Longform

Bail Me

Page 5 of 7

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."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec