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."

Armstrong punches the gas, lurching his Honda Accord sedan forward as his sometime partner, Reggie Spellman, begins dialing 9-1-1.

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'," 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 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 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.

The Dallas bounty hunter's life is complicated even more by the traditional mistrust between cops, sheriff's deputies, and state judges on one hand, and the bail-bond industry and their bounty hunters on the other. Various stunts over the years--some legal, some not--have given the bail business a bad rep.

Then there are the system problems--paper-shuffling delays at the courthouse and other bureaucratic gunk involving the issuance of special warrants that Texas bounty hunters need to make a legal arrest.

Add it all up, and even bounty hunters like Armstrong and Spellman, who say they're trying to go by the rules, run afoul of the law from time to time.

And for bounty hunters in Dallas, the law has a name: Dallas Sheriff's Department Investigator Gary F. Lachman, a tall, athletic-looking sort with a booming voice and a certain enthusiasm for his job. "To the bail bondsman, I'm the jerk making their lives tough. I'm the guy on a crusade. But, I'll tell you, I'm only following up complaints that come in the door."

True enough, his case reports show. But if a bondsman or a bounty hunter arrives at Lew Sterrett with a prisoner in handcuffs, the sheriff's department policy is that Lachman is going to hear about it, and he's going to be asking questions that other lawmen--Dallas cops, suburban cops--likely would not.

That's why suburban jails--or, say, a gas station in northeast Dallas--are where Dallas bounty hunters deposit their quarry. "I call it 'cleaning the arrest,'" says Armstrong, explaining that they can drop off fugitives with constables, police officers, anyone connected with law enforcement.

It's part of the gritty calculus used by the half-dozen people in Dallas making a living in this curious line of work, a profession located exactly halfway between the cops and the criminals.

"I've been arrested 11 times for the work I do," says Spellman, who records show has been popped for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, home burglary, deadly conduct, and criminal trespassing. All were no-billed or the charges dropped.

You cannot have a felony conviction and work as a licensed private detective--and in Texas, one must be licensed as an investigator or security guard to serve the warrants that bondsmen must get to go out and arrest their absconders.

Spellman's record fits the letter of that law, but at the sheriff's department, he is Exhibit A in discussions of why the Dallas bounty-hunting business needs to clean up its act. "Look at that," says one deputy, pulling up on a computer screen a list of Spellman's past charges, the most recent of which came last year. "You want someone like that coming in your house, slapping cuffs on you?"

Armstrong's register of charges is shorter and older.
A 1985 gun charge and terroristic threat charge were dismissed, but that same year he was charged with felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. The indictment alleges he pulled a gun on a man and threatened to shoot him. Armstrong says he struggled with the man, whom he was trying to arrest, and the bounty hunter "landed a few lucky punches...His face swelled up like a boxer's."

Armstrong served a two-year probation, and the case was dropped from his record, court files show. The matter didn't stop him from obtaining his PI license, but it has prevented him from acquiring a concealed-weapons permit, he says.

"Those cases were a long time ago," says Lachman, who says Armstrong has kept his nose a lot cleaner than others in his line of work. "I wouldn't say I trust him, but you don't hear about him kicking in doors, pulling guns, that stuff."

Under a strict reading of the law, a bounty hunter can't show lethal force unless he is threatened with lethal force, police officers say.

Most of the time, it's far easier to track a fugitive to a house or apartment, then call police and have them move in and make the arrest, Armstrong and Spellman say. "We're gonna get paid either way," Spellman says. "Why take the chance?"  

That was exactly what they were thinking when they returned to Balch Springs immediately after dropping off their first catch. They pull into a bleak parking lot in front of the interestingly named S&M Market, a little off-brand convenience store around the corner from the house where bail jumper Mark Coonrod might be holed up.

