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.

Now that he is in business for himself, Wells says the old guard is crying the blues.

If there is one thing that has stirred Wells' competitors into a frenzy of complaints, it is his deft escape last fall from having to forfeit a large bond. The curious thing was that a competitor with bonds on the same defendant was left on the hook. The facts are so well-discussed in bail-bond circles, it's known simply as the Dixon case.

On February 4, 2000, at about 10:30 p.m., two Dallas police officers entered a suspected East Dallas crack house and confronted 33-year-old Tarsl Dixon stuffing a bag of 13 white rocks into the front of her pants. The officers arrested Dixon, handcuffed her and sat her down outside the house. While they were questioning other suspects, Dixon jumped up and ran about 60 yards before she tripped and was caught again.

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 incident netted Dixon two felony charges: possession of a controlled substance and escape, which by that point in her life seemed to be little more than an occupational expense. She was convicted for felony drug-dealing in 1990, convicted again for dealing in 1993 and sentenced to five years in prison.

The day after her arrest, Express Bonding posted Dixon's $30,000 bail. "I've done bonds for her before," says owner Betty Lou Moran, who made $3,000 on the transaction. "With drug dealers, you want to get your money up front."

Moran, a boot-tough, scratchy-voiced woman, got into the business 11 years ago as a way to put an inheritance to work. Her father owned a local gas-station chain and car washes in West and South Dallas. He gave her a multimillion-dollar property on Greenville Avenue that she has posted as collateral with the county, against which she writes her bail bonds.

Less than two months after Dixon was back on the street, a Dallas patrolman spotted a blue 1971 Lincoln barreling through a red light in West Dallas. Dixon was at the wheel. In the passenger seat was a professional-grade electronic scale. Dixon, who tried to pass off another woman's license as her own, was carrying $1,253 in cash, money she claimed was a tax refund despite her lack of a regular job. When police later searched the car, an arrest affidavit states, they found two large crack chunks behind the ashtray in the dash.

Within 24 hours, Dixon made bail again. This time, though, she went to Wells. He says he charged $5,000 for the $50,000 bond that went along with the new felony charge. When state District Judge Janice Warder kept the two earlier bail bonds in force rather than increase them, Dixon was free to go.

Dixon was a model client, says Moran, as she had been in the past. She was required to report to the bond office weekly, and one of Moran's sign-in cards shows Dixon penned her name 51 times, with dates next to each signature.

Court records as well show Dixon appeared in person and signed her name through the summer and fall of 2000 as her cases--the three grouped together--were set, postponed and reset for trial. The prosecutor had made plea offers in the 15- to 20-year range, meaning Dixon's grip on freedom would likely grow more tenuous as her trial neared.

When that day came on February 12, 2001, and the bailiff called the case, Dixon was nowhere to be found.

For Wells and Moran, $80,000 was on the line. Even though Wells wrote the bond for an insurance company, standard contracts say the agent must absorb the losses. The company steps in and makes good on the bond only if the agent goes under.

To encourage bondsmen to round up "skips" such as Dixon, the county uses an ascending scale prescribing how big a check the bondsman will actually be made to write the county. If the defendant remains on the lam for half a year, it's half the bail amount. After a year, it's 100 percent.

These matters, which become civil forfeiture lawsuits, are heard monthly in a seventh-floor jury room, where bondsmen's lawyers attempt to contain the damage. In the Dixon cases, attorneys for both Wells and Moran pushed for delays at first. "You're buying time to get the person into custody," explains Randy Adler, Moran's lawyer in the case.

In August, seven months after Dixon disappeared, records show that the magistrate in the case ruled that both Wells and Moran were responsible for the bonds and would be required to pay.

In Moran's case, that judgment was upheld as final.

But for Wells, a magic bullet was about to appear--just as it had years earlier when he successfully fought his indictment for working without a license as a private investigator.

At a rehearing in October, his civil attorney, Michael Todd, produced a copy of a document that until then was nowhere to be found in the official record of the case. For Wells, it was a $50,000 piece of paper, an absolute defense to paying anything for Dixon's sudden disappearance.

Under state law, if a bondsman has proof his client is about to disappear--by failing to check in, or moving without notice, for instance--he can present a sworn affidavit to the court and ask to go off the bond. Rules favorable to bail-bond companies passed by the Legislature in the late 1990s state that if a judge rejects the affidavit or ignores it and leaves it unsigned, the bondsman cannot be held liable if the defendant takes a hike. (Ironically, if the judge approves the affidavit, the bondsman is still on the hook for the bond but has the authority to hire a bail agent, commonly called a bounty hunter, to go out and arrest the absconder.)

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