By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
They spot the truck in the gathering light of 7 a.m., way down a ragged, weedy back street in blue-collar Balch Springs.
"That'll be him," says Mike Armstrong, spotting at impossible range the little details that distinguish the suspected drug runner's Ford pickup--the dark blue tint, the Mag wheels, the license plate number. In Barney Fife-speak, it's "William-Union-4-9-0-4."
Then Armstrong says the words that instantly rock the heart rate of his back-seat passenger. "I think he's running," Armstrong says calmly. "Hey, can you zip open that bag on the floor and hand me the gun?"
The gun. It's an M-1 rifle. Wood stock. Black barrel. Surprisingly light. Weightless enough for Armstrong to hold in his right hand while steering with his left.
It's another Monday morning at the office for a couple of professional manhunters, two licensed private investigators hired by Dallas bail bondsmen to find men and women who have skipped their day in court and now don't want to be found. In the vernacular, they're bounty hunters, the city's best by most accounts, with more than 30 years of on-the-job training between them.
On this day in late March, Spellman and Armstrong have started to work at 5 a.m. and after two hours have the pay window in sight. His name is Philip Edward Salinas, arrested last year in a big dope case: possession of a truck containing more than 400 pounds of pot. The 27-year-old construction worker made a half-dozen court appearances, then two months ago missed one and put Express Bonding in the unattractive position of one day having to pay Dallas County $10,000--the bail amount--to make good on their promise that he would show up.
Salinas is worth $1,000 to Armstrong and Spellman under the 10 percent going rate for bounty hunters.
But Salinas is driving away.
And an M-1 rifle is out of its bag.
"We have a fugitive running in a car," Spellman barks to the 9-1-1 dispatcher as Salinas, at the wheel of his pickup, pulls out on Bruton Road, the main stem, and appears to be fleeing.
"Mario! Pull over!" Armstrong yells out of his window, concocting a new name for Salinas. Armstrong holds the rifle just high enough for Salinas to see, but he points it at the dashboard--more saber rattling than direct confrontation.
"Calm down," Salinas yells back, seeing the Honda pull even on his left. "I'm just going back to the house."
Sure enough, Salinas makes the block and parks in front of his mother's house on Betty Ann Lane, where he was first spotted.
"When you pull over, don't get out of that truck. We...don't...know...you," Armstrong yells. Salinas pulls his truck to the side of the road, and in a few seconds Spellman has produced a pair of handcuffs from the back of his pants and slapped them on his catch.
"I was going to court...my lawyer really messed me up," the ex-fugitive complains. In a minute or two, his mother comes out of her little house, another relative emerges from the bungalow across the street, and every dog in the canine-rich neighborhood is barking from behind its rusty chain-link fence.
Armstrong and Spellman get comfortable enough to take the cuffs off Salinas, who immediately sits down on the curb and lights a cigarette. Sensing the heat bearing down on him, he has been living in a Motel 6 for the past week--just as Armstrong suspected--but now the chase is over.
One brief phone call later, and they are on their way to meet a cop from the Dallas Police Department's northeast patrol bureau at a gas station off the freeway. He will take Salinas into custody, saving Spellman and Armstrong the time and--as we shall see--the hassle and risk of taking him downtown and turning him over to the Dallas sheriff's deputies at Lew Sterrett jail.
As they start down Betty Ann Lane, Armstrong notices the name "Coonrod" on a mailbox and asks Salinas casually, "You know any Coonrods?"
Armstrong rifles through a few files in his cloth briefcase as he drives. Finally, he produces a picture of a biker type named Mark Coonrod, wanted for jumping bail on a charge of indecency with a child.
"Yeah, I know that guy," says Salinas, who is riding tranquilly in the front passenger seat. "He lives down here on Peachtree with a rubbishy-looking woman, you know, a biker chick."
"Can you show me where?" Armstrong asks.
"Damn boy...My God," the bounty hunter says, amazed to have a solid lead on a fugitive worth $250 just fall in his lap. "This is a miracle...money on the ground."
Good karma and a few friends downtown are essential if you want to make it as a bounty hunter in Dallas, people in the bail-bond industry say.
In most states, would-be bounty hunters operate with few worries and no questions from law enforcement, who as a result of century-old law have little say over what a bondsman does to capture a defendant whom he has bonded out of jail. But Texas, directly at odds with its Wild West vita, has some of the strictest laws in the nation governing who can arrest bail jumpers and under what circumstances. Within the state, Dallas is one of the few jurisdictions making a concerted effort to enforce those laws.