Spellman, a slim 39-year-old attired in a swimming-pool-blue suit, matching silk tie, starched white shirt, Panama hat, and two-tone black and white shoes, chooses to stay near the car. A black man in that getup doing Spellman's one-hand-in-the-pocket glide down the sidewalk might attract attention in this predominantly white, working-class neighborhood.

Armstrong, meanwhile, goes around to the back of the car, strips off his khaki shirt, and dons a leather tool belt, a white hard hat, and a muscle-man T-shirt.

"I need to get the number off that plate," says the 42-year-old Armstrong, looking like a fleshy 6-foot, 200-pound construction worker with a little chin hair.

When he returns, he uses information he's gathered about the house where Coonrod may be living to fool a water utility-company clerk into giving him a lot of information about the current occupants. There is a main house, and a shack-like extension on a back garage where the fugitive might be living.

Armstrong is good on the phone. (He later dupes this reporter into thinking he's Reggie, whose lispy voice could not be more different from his own.)

"I need to see if I'm right on my bill," Armstrong tells the water-company clerk, thickening his accent into a deep drawl. "You have our current numbers?...Right...un-hun...right." The clerk volunteers all: the current occupant's name and home phone, a previous address, the date the service began.

Hanging up, Armstrong announces, "It's good." He has linked the current occupants to an address where one of Coonrod's relatives has lived in the recent past.

The only question now is whether Coonrod is at home in his little house at the back of the property or at work.

To shine a little more light on that, Armstrong goes into another convenience store--the one two doors from the suspect's house--and shows a clerk Coonrod's picture. The clerk says he comes in regularly for cigarettes, between 8 and 10 in the morning.

"Let's call Lindsey," says Spellman, referring to a cop he knows.
"In the morning it would be a lock," Armstrong says. "But OK, let's try it."
In less than eight minutes, Balch Springs police Lt. Kevin Lindsey's cruiser and two other marked cars carrying officers from the city's tactical unit pull up next to Armstrong's Honda.

Lindsey knows Spellman. "He's only been wrong once," Lindsey says. So, after a quick briefing, he trusts that Spellman's investigation has given him enough probable cause to go in after Coonrod, who has several warrants outstanding. "We've been to this house before," he says, before gathering from the bounty hunters that Coonrod has been convicted in the past of armed robbery and is likely to have guns.

A few seconds later, two squad cars are peeling into the Coonrod house's dirt driveway, and a third car is circling to the back.

The cops see immediately that the cheerless set of rooms is empty. A set of fresh, jam-packed garbage bags suggests that someone has recently moved.

Lindsey and Spellman ask a young woman at the main house a few questions, climb back in their cars, and go. "At least we won't be wasting our time sitting on that house, waiting for him to come home," Armstrong says.

Before lunch, there are other files to work. "A lot of times, we run into a dead end, but we follow on through, we check, we develop more information," Spellman says.

No fooling. Armstrong's car is less than four years old and has more than 140,000 hard in-town miles on it. Pulling out into heavy traffic, making deft U-turns, tossing his empty Diet Coke cans out the window with no remorse, he drives like a cab driver--someone who spends many, many hours behind the wheel.

"I know it isn't PC," he says, self-consciously explaining the littering. "I've been bad today."

They swing by a North Dallas apartment, tailgate another car through the laughably ineffective security gate, and find a manager who is more than happy to let Armstrong peruse the file of a bond-skipping burglary suspect. The file even contains the man's pay stubs. "The higher the rent, the more likely they are to protect the privacy of their tenants," Armstrong says.

Minutes later, he's back on the phone, telling dubious stories to gullible utility clerks about how he's going out of town and needs some info on his bill.  

The utilities dodge is just one of many tricks of the trade--which, for these guys, mostly entails tapping computerized databases and doing "knock-and-talks" with the bail jumper's friends, relatives, and whoever else might have co-signed the bond and has reason to see the fugitive caught.

In high-dollar cases, they can afford to pay informants out of their bounty. Usually, they have a difficult time getting bondsmen to pony up extra for snitch expenses.

