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.

As beneficial as his background is in the bail-bond trade, it has aroused intense suspicions among some of his competitors. Eventually, comments on Wells land on race, and whether he has a leg up in a courthouse filled with black clerks, jailers, deputies, lawyers, magistrates and the like.

"David's courthouse practices are being questioned right now, I think, because a lot of the county employees we deal with are black, and they can make your life easy, or they can make it hard," says Terry Gray, who is white and the owner of All Bail Bonds. "Nobody's been able to do the business he is doing with no advertising. People wonder if he's getting some sort of help."

The sheriff's investigation into Wells and his business partnership with the bailiff, Mark Toliver, is at some level an outgrowth of those complaints. Even a source close to the inquiry says bondsmen have been a wellspring of leads. "This thing has gone in a lot of different directions," says the source, acknowledging that issues beyond Wells' business with the bailiff are under review. "People are saying there's smoke, there must be fire."

Pat Kinnard, a white bondsman who was instrumental in putting Wells in business, thinks smoke is all there is. "There's a bunch of crying by these guys who've been hurt because David has done so well. People are upset, saying, 'Here's a black man taking our money.'"

Contacts, politics and perhaps influence-seeking had a lot to do with Wells getting in the business, Kinnard says. "But that's the way it is...He got a break, and he's done well with it."

Ten years ago, David Wells was a man who could use a break.

In the 1980s, Wells was a police department community service officer and a recipient of a Congressional Gold Medal for his work with the Boys Club. His Oak Cliff gym, Reach for the Stars, coached young boxers, and Wells even took one of the boys under his wing, serving as legal guardian.

But all that changed in 1990, when Wells pleaded guilty to a minor theft charge for pinching a $55 pair of boxing gloves from the Dallas Police Athletic League. Not only was he fired from the police department, but USA Boxing, which oversees the amateur ranks of the sport, banned him for life amid allegations of misuse of money and equipment, according to police records and an officer of USA Boxing.

Wells changed careers, and went to work as a private investigator. "You pick yourself up and keep working," he says. He began getting some court-appointed defense work but apparently not enough to stay ahead of the bills. In a 1992 bankruptcy filing, Wells listed as his only assets a 7-year-old Chevy Blazer, $100 worth of clothes, a $200 watch, a 9-millimeter Beretta automatic and another gun he labeled "tools of the trade." Among his debts and expenses were child-support payments ordered for two children in a 1989 divorce and a mortgage on a small house that was $6,717 in arrears. There were no credit-card bills. "I don't believe in 'em," he says.

One thing Wells' sworn filing omitted, which the Texas Attorney General's Office brought to the court's attention later, was $300 a month in support ordered as part of a paternity suit brought by the mother of a girl he fathered in 1989. (As recently as 15 months ago, the state was still filing judgments against Wells in the case, saying he had fallen $13,576 behind. A Dallas court dismissed a second paternity suit brought against him last year.) In 1994, after two years of struggling to keep his house, a federal bankruptcy judge shut the door on Wells, and the bank foreclosed.

Meanwhile, around the courthouse, Wells was developing a reputation as a competent criminal investigator, a man who could get around on the city's meanest, gang-plagued streets. "If someone needed to get a witness here, David would get them here," says state District Judge John Creuzot. "He has a good reputation."

In 1996, Wells joined Royce West's defense team in the over-the-top, media-saturated Michael Irvin case, which turned out to be as much a career boost for Wells as it was trouble for the star receiver, who eventually pleaded no contest to cocaine possession.

Wells, at least on television and in news accounts at the time, became the bruising, sweat-suited bodyguard who cleared the courthouse halls, elevators and bathrooms for Irvin's entourage as they moved through the piled-up media and starstruck fans.

Out of view, he became Irvin's friend if not a running buddy, who at times fielded press questions on Irvin's behalf. As an investigator on the Irvin team, Wells played enough of a role in the bizarre case of Johnnie Hernandez--the ex-Dallas cop who attempted to have Irvin killed for threatening his girlfriend--that a lawyer for Hernandez saw fit to dig into Wells' background as he was preparing to defend the ex-cop. Suddenly, Wells had more troubles.

Attorney John Read discovered that Wells had let his state private investigator's license lapse, and he reported it to authorities. In a case that made national newswires because of Wells' fresh Irvin connection, a Dallas County grand jury indicted him on four misdemeanor counts, with state authorities declaring he had not held a valid license for four years.

But the cases went nowhere, and the indictments were dropped before they went to trial. Wells says he was able to produce a receipt that showed he paid for a license. "Their records are pretty screwed up," he says of the state licensing board.

Says Read now, "I don't know how he got out of that one, but that cat has nine lives...I don't have any disputes with him now. [As a bail bondsman] he isn't one of those guys who makes the bond, pockets the money, then goes out looking for some way to get off it and dump your client in jail. That's how some of 'em do it...some of those same people who are on David now."

