In downtown Las Vegas, not far from Fremont Street, a cluster of bail bond firms surround the Clark County Jail—bars on the windows, neon signs declaring OPEN and AS SEEN ON TV.
The one-story buildings, barely bigger than mobile homes, look incomplete; if hotels on the Strip are gaudy architectural diamonds, these offices are cheap rhinestones. There are a litany of competing firms in the area, including All Pro Bail, Godfather's, and AAFORDABLE BAIL BONDS—its double-A ensuring it's at the top of the phonebook list.
Inside, bail agents—or "bondsmen"—take collect calls from prison pay phones, offering to front money to get arrested people out of jail until their court appearances in exchange for 15 percent of their bail (a percentage set by the state) or $50—whichever is higher—along with a separate $50 filing fee. These bail agents have all completed a required 20-hour course, are licensed by the state of Nevada, and can put up bonds like $3,000 for domestic battery and $15,000 for strangulation.
I spoke to three bail agents working within a block of each other. "Carlos," 34, and "Scott," in his 40s, both asked to remain anonymous, while 25-year-old Victor Alvarez—who was born and raised in Las Vegas—was less concerned about exposure. They told me stories about fronting $500,000 for a doctor who was re-using syringes and infecting patients with hepatitis C, as well as what happens when a client skips town after being let out of jail.
VICE: What did you do before you got this job as a bail agent?
Carlos: I worked in security. Family members have all worked here in the past, so they called me. Now I've been here 12 years.
Victor: I worked in a warehouse. I actually still work there. I do two full-time jobs, working 75 hours a week. I've been doing that for three years now. It sounds bad, but I like money!
Scott: I've been a bail agent nine months. I worked in automobiles for 27 years—I was the GM of a car showroom. I used to earn $400,000 a year but I got burned out. A 90-hour week dealing with the public gets tiring. My niece offered me a job here. I knew nothing about the bail business, but I needed a change.
What sort of charges do your clients need to be bailed out for?
Carlos: The majority of our cases are domestic violence and DUIs. These are considered gross misdemeanors and they make up at least 50 percent of our cases. The most common misdemeanors are traffic tickets and the most common felonies are burglary and possession of controlled substances.
Victor: Thirty percent of our cases are for domestic battery and 20 percent are for DUI. The other 50 percent is a mix of possession, trafficking, controlled substances, lewdness to a minor, child molesting, theft, and robbery with a deadly weapon.
Scott: Seventy-five percent of our business is domestic battery and 60 percent of those arrested for it are women. Most of them are out-of-towners. Nice hotels don't want any problems. If a couple's drinking and they fight, the woman might slap the man. The hotel employee will call the cops. The cops'll look at the replay on the camera and decide if they have just cause. Most of the time, they arrest them. The couple might have forgotten the fight—it doesn't matter whether they want to press charges—the police tend to arrest them. 50 percent of the people arrested are on vacation.
There's a lot of domestic battery?
Carlos: Yeah. There was a couple who got married here—they were arrested on their honeymoon. They were heard making noises [and] the people in the next room called the police. When the couple answered the door, the police saw marks on them. According to the couple, they'd been having sex, not fighting, but cops went to arrest the husband. The woman started fighting the officers, so they arrested her, too. Their bail was $3,000 each.
Victor: A lot of people are surprised about domestic battery here. Mostly it's in the casino, if a couple shoves one another, the casino will call the cops and the cops will arrest them. People say, "It wasn't serious, we were just playing around!" Or they could be play-fighting in an elevator. Security will see it on camera and they wait for the couple when they get out. Cops take them to jail, to be safe—to prevent anything more serious happening.
Scott: Nobody knows it's like this here—not until it happens to them! And once you're arrested, you're not allowed back into your hotel—the staff pack your things up for you and you have to collect them from security.
Are there any charges you won't provide bail for?
Carlos: We won't take soliciting or engaging in prostitution unless we get full cash collateral. This is a tourist town so the girls arrested for it aren't even from here—they'll just head to another big city.
