Hunter becomes prey

Former bounty hunter Douglas K. Fox says county authorities drove him out of business.
Mark Graham

The arrest of drug suspect Edward Allen Wright in an Oak Cliff drug house in January 1998 stirred up more than the usual ration of trouble -- mostly for people other than Wright.

First, there was the bounty hunter who was incensed that someone else had "jumped his claim" by arresting a suspect who represented a $5,000 bounty fee from the bail-bond company that had made his $50,000 bond.

Then there was the raft of criminal charges Dallas County filed against the men who actually made the arrest: bounty hunters Douglas K. Fox and Roy D. Morrison. County authorities charged the two with kidnapping, impersonating a police officer, and unlawful restraint stemming from their capture of Wright. He and two witnesses alleged the bounty hunters identified themselves as Dallas police and flashed guns and badges once they were inside the house. Fox and Morrison, however, were acquitted in February, and now Fox is trying to fight back. His attorney, Stephen Goetzmann, is preparing a federal lawsuit against the county and the investigator who prepared the case against his client. A draft of the suit alleges the investigator, Gary Lachman, "knowingly or recklessly" obtained false statements from Wright and the two witnesses with the help of a rival bounty hunter. As a result, the draft suit alleges, Lachman and the county subjected Fox to unlawful arrest and malicious prosecution in violation of his constitutional rights. Fox is seeking an unspecified amount of money damages.

Meanwhile, Fox has rallied several other Dallas bounty hunters -- all licensed private investigators -- who say the county has been making it too difficult for them to carry out the lawful task of detaining and bringing in bond-jumpers. Two active bounty hunters who spoke under the condition that their names not be used say that Dallas County has been vigorously prosecuting bounty hunters on the testimony of bond jumpers and their friends, but that nearly all cases have ended in dismissals or acquittals. "They've put me through the wringer down there too," says one of the bounty hunters. "They don't want us out there taking criminals off the streets."

Fox, a skinny 36-year-old with longish blond hair and an intent gaze, says he had been bounty hunting for Dallas bail-bond companies for seven years before the Wright arrest ended his career. "My reputation was excellent," Fox says. "Nobody had ever accused me of presenting false evidence or misidentifying myself as a public official on any occasion."

He says that when he began work for his last employer, a Waco security company, he went to Lachman to ask about local enforcement of rules. Fox says Lachman told him that he was intent on prosecuting bounty hunters and told him that if there were complaints, "I'm not gonna get a conviction, but you're gonna have to bond out of jail and hire an attorney, and that is my goal."

That is just what happened to him after the Wright arrest, Fox says, speaking on a recent afternoon at his attorney's North Dallas office. "It cost me $25,000 in attorney fees alone. It ruined my credit, damned near ruined my marriage. I almost lost my house, and I'm $30,000 in real debt," says Fox, adding that a computer business he had begun at the time went down and he couldn't work after his arrest because his private investigator's license was suspended.

Fox says he was arrested three different times on the charges. The first time he was held for five days and released because the cases against him were not filed. The second time he was arrested in Tarrant County and forced to make a $50,000 bond because Dallas County gave out the wrong bond amount to authorities there. The third time, after his indictment, Lachman gave interviews to local television stations announcing that Fox was "armed and dangerous." In fact, he says, his attorney already had an agreement with Dallas County prosecutors that he would turn himself in if indicted.

"I think your rights can get violated if they keep arresting you for the same thing over and over," says David Pire, Fox's attorney in the criminal cases.

Pire obtained a quickly decided "not guilty" verdict by attacking the credibility of Wright and the two other witnesses at the drug house who collectively had been to prison more than a dozen times. "Their victim could not remember how many times he had been down. I think it was seven. He admitted to using heroin for 20 years." Pire says there were significant discrepancies in the witnesses' statements, including inconsistent accounts of where they were then Fox and Morrison entered the house and how they learned that Fox and Morrison were not cops.

"This guy is in jail for more than a week, and he doesn't make any complaints," Pire says.

He says testimony revealed that at least one competing bounty hunter was Lachman's confidential informant in the case, and that the man had reason to dislike Fox and Morrison. The bounty hunter, Mike Armstrong, had interviewed the witnesses and brought the case to Lachman's attention, Pire says.

Armstrong had made an agreement with the bail-bond company to capture Wright and Fox and Morrison, and Fox and Morrison had jumped in, made a hasty agreement with the bondsman, apprehended Wright, and cut Armstrong's payday.

Pire and Goetzmann say Armstrong was hardly a dispassionate seeker of truth in the case. "Why could Armstrong care other than he was teed off?" asks Pire. Armstrong [whose work as a bounty hunter was covered in the Dallas Observer feature "Manhunters," April 23, 1998] could not be reached for comment.

Goetzmann says that the involvement of a rival bounty hunter and the witnesses' deep lack of credibility are the legs supporting his contention that authorities should have know there was no case against his client.

It's a tough case to make, Goetzmann admits. Fox, who now works in Web site design, says several other attorneys wouldn't even take it.

Still, Fox has his name to reclaim.

Testifying in his own defense at last February's trial, Fox says he knocked on the door of the house where a snitch told him Wright would be. When a man opened the door, Fox says, he spotted Wright in the house, identified himself as a private investigator, flashed a badge, and made a peaceful arrest.

Lachman, who is no longer policing the local bail-bond industry in his duties for the sheriff's department, declined to discuss Fox's case. He has said in the past that he pursued only complaints about bounty hunters that came to him. He said he couldn't help that complaints about abuses usually come from witnesses with criminal histories. That's who's around when the arrests are made, he said. "That's what we're stuck with."

"It's an industry we believe does need to be regulated," says sheriff's department spokesman Ed Spencer. "While we're not actively pursuing violators, we will continue to conduct investigations when we receive complaints. Our role is to ensure bounty hunters don't exceed their authority."

Goetzmann says Fox's suit will be filed within the next week or two.

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