The bounty hunters had been staking out their prey for several hours at the Nissan dealership just off Interstate 30 in Greenville. Dressed casually, they claimed when they first arrived Tuesday afternoon that they were plainclothes federal agents trying to apprehend a suspect. They never presented badges.
The pair, 33-year-old Gabriel Bernal and 54-year-old Fidel Garcia, tracked their fugitive, Ramon Michael Hutchinson, also known as Raymond, to Greenville. Local news later reported that he’d been staying with a girlfriend and used a ruse to get Bernal and Garcia to return to the Nissan dealership. Hennepin County Sheriff's Office in Minneapolis issued a warrant for Hutchinson after he failed to appear on a first-degree felony drug charge.
Rick Ford, the Greenville dealership’s owner, told reporters that the bounty hunters approached Hutchinson with handcuffs and handguns at the ready, and then the shooting began, causing horrified customers and employees to seek cover.
Hutchinson pulled a handgun from his waistband and dropped it on a desk before retrieving it and returning fire. Twenty shots were fired in about 20 seconds. All three men were killed. No employees or customers were hurt during the gunfire exchange, police said.
The Greenville City Manager’s Office released a press release with few details, but it said no police officers were involved in the gunfight:
“At approximately 1920 hours, Greenville police responded to multiple gunshots at Nissan of Greenville, located at 6403 Interstate 30. Upon arrival officers located three males, who were deceased. The circumstances surrounding the shooting are still unknown and an investigation has been initiated. No Greenville Police Officers were involved or injured.”
The Observer reached out to police but was forwarded to the City Manager’s Office; its public information officer promised to send an updated press release. (We're still waiting.)
Not much is known about Bernal and Garcia. U.S. Fugitive Recovery and Extradition, a Minnesota-based private company that tracks down wanted persons, told KTVT-TV (Channel 11) that it hired the bounty hunters, who worked for F.N.G. Security and Investigations out of Corpus Christi.
Gunfights involving bounty hunters have been making headlines recently. In Clarksville, Tennessee, seven bounty hunters were arrested in early May and charged with 16 offenses, including murder, after they mistakenly shot and killed a man they thought was a fugitive who was wanted for a probation violation and trying to escape in his car.
Similarly, Bernal and Garcia didn't follow standard bounty hunter protocol, says Michael Phariss, the division chief of Texas Response Group, a private security and investigations firm in Carrollton.
"It doesn't look like a tactically sound operation," he says.
The bounty hunters should have notified local law enforcement, he says, if they were planning to move on a fugitive with an aggravated felony. In most bounty-hunting cases, the fugitive hasn't been tried for his or her crime but failed to appear in court or pay the bail bond company.
Phariss says a bounty hunter's job is nothing like television depictions, in which kicking in doors and chasing people down is part of the daily routine. He says it is against the law to kick in doors in Texas. Instead, bounty hunters are often doing their jobs on the phone at their desks, using various websites to locate fugitives. Phariss says he's been able to persuade 90 percent of the fugitives he's tracked to turn themselves in without having to resort to violence.
Only three types of people can serve a bond warrant: a peace officer, a commissioned security officer or a registered private investigator. To become a commissioned security officer or a private investigator, a person needs the support of a company like Phariss'. He or she also must pass a criminal background check nearly as rigorous as one needed to get a Texas peace officer's license.
But, Phariss says, people posing as bounty hunters in Texas have become a problem because of lax verification.
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"If you bring someone to the Tarrant County Jail, they will check," he says. "But a lot of counties in Texas don't, including Dallas County. And that is where a lot of these unlicensed individuals operate."
Bernal and Garcia should have apprehended their fugitive either before he arrived or after he left the Nissan dealership, Phariss says. They could have followed him back to where he was staying or, even better, enlisted local law enforcement's help.
The main goal, he says, is to limit risk — not just for the bounty hunters but also for the fugitives and the public.
"Everyone has to come home at the end of the day," he says.