Armstrong has impersonated rent-to-own clerks collecting on bills and obtained addresses by using the "free photos scam" or its variant, the "pizza scam": "Hi, you've won our Domino's bingo pizza," Armstrong recites, speedily. "Your number came up in our hopper, and you have a free pizza, choice of size, a free choice of topping and da da. What address do I send the coupons to?"

Then there's his slick trick for figuring out who might own an anonymous pager number: Call similar numbers and inquire of their owners what pager company they use. Usually the numbers are assigned in blocks. Then call the pager company, give the number you are inquiring about, say it's yours, and fool them into giving you "information about your bill" in the form of billing name, address, and home phone.

On phone scams, "Mike does a great old black lady," Spellman says as his pal launches into the act.

"I'm here baby-sitting these children, my daughter leaves 'em over here," Armstrong creaks. "I got high blood pressure and heart-t-t-t condition...Hold on, I got something here on the stove."

As befits a pair of good liars, deceitful guys who would rifle your trash in a heartbeat and snoop phone numbers from your caller-ID, they have a certain charm.

They say they often pray with fugitives as they haul them off to jail. "We pray that the Lord Jesus gets them out of all the trouble they're in, that He fixes it all for them. I want them to have a happy ending," Armstrong says. Indeed, the last words that drug fugitive Salinas had for Armstrong and Spellman before they handed him over like a sack of flour to a Dallas cop were, "Thank you very much."

"We don't put ourselves above anyone," Spellman says. Just as often, they'll give their freshly caught suspect the name of a lawyer, typically someone who has taken care of them in the past free of charge. As Spellman puts it, "Hey man, one hand washes the other."

Caught in a traffic jam on Interstate 635 on the way to the collection of bail-bond offices clustered around Sterrett, the two men get a few minutes to run down their backgrounds.

Spellman, a Chicago native, says he was a Marine and a White House honor guard during the Carter era before he moved to Dallas in the early '80s oil boom. First he was in security management, he says, then he got prosecuted for a bad check and became friendly with the bondsman who bailed him out. "They told me, 'Maybe you'd like this kind of work.'"

Spellman worked for years without a PI license--since 1987 one has been required in Texas to bounty hunt--although in the past 18 months, he has been working as Clue Investigations' fugitive finder, under their license, on a commission basis.

Armstrong was born and raised in Dallas, graduated from St. Edward's University in Austin with an economics degree in 1980, and got into a variety of jobs--insurance investigator, researcher--before falling into full-time bounty-hunting work.

Armstrong is divorced; Spellman is married and raising three kids.
Informally, the two men have been paired up for the past two years--splitting bounties, taking advantage of the way a black-white team can zig and zag across racial lines in the tough neighborhoods where they do the bulk of their work.

When they need an office, they'll light for a few minutes at a place like Metroplex Bail Bond in Grand Prairie, which wouldn't look at all out of place in a Quentin Tarantino movie. There's a pawn shop downstairs, and upstairs haggard-looking next-of-kin to criminals waiting on shiny vinyl sofas, plenty of neon signage out front, and behind, a lot full of clunkers--collateral enclosed by barbed wire and guarded by a couple of mean-looking mutts.

Both men say they have participated in one particular stunt that authorities say is indicative of the kind of shabby practices employed by some in the bail business: the deceptive shakedown of the newly arrested absconder's relatives for "recovery fees."

It works like this: The bounty hunters return the bail jumper to the bondsman's office, where he is told his bond might be reinstated if he can scare up some money. He gets on the phone, and his relatives arrive with the cash. Instead of writing a new bond, however, the bondsman applies the money toward recovery fees and court costs--which the absconder legally owes the bondsman under his bond contract. The bondsman then calls the cops, and the absconder is hauled off to jail.  

"We play good cop-bad cop, or Reggie will talk ebonics with some guy and say he's trying to go easy on him, but the white guy is a real jerk," Armstrong says.

