Bail Me

The spotless white Lincoln Navigator with "Bail Me" license plates and custom chrome wheels shines like a comet in the rough constellation of Korean grocers, car-repair garages and tiny, burglar-barred houses that make up the neighborhood around the corner of Beckley and Saner streets.

It is parked in front of David's Bail Bonds, a two-room, $500-a-month storefront where the slogan is "U Ring. We Spring." The Navigator's owner is inside, and he's rumbling mad--although not as hot as he was a few days earlier when he was yelling into the phone. "I wouldn't have any of this mess if some white girl didn't go down there and complain," says David Wells, whose taste in jewelry (platinum Rolex, heavy platinum neck chain) and clothes (square-toed alligator shoes) goes nicely with the car. "Race has a lot to do with it."

The "mess" Wells is referring to is a criminal investigation of his relationship with a court bailiff with whom he started an investigations and security business two years ago. Sheriff's deputies such as bailiffs are prohibited from working in the bond business because of potential conflicts of interest--the sheriff polices the bail-bond industry--and the possibility of entanglement with a bondsman's duties in court.

The inquiry is the talk of the Dallas criminal courthouse and the bail-bond community, which Wells has taken by storm in the past few years, scarfing up a huge chunk of the business while flouting the old rules, such as setting up shop near the county jail. The barrel-chested boxing coach-turned-private eye has a presence that eats up a room. With the help of some high-profile friends, he burst into the bond business with such force that the established, white bondsmen left in his wake can't believe he did it all on the up and up.

"I'm the first legitimate black bondsman in Dallas...I'm number three in the city," says Wells, insisting that nothing will come of the criminal probe, which is being conducted by the Dallas County Sheriff's Department, the FBI and the IRS. "There's a lot of jealousy out there."

Last year, about $50 million in bail bonds were written in Dallas County, records show. Over the past year and a half, at least $10 million of that business went to Wells--a huge shift in an enterprise formerly dominated by white people with names like Fast Eddie and Marge.

To be sure, it is difficult to imagine a more dog-eat-dog world than the Dallas bail-bond business, even without the racial undercurrents that figure into Wells' emergence. Lower crime rates over the past five years have meant a 10 percent drop in arrests, hence the bondsmen's customer base, so competition is intense.

The business is akin to high-risk insurance and regulated by the state and county, partly because of its importance to the legal system and partly because of its tendency to host periodic scandals. "It's regulated pretty closely in Dallas," says one bondsman. "That's because these guys have tried every trick in the book."

The business works like this: A bondsman guarantees he will pay a defendant's bail in the event the person fails to appear for trial. In return, the bondsman charges the defendant a fee set by the market, usually ranging from 8 to 15 percent on large bonds, to 35 percent on small ones, say, of $500. It is up to the bondsman whether he asks the defendant for collateral--jewelry, cars, anything of value--to hold against the bail, the fee or both.

Practitioners say success in the business depends on attracting a clientele, knowing whom to turn away as too risky and judging when it is smart to back off a bond and get the client in jail.

With five years as a civilian employee of the Dallas Police Department, a decade as a private eye, a supporting role in the Michael Irvin courthouse sagas and a lifetime in the city, beginning in West Dallas and the basketball courts of Sunset High School and Bishop College, Wells has a background that fits the business neatly, his friends and enemies agree. At age 39, his hair now graying a bit in the front, he has a tremendous network of contacts, ranging from defense attorneys and politicos such as influential state Senator Royce West, to sheriff's deputies and police officers, to court clerks and secretaries.

With one foot in Dallas boxing circles--Wells is part-owner of the Home of Champions gym down the block from his office--and another foot in the ex-Dallas Cowboys crowd, he is in with people who generate a lot of attention, for good or bad, and beaucoup TV news. Pacing around his back office, where the walls are adorned with images of his kids, Mike Tyson, Nefertiti and Jesus, Wells lets on that if former Cowboys lineman Nate Newton is granted bail in his current troubles--the 213 pounds of pot and the federal drug charges--he will post it.