Ralph Watts -- bail bondsman and bounty hunter -- looks at his list of skips. Only two today. Both young black men, 20ish, out on bail from felony drug cases. It's his job to bring them in.
Looking at the men's jackets, Watts shakes his head and makes a long face as he heads out to his 2002 Cartier Edition Lincoln -- one of three he owns. He drops into the seat, pops in one of the taped sermons he listens to while he's driving, and steadies himself. He tries to build a two-man team with each of his clients. But if he has to go pull them off the block, something has obviously gone wrong. This is the part of the job he hates. As the car picks up speed, his attention turns inward.
God is sending your enemies a message, says Pastor A.F. Caver, Watts' pastor, over the car's speakers. You are his child, and they are so caught up in trying to do you wrong, trying to bring you down, that they cain't see what God is bringin' down upon their heads . . .
Watts deals with everyone on the square, but he knows that skips are unpredictable. So he keeps a prayer for moments like these. Head bowed, he asks for God's protection and mercy. He's pious and duly penitent, acknowledging he may have to do things to his fellow man that are not in line with God's will . . . and asks forgiveness, because on days like today, he's likely to do more of the same.
"I let these kids know that I'm on their team," Watts says, caught between lights. "But when they switch up, then I gotta be the heavy. Because -- on the real side -- if they were really team players? We wouldn't've met in the first place."
Wheeling east with his knees, he leafs through the perp's jacket and places cell-phone calls to verify a location. There are all sorts of gimmicks to his job; among them is his network of consiglieri. Serving