The Irvin uproar had hardly abated when Wells turned up in the center of another headline case. In a move that hardly endeared him to the defense bar, Wells went to the FBI with information that a client, Oak Cliff grocer and theft-ring organizer Abdel Rahim, had asked him to murder a rival. The feds wired Wells with a recorder, and he secretly taped six subsequent conversations that foiled the plot and provided the evidence to convict Rahim of solicitation of capital murder.

It was around that time that Wells began looking for a way into the bond business, which can be set up in two possible ways. One takes capital. A so-called property bondsman is required to put up a minimum of $50,000 in real estate or certificates of deposit with the county to back his bail bonds.

The other route is to become an agent for a number of insurance companies that work nationwide and pledge their assets as collateral on bail bonds. The agent pays a percentage of his fees to the company.

Wells tossed around with Irvin the idea of going in as partners in a property-backed business, but Irvin wouldn't commit. "We talked about it a few times at the Cowboys Café," recalls Pat Kinnard, whose version Wells does not dispute. "Irvin never got around to saying yes."

Kinnard, who considers Wells a close friend, paints a picture of him far removed from murder-for-hire plots, guns and gumshoeing around the city's tougher precincts. "This is a guy who doesn't drink. He takes his mother to church every Sunday. David's a real decent guy."

In 1998, Kinnard was working in the bond business as an agent for Allegheny Casualty Co., an East Coast surety company that has agents writing bail bonds in more than a dozen Texas counties. Kinnard says Jerry Watson, a company executive who was based in Austin at the time, was looking for a black agent in Dallas. Kinnard recommended Wells.

"At first they weren't interested. They didn't want anybody who hadn't been in the business before," Kinnard recalls. "I said, 'Wait a minute, Jerry...David's been around. He knows all the courthouse players; he's highly connected to Royce West.'"

At the sound of West's name, Kinnard says Watson turned on a dime. "He said, 'I'll be on Flight 7, Southwest Airlines. Pick me up at 9 in the morning.' He said, 'There's a place called Fish. You get a table and schedule a deal with Royce West.'"

As an attorney and executive involved with several insurance companies in the bond business, Watson is "heavily involved" in legislative matters, Kinnard says. As a Texas state senator who chairs the Senate Jurisprudence Committee and sits on the Criminal Justice Committee, West votes nearly every session on legislation affecting bail bonds.

The three men--Watson, Wells and Kinnard--met at Fish, then later paid a visit to West. By the time they sat around a conference table at the senator's Oak Cliff office, says Kinnard, "It was a done deal...They were just talking about what it would be named."

Kinnard says the chain of events did not involve any business involvement or quid pro quo by West. "Watson just wanted to get hooked in with Royce West," Kinnard says. "Down in Austin, he could have an effect on the business. He's just the kind of guy Jerry wanted to know."

Wells confirms that Watson put him in the business. And it came with no money down. Kinnard says Watson loaned Wells the $8,500 needed to open an office, which Kinnard set up as a favor to Watson. Within six weeks after the meeting, Wells and Allegheny obtained a license from the Dallas County Bail Bond Board.

Watson, who is now involved in lobbying in Washington as legal counsel for the bail insurance industry's national association, declined to return repeated phone calls placed over three weeks. West also did not return several calls to his office.

In Kinnard's view, Wells was a winner for Watson regardless of whether he ended up any closer to Royce West. With Wells' contacts in the defense bar--lawyers who need to get their clients out of jail--business flew in the door. After just a few months, he was writing $600,000 worth of bail bonds a month, says Kinnard, who left after about four months and now operates Bail Bonds Unlimited, which does about a tenth as much business as Wells.

Eddie Dees, owner of Fast Action Bonding, says his current bond total is down from about $10 million to $6 million because of business lost to Wells.

Says Wells, "I always was in the bond business. I just never got paid." Over the years he says he referred millions of dollars in business to Dees and other bondsmen. "They never paid me a dime," he says. In fact, it is illegal for a licensed bondsman to split fees with people outside the business. But nobody even thought to take him to lunch.

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.

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.)

Wells' magic bullet was a copy of such a document, unsigned by a judge and date-stamped by an unidentified court clerk six weeks before Dixon disappeared. The place where the clerk is supposed to initial was blank.

The belated appearance of the affidavit on the sizable bond aroused more than a little suspicion from Moran and a number of Wells' competitors. "I don't think it's kosher," she says. Her records show Dixon came into her office on December 20, 2000, and signed in. Wells' affidavit stating Dixon was not reporting and ready to bolt was dated only two days later. How could Dixon have been behaving with one bondsman and skipping on another? She needed to stay on top of both bonds to remain on the street.

Beyond those questions, however, all Moran can offer are murky, unsubstantiated theories based on her low opinion of the business in general.

"This is a crooked business," says Moran, who a few years ago sued a competitor for placing an ad in the phone book listing her business name and the competitor's phone number. "A lot of scamming and cheating goes on because it's so hard to make a living at it."