Victor: There's no bail for murder. Some homeless people get arrested on purpose. They'll steal from a Walmart because jail means a shower, a bed, and three meals a day. They won't apply for bail—they'll try to stay there as long as they can. Prostitutes are tricky. It's $1,000 bail for soliciting, so if you bail them out, you're risking $1,000 and you're only getting $150—unless you get collateral.
Scott: We don't deal with prostitutes; they're a pain in the ass. They don't show up for court and they're transient, like strippers. They move from town to town.
How do decide whether to risk posting someone's bail?
Carlos: We always look at the co-signer—the indemnitor. We look at them because we don't know anything about the defendant, because they're in custody. The co-signer makes or breaks it. We say no if they're not working, because if the bond is forfeited, how are they going to pay you? But we might say yes if they have vehicle titles and property—depending on how high the bail amount is, we'd look at property as collateral.
Victor: We don't base it on credit scores, it's more about you—what have you got to lose? If you live in Vegas and you have a steady job, you're less likely to disappear. If you live in budget rental accommodation and you don't seem to have ties to Vegas, you're more risky. We look at how long you've had your job—are you a responsible person? We tend to take employed people but we do take some SSI [retirement/disability]. Every case is different.
Scott: You have to pick and choose who you help out. You have to read that person, understand them. We ask as many questions as possible to make sure they're not full of shit. It's a red flag if there are inconsistencies in the stories.
Are there any cases you won't forget?
Carlos: The biggest bail we had was for $500,000. It was for a doctor who had a clinic here in Vegas. The doctor was re-using syringes and infecting people with hepatitis C. There was another bail for $250,000: A 14-year-old girl made up a story that her grandfather touched her. She wanted to go to a Britney Spears concert with her friends and her grandfather wouldn't pay for her friends' tickets—she got mad and claimed he touched her. He owned several coffee shops and his wife gave us the 15 percent—$37,500—in cash. He was cleared when the girl admitted making it up.
Victor: I remember the people! We get a lot of crazy people. They threaten you because they don't want to go back to jail. They say: "You've got to let me go, I'll come back for you when I get out of jail—you don't know who you're messing with!" Usually we just blow it off—no one ever comes back anyway. The biggest bail we had was over $300,000 for drug trafficking.
Scott: There was a guy walking through the MGM [Grand casino] with his wife. Nice couple, well-dressed. The guy sees an iPad on floor, picks it up. He's walking to the front desk to hand it in and suddenly three or four cops with handguns tackled him to the ground. They arrested him for theft—grand larceny. The police set him up. There are a lot of cases where police have set people up—it's a con. It's all about the money.
"We get a lot of crazy people. They threaten you because they don't want to go back to jail." –Victor
How often do you have to chase after someone who skips bail?
Carlos: I've had a couple of clients who've tried to escape. I was taking one guy to the City of Las Vegas Detention Center. He was in the vehicle, handcuffed, with his seatbelt on, but when we got to a street light, he managed to unlock the door with his foot. I grabbed him by his shirt. He was yelling like a little girl, "Help! Help!" The driver got out to put him back in and everybody was staring at us. All for a traffic ticket—for $1,140 bail.
Victor: Some people disappear—if you can't get them back, you pay off what you owe to the jail. You don't chase people to other countries. But yeah, we'll phone, we'll turn up at addresses. Facebook helps—people post where they're at, you just have to keep checking on them. I once had someone extradited from Alaska.
Scott: I'm looking for a guy in Mexico right now. He's a known drug dealer who was arrested for sexual assault and impersonating a police officer—his bail was $60,000. He's now in Mexico City. We think he works for El Chapo, the drug lord. I can spend the money and go to Mexico. I can hire someone to find him. But I can't arrest him or legally bring him back here because he's not a US citizen. Our next step is to turn him into ICE [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. We need to alert police there that he's a fugitive from the US, and get him deported here so we can get our money back. If we don't find him and put him back in jail, we're $60,000 down. He's been missing three months.
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