They've caught a triple-murderer, armed robbers, dope dealers, and child molesters--and lately have been shopping for new out-of-state business via wanted posters on the Internet.

Armstrong says the biggest bounty he has ever recovered was $15,000 for tracking a child molester to a hotel in New York. But 10 percent of $5,000 is far more common. In all, it's enough to keep them ahead of the mortgage payments on their unpretentious brick homes in Garland, they say.

"People think it's kind of glamorous, but it's mostly a lot of work," says Jeanie Wade, co-owner of A-Way-Out Bail Bonding, which has given much of its recovery work to Spellman. Most of the short cuts--making threats, impersonating police--are simply against the law.

On the pop-cultural landscape, the image of the modern-day bounty hunter has a down-market, real-life cop-show type of appeal.

Last year in England, a tour operator began offering Britons a seven-day "Bounty Hunter Ride Along" vacation package to the States. Bounty Hunter, a true-life TV show airing in Dallas on Saturday nights, depicts a variety of yahoos--Armstrong calls them "cop queers"--dressed up in pseudo-police gear: black raid jackets emblazoned with the words "bail agent," $2 badges, gun belts, and billy clubs. They sound like seasoned police dispatchers yammering on about "perpetrators" and "subjects in custody."

With considerably more cool, Steve McQueen played a lone-wolf bounty hunter in the 1980 film The Hunter, which supposedly was based on the life story of bounty hunter Ralph "Pappa" Thorson. Using stun guns and immense pistols, McQueen corrals an unseemly collection of toothless redneck and ghetto tenants, taking one man into custody after kicking down a door, commandeering a tow truck, ramming six cars, and finally pushing the guy to drive off the top of a parking garage into the Chicago River.

Injecting a morsel of legal verisimilitude, McQueen carries with him a card inscribed with a few lines from an 1873 Supreme Court case, Taylor v. Taintor, which gave bondsmen and their agents free rein to round up absconders.

The 125-year-old case says a bounty hunter can pursue a bail jumper "into another state, may arrest him on the Sabbath and if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose. The seizure is not by virtue of new process. None is needed. It is likened to the rearrest by the sheriff of an escaping prisoner. The bail have their principal on a string and may pull the string whenever they please..."

In the more than 40 states that have no local regulations on bounty hunting, Taylor v. Taintor is still very much the law. Bounty hunters may enter the residence of a suspect without knocking, burst through doors, and arrest without a warrant--broader powers than those possessed by police.

The problem is that the old Taylor case doesn't apply to states that have passed their own bounty hunting laws--and Texas is one of about a half dozen that have.

"You have these goon squads running around, saying they're cloaked with these special powers," Lachman says. "Imagine how quickly that can get out of hand."

Recent abuses, such as the abduction of a woman in New York City by bounty hunters who mistook her for a drug addict wanted in Alabama, prompted a hearing last month in Congress on a bill that would subject bounty hunters nationwide to the same restraints imposed on trained peace officers, such as restrictions on transporting people across state lines.

Training and licensing requirements in the proposed legislation would bring the rest of the states more in line with Texas' current regulations.

Investigator Lachman insists he isn't on a crusade, but for some reason cases against Dallas County bounty hunters have been coming in bunches this year. Two bounty hunters were indicted late last month, and three more are facing charges still to go before a grand jury.

Crimes such as impersonating police officers, aggravated kidnapping, and false imprisonment are alleged to have been committed in more than a half-dozen bounty-hunting arrests in Dallas County.

"These guys look at the stuff on the TV show like it's a training video," Lachman says.

Not atypical was a raid of a house on Pomeroy Street in the Redbird area in early February, where bounty hunters Edward "Bubba" Dunham and Thomas Rosser had gone seeking Kerry Ray, a 19-year-old wanted for a probation violation in a 1996 car-theft case and for skipping a court date while on bond awaiting trial for making criminal threats.  