Two other established bondsmen say they question the last-minute appearance of the precious document, and the fact that Wells' lawyer defended the case for eight months as if it did not exist. "If you had an absolute defense, wouldn't you bring it up a little earlier?" asks Dees, the bondsman, who has served two terms as the industry member of the county bail bond board, which oversees the business.

"The Dixon case set the whole business off on David," says Gray, who has been writing bonds in Dallas for eight years.

But that is only half the story.

Assistant District Attorney Moira Parro, who represented the county in the forfeiture hearing, says she saw nothing irregular in what happened with Wells' bond. "Occasionally, a bondsman will come to court and say, 'Look, the clerk must have lost the document. I have my copy here.' I don't know why it wasn't brought up earlier, but the judge was satisfied."

Todd, Wells' attorney, says there was "some miscommunication" between him and Wells, explaining why he brought in the document when he did. "I handle dozens of cases for him at a time," Todd says. He says he presented the affidavit at an appropriate time, and it was accepted.

For his part, Wells says the affidavit is proof he and his staff keep on top of his clients better than some of his competitors and critics. "I take care of my business...She didn't check in, and I went off her bond." As proof, he pulls up a computer file showing his system for keeping track of his clients, which county records show number more than 1,000. The record that flashes up on the screen shows that Wells' record-keeping, however, didn't compare to Moran's on this potential $50,000 liability. The computer record lists Dixon checking into Wells' office only a few times by phone the entire time she was on the bond.

Wells says he and his staff contact clients in the week before court appearances. And while he can't recall the specific dates, he says it was during such a check that he became concerned about Dixon.

The case is among those being reviewed in the sheriff's department probe, Moran says. "They asked me questions about it."

The elusive Dixon surfaced just before Christmas, proving in the process just how deep Wells' network can reach. This time, it stretched into his clients' world.

A woman, one of Wells' bail clients, came into his office claiming to know Dixon's whereabouts. "She'd taken up with the woman's husband," says Wells, who sent the woman to Moran's office. "I did her [Moran] a favor," he adds.

Motivated by spite, jealousy or the $750 snitch fee Moran says she paid, the jilted woman led Moran's bounty hunters to Dixon, who remained in the city but switched addresses, phone numbers and cars to stay out of sight. She is now tucked in jail and held on a parole violation that precludes bail.

Wells says his location in the heart of Oak Cliff puts him closer to everything: potential clients, missing clients and what he dubs on his calling card, "our community."

Over the years, black bondsmen have been able to do a little business by catering to the neighborhood. "People like to do business with people they're comfortable with," Wells says.

But nobody before Wells climbed to the top doing it.

The conventional route to success has had two ingredients, Wells' competitors say: full-page Yellow Pages ads costing tens of thousands of dollars a year and a location near Lew Sterrett Justice Center, the county jail. That is why there's a village of portable buildings along Commerce and Industrial, complete with blaring signs and promises of discounts. They share a certain hard-bitten edge, with functional metal desks and tile floors. In one, a clerk smoked behind a no-smoking sign. In another, a sign read, "Have a complaint. Take a number." On the number hook was a plastic grenade.

"It's hard to do much business if you're in B-F Egypt," says one leading bondsman.

Wells disagrees. "I'm in the community, where people can find me. They don't need to go downtown." As for advertising, he has taken his cue from high-volume lawyers. For about $700 a month, he runs an ad featuring him and his Navigator on late-night TV.

"At least three black bond offices have opened up since I came around, and where do you think they are? None of them are downtown," Wells says.

A former employee opened one. Patricia Harris, who worked for Royce West's legal office before she went to work for Wells, began Ebony Bail Bonds in Fair Park last year. She declined to be interviewed for this story.

Wells says he is more interested in "keeping my head down" than debating his creditors and critics. He says his business with Toliver, Top Rank Security Concepts, is involved in guard work, not bail bonds, and was disclosed in county business records and with the state. Wells says Toliver's participation was known to his supervisors in the sheriff's department, an assertion the department disputes.

Toliver, who has been a bailiff for 15 years and is currently assigned to state District Judge Manny Alvarez's court, says he has done nothing wrong. "If I was doing bond business work, I could see it, but I'm not," says Toliver, who says he has been a close friend of Wells' for about six years.

If the current storm does not slow him, Wells may be giving his competitors an even greater run for business in the future.

Across Dallas County, whites and Hispanics made up 77 percent of the roughly 40,000 adults arrested for crimes last year, state statistics show. The numbers help explain why Wells chose to open his second bond office, Town East Bail Bonds, in predominantly white, suburban Mesquite last fall.

"I'm expanding," says Wells, who seven years after he lost his first house bought a 3,700-square-foot new one in DeSoto, with four bathrooms and a pool.

"I'm not prejudiced," he says. "Black, white, brown...it's all green to me."

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec