The story is tantalizing, if only for the characters, who seem as if they've been yanked from an Elmore Leonard novel, except they are real and working on the paying side of Dallas crime.

There is bounty hunter Reggie Spellman, partial to loud hats, Superfly suits and on occasion some crook-finding tactics that have had him facing assault and weapons charges.

There's bail bondsman David Wells, a former boxing-gym owner known for his work as Michael Irvin's bodyguard during the ex-Cowboy's 1996 cocaine trial. Starting from scratch three years ago, Wells has built one of the biggest bail bond businesses in the city, writing as much as $1 million a month in bonds for criminal defendants.

A Dallas County sheriff's deputy, Mark Toliver, is also in the cast as a business partner of Wells', and a grand jury is busy trying to find where the tale ends.

Sheriff's deputies are not supposed to be involved in the bond business, so it appears that is one line of inquiry in an investigation that authorities say "is spreading out."

"When this came to us, the chief deputy [Larry Forsyth] asked the same day for a criminal investigation. Not an in-house investigation through internal affairs. That doesn't happen very often," says sheriff's department spokesman Don Peritz, who declined to discuss the investigation's details.

Asked if Toliver violated any department rules or laws by going into business with Wells, Peritz answered, "The grand jury is looking into the whole matter."

The only wrongs alleged to date are three misdemeanor charges brought by state regulators accusing Spellman of violating licensing requirements while he was working as a bounty hunter last spring for a company owned by Wells and Toliver. But the trial of those cases, which could put Spellman out of the bounty hunting business for 20 years if he is found guilty, has been delayed while the sheriff's office and grand jury complete an investigation that began about four weeks ago.

State authorities first began looking into the matter last June, when a woman working under Spellman began making complaints. Rachel Rendish says Spellman stiffed her out of $2,400 for her work on a missing-person's case involving the teen-age daughter of a Dallas doctor in May.

In a sworn affidavit that is part of the state's licensing case, Rendish says Spellman never registered her and a man she described as a computer hacker as employees, which is a requirement of state law.

In her affidavit, Rendish claims Spellman coaxed a $3,300 payment out of his client by suggesting the man's daughter was with a known sex offender, a claim that later proved to be untrue. "He's quite a character," Rendish says, describing how Spellman showed up one day at his North Dallas office in a red-and-white checkered suit "like a tablecloth in an Italian restaurant." She says Spellman misled the doctor to believe he was chasing down the girl in Florida when he was actually in Dallas.

State authorities say Spellman had no authority to hire anyone because he was not a licensed private eye. "He's never held his own license," says Ryan Finch, regional supervisor for the Texas Commission on Private Security, which regulates private investigators. He says Spellman has been suspended from working as an investigator pending outcome of the licensing case.

Clark Birdsall, Spellman's attorney, says his client is "a stand-up guy, and anyone who is looking for stuff on him is doing so for reasons I can't fathom." Birdsall, former head of Dallas district attorney's public integrity section, said he was unaware of the grand jury review. Spellman could not be reached for comment.

Rendish, who became her own investigator in a small-claims case against Spellman, says she discovered that Spellman was actually working as an employee for an investigations company owned by Toliver and Wells. Rendish matched the license number Spellman had printed on his business cards--which read Top Rank Investigations--to state records and found out the investigative company was actually licensed as Top Rank Security Concepts, which state and local business records show was set up by Toliver and Wells in 1999.

Rendish says Spellman got a lot of work chasing bond-jumping defendants for whom Wells' David's Bail Bonds had written bonds. A bondsman is on the hook, and can be ordered to forfeit the entire bond amount--sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars--if the absconder is not located and returned to jail. Hence the need for bounty hunters.

Rendish says she brought her information to the sheriff's department late last fall and prompted the criminal probe. Forsyth and other department officials were unaware that Toliver and Wells were in business together, she says.

Wells, who others in the bond business say has thrived through hard work and courthouse connections, says he and Toliver have done nothing wrong. "What you have are two brothers, two black men who do nothing but take care of their families every day. We've been successful, so there's a lot of jealousy out there."

Wells says he and Toliver have been best friends since 1993. "We consult each other on everything." But he insists Toliver had nothing to do with his bail bond business in his role as co-owner of Top Rank.

Toliver, who has been a bailiff for 15 years and is currently assigned to state District Judge Manny Alvarez's court, says, "I know as far as I'm concerned I haven't done anything wrong. It wasn't like I was making money."

He says he had essentially no duties or work in the investigations firm. "I'm the owner-manager. Basically I made sure everybody had licenses."

Toliver says he knew Spellman "was hired under Dave to do bounty hunting for the bail bond company" and has cooperated with investigators in Spellman's licensing matter.

"Bounty hunting is police work. They go hand in hand. So I don't see how it is a conflict," he says.

Peritz, the department spokesman, says sheriff's department warrants officers are specifically prohibited from working with bounty hunters because there are myriad conflicts. "There's a lot of money involved in bond forfeitures," Peritz says. "We don't get involved because of the opportunity for corruption."

Furthermore, the sheriff's department is responsible for policing the bail bond business in Dallas, which would also make the participation of officers in that business a conflict of interest, he says.

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Thomas Korosec
Contact: Thomas Korosec