The house belongs to Ray's parents, so even a police officer would need to obtain a search warrant before entering to look for a felony fugitive who lives elsewhere.

The suspect's father, James Ray Jr., opened his front door for Rosser, who informed Ray he had a warrant for his son's arrest, witnesses told authorities.

The son, overhearing the conversation, sneaked over to a trap door in the ceiling and fled up a set of stairs leading to the attic.

Hearing the springs of the stairs being pulled down, Rosser pushed by the suspect's father and entered his house. According to Ray's parents, Rosser ordered the suspect to come down and threatened to "send up the dog after him." It worked. Ray, thinking he was facing a police dog, came down, and Rosser cuffed him. Rosser then ordered the mother, Reitha Faye Ray, to open the back door to allow Dunham, who had been covering the back, to come in.

Under a system set up in Texas in the late 1980s, licensed private eyes can go after bail jumpers, but only after requesting and receiving from a judge a warrant commonly called an ATGOB, an affidavit to go off bond.

No ATGOB had been issued for Ray, so by law Rosser and Dunham had no right to go after him, Lachman alleges in an investigative report on the incident. Beyond that, records show that Dunham does not have a private investigator's license and by Texas law has no right to arrest fugitives.

Rosser and Dunham were arrested late last month and charged with impersonating peace officers and engaging in organized crime, both felony offenses. They each were released in lieu of $25,000 bond.

In another incident in February, bounty hunter Ben Allen Clayton told a suspect, "I am a bounty hunter. If you run, I will shoot you," another of Lachman's investigative reports alleges. Clayton did not have a right to restrain the man because no ATGOB warrant had been issued. On somewhat more technical grounds, Clayton is licensed only to work for a Waco patrol company, not to do business under his d.b.a., Bounty Hunters U.S.A., the sheriff's department affidavit alleges. The 44-year-old Garland man was charged last month with one count of engaging in organized crime and released on a $15,000 bond.

Lachman says he believes bounty hunters will try anything that works, but he rarely gets complaints.

"All the defendant knows is that he's been caught and he's going to jail," Lachman says. "They don't complain about how it happened, and they don't know the law."

The issues surrounding a suspect's arrest for bail jumping usually don't emerge in court--where a defense attorney might review the circumstances of a suspect's arrest by police, but not subsequent arrests on bond charges.

In the most developed of the recent cases, a former Fort Worth police officer and a bounty hunter from Arlington were indicted last month on charges of kidnapping and impersonating a police officer--both felonies--and unlawful restraint stemming from their capture of two bail jumpers last January.

In the case involving the felony charges, Roy Morrison, who resigned from the Fort Worth police in January, the day he was arrested for possession of some child pornography, and Douglas Fox, a bounty hunter from Arlington, were in pursuit of Edward Allen Wright, a 53-year-old man with a drug problem.

Wright, who had accumulated more than a dozen drug-possession charges, had jumped bonds worth $50,000 and was being pursued by several bounty hunters, including Fox and Morrison.

Armstrong and Spellman say they, too, were in the hunt and close to locating Wright through a snitch when the competition made their move.

At about 4 p.m., Fox and Morrison burst into a house on Neptune Street in Oak Cliff--a crack house, Lachman says.

Wright and another witness in the house heard pounding and yelling at their front door: "Dallas Police Department. Dallas police officers. Open the door!" Lachman's investigative report states.

When the witness opened the door, Fox pointed a pistol at him, flashed a badge, said he was a cop, and then he and Morrison "forced their way into the residence," the report states.

The pair cuffed Wright and took him to Immediate Bail Bonds on West Commerce Street. Eventually, a Dallas County deputy constable was called to come and pick him up and take him to jail.  

Morrison is not licensed to do bounty-hunting work, and Fox is licensed only to work for the same Waco security firm that licensed bounty hunter Ben Allen Clayton, Lachman says.

