Bail Me

In just a few years, David Wells has eaten a big slice of Dallas' bail-bond business. His secret? It depends on whom you ask.

Says Read now, "I don't know how he got out of that one, but that cat has nine lives...I don't have any disputes with him now. [As a bail bondsman] he isn't one of those guys who makes the bond, pockets the money, then goes out looking for some way to get off it and dump your client in jail. That's how some of 'em do it...some of those same people who are on David now."

The Irvin uproar had hardly abated when Wells turned up in the center of another headline case. In a move that hardly endeared him to the defense bar, Wells went to the FBI with information that a client, Oak Cliff grocer and theft-ring organizer Abdel Rahim, had asked him to murder a rival. The feds wired Wells with a recorder, and he secretly taped six subsequent conversations that foiled the plot and provided the evidence to convict Rahim of solicitation of capital murder.

It was around that time that Wells began looking for a way into the bond business, which can be set up in two possible ways. One takes capital. A so-called property bondsman is required to put up a minimum of $50,000 in real estate or certificates of deposit with the county to back his bail bonds.

Controversial bail bondsman David Wells says he is succeeding by breaking rules--the business kind, not the legal kind.
Mark Graham
Controversial bail bondsman David Wells says he is succeeding by breaking rules--the business kind, not the legal kind.
Things began picking up for Wells when he hooked up with Royce West, the influential lawyer/legislator.
John Anderson
Things began picking up for Wells when he hooked up with Royce West, the influential lawyer/legislator.

The other route is to become an agent for a number of insurance companies that work nationwide and pledge their assets as collateral on bail bonds. The agent pays a percentage of his fees to the company.

Wells tossed around with Irvin the idea of going in as partners in a property-backed business, but Irvin wouldn't commit. "We talked about it a few times at the Cowboys Café," recalls Pat Kinnard, whose version Wells does not dispute. "Irvin never got around to saying yes."

Kinnard, who considers Wells a close friend, paints a picture of him far removed from murder-for-hire plots, guns and gumshoeing around the city's tougher precincts. "This is a guy who doesn't drink. He takes his mother to church every Sunday. David's a real decent guy."

In 1998, Kinnard was working in the bond business as an agent for Allegheny Casualty Co., an East Coast surety company that has agents writing bail bonds in more than a dozen Texas counties. Kinnard says Jerry Watson, a company executive who was based in Austin at the time, was looking for a black agent in Dallas. Kinnard recommended Wells.

"At first they weren't interested. They didn't want anybody who hadn't been in the business before," Kinnard recalls. "I said, 'Wait a minute, Jerry...David's been around. He knows all the courthouse players; he's highly connected to Royce West.'"

At the sound of West's name, Kinnard says Watson turned on a dime. "He said, 'I'll be on Flight 7, Southwest Airlines. Pick me up at 9 in the morning.' He said, 'There's a place called Fish. You get a table and schedule a deal with Royce West.'"

As an attorney and executive involved with several insurance companies in the bond business, Watson is "heavily involved" in legislative matters, Kinnard says. As a Texas state senator who chairs the Senate Jurisprudence Committee and sits on the Criminal Justice Committee, West votes nearly every session on legislation affecting bail bonds.

The three men--Watson, Wells and Kinnard--met at Fish, then later paid a visit to West. By the time they sat around a conference table at the senator's Oak Cliff office, says Kinnard, "It was a done deal...They were just talking about what it would be named."

Kinnard says the chain of events did not involve any business involvement or quid pro quo by West. "Watson just wanted to get hooked in with Royce West," Kinnard says. "Down in Austin, he could have an effect on the business. He's just the kind of guy Jerry wanted to know."

Wells confirms that Watson put him in the business. And it came with no money down. Kinnard says Watson loaned Wells the $8,500 needed to open an office, which Kinnard set up as a favor to Watson. Within six weeks after the meeting, Wells and Allegheny obtained a license from the Dallas County Bail Bond Board.

Watson, who is now involved in lobbying in Washington as legal counsel for the bail insurance industry's national association, declined to return repeated phone calls placed over three weeks. West also did not return several calls to his office.

In Kinnard's view, Wells was a winner for Watson regardless of whether he ended up any closer to Royce West. With Wells' contacts in the defense bar--lawyers who need to get their clients out of jail--business flew in the door. After just a few months, he was writing $600,000 worth of bail bonds a month, says Kinnard, who left after about four months and now operates Bail Bonds Unlimited, which does about a tenth as much business as Wells.

Eddie Dees, owner of Fast Action Bonding, says his current bond total is down from about $10 million to $6 million because of business lost to Wells.

Says Wells, "I always was in the bond business. I just never got paid." Over the years he says he referred millions of dollars in business to Dees and other bondsmen. "They never paid me a dime," he says. In fact, it is illegal for a licensed bondsman to split fees with people outside the business. But nobody even thought to take him to lunch.

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