't have my money, I turn around and cut 'em loose." I set the tone. Some clients ask me to send a picture, to show I've caught 'em, and I'll say no, they can see them when we physically get there. I'm not here to take pictures for you to post on Facebook.
"I've had people kneel on the ground and grab me by my leg, begging me. But it would have been easier if you went to court. That's all you had to do."
How do defendants react when you catch up with them?
They all put on a hard exterior, at first, but the longer the ride to the detention center, the more they simmer down. I've had people crying. I ignore 'em; I don't care. "You want a napkin?" I've had people kneel on the ground and grab me by my leg, begging me. But it would have been easier if you went to court, that's all you had to do.
How do you feel about working in such a male-dominated industry?
When I first started doing ride-alongs to learn about catching defendants who'd skipped bail, the male bounty hunters would try to spook me out. They'd always tell me to take the back of houses we'd be searching for people, so I'd be stuck in the dark, in the middle of the night every time. They were trying to scare me off and they got kicks out of it. But I dealt with it and I earned their respect. I don't shy away from challenges.
Are the people you go after surprised to meet a female bounty hunter?
Yes, and that works for me. In the beginning, I would knock on the door and go, "Hey, I'm the girl from the office—they sent me to get some paperwork signed." They'd open the door and then I'd say, "Right, I need you to turn round and put your hands behind your back!"
People underestimate me, but that can be good for my job. I've been told my tattoos make me look intimidating and that's not just for show. If you try me, you'll find it's real. I've told guys before: "This is your first warning, it's also your last. You want to mouth off and be a jerk to me, I'm gonna Taser you. Fuck you prick—I warned you!" I don't mess around. I'm not there to play games.
What's your plan for the future?
I just opened up a bail bonds [office], so now I don't just take people to jail, I get 'em out, too. In the future I'd like to open offices in other states. I've kind of got this industry covered.
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