Apparently, some bail-bond companies in Dallas don't care who bounty-hunts for them as long as they get the job done.

In a sworn statement, Clayton told authorities he worked for one bail bondsman last year who knew he was unlicensed. When he found out he needed one, he paid a Waco bondsman $45 to take a private investigator's test and agreed to pay the bondsman $360 a year to operate under his license.

It was that easy.

Armstrong and Spellman say they have no problem with some of the cases Lachman is making. Bounty hunters running around impersonating police officers aren't doing much for the profession's image, they say. "This is our livelihood," Spellman says. "If you've got people doing things wrong, that's putting everybody in a bad light.

For a while, they say, the arrests shut down the flow of new bounties almost completely, but in a few weeks bondsmen resumed assigning cases. With a good chunk of the competition facing criminal charges, Armstrong and Spellman have become the only game in town.

At the same time, the two say they have no certain idea about which of their methods could land them in jail.

The pair says they always verify with the courts or sheriff's department that there is an outstanding ATGOB before they seize a fugitive. But when can they break down a door? Push past someone into a residence? Handcuff people? When can they reach for the pepper spray--which Armstrong carries along in the front seat?

"There are people of good faith on both sides of these issues," says one lawyer with considerable influence over Dallas County's policies, who asked not to be identified because he didn't "want to debate" the issue. "There is some feeling among law enforcement people that these people are clothed with police authority. I don't think so."

The problem is that there are few legal cases establishing the boundaries, so people like Spellman and Armstrong are left to guess.

There are others in the bond community who say Dallas is being too aggressive--and is busting bounty hunters because of a general disdain for the bail-bond industry.

"Dallas County has a system where they have a financial incentive to allow bond jumpers to remain at large," charges J. Sutton Taylor, who has lobbied in Austin on bail issues for years and is an officer in several industry groups, including the Professional Bail Agents of Dallas.

If bondsmen can't round up their absconders, money eventually flows into the county treasury, he says. Jurisdictions such as Harris County make it considerably easier than Dallas does to obtain the necessary warrants to go after absconders, he says.

David Beane, a former Dallas cop now working as an underwriter for Superior Bail Bonds, says, "The attitude in Dallas is that if you're not a licensed police officer, you shouldn't be allowed to make a custodial arrest."

That would be fine, he says, but the Dallas sheriff's department has too few warrant officers on the job, and only the most committed of them will work as hard as Spellman and Armstrong.

Dallas County currently has 11,166 outstanding felony warrants, 518 of which are for major violent crimes such as murder and sexual assault, records show.

"The bottom line is that guys like Mike and Reggie are taking felons off the street," Beane says. "Even Fox and Morrison were taking down a guy who was dangerous enough to warrant a $50,000 bond."

Lachman concedes that that attitude is a powerful defense for people in the criminal-catching business. He has brought criminal cases against bounty hunters before and watched as prosecutors, grand jurors, or trial jurors have reduced or dropped the charges.

In 1992, in a case that received scant attention, Lachman brought aggravated kidnapping charges against two Dallas bounty hunters who abducted a woman and used her as bait to capture her former husband.

According to Lachman's report, they impersonated police, handcuffed the woman, and told her they would "blow [her] fucking head off" if she didn't comply with their demands. The men received 10 years' probation for kidnapping in a plea bargain.

"The trouble is, I don't have law-abiding victims," Lachman says. "They have prison records, or they're in crack houses. It's crook-on-crook stuff that nobody cares about. If this was happening in North Dallas in white neighborhoods, people would be up in arms."

In the face of some serious efforts to enforce the law--and reduce the likelihood of amateur shoot-outs or the kidnapping of grandmothers--Armstrong says he tries to be as "pro-active" as possible without putting himself in a situation that might lead to prison.  

Spellman is a bit more confident that people understand what it takes to do the job. "I've been at this 14 years," he says. "I've personally kicked many doors and grabbed many fugitives, and never have I let a person get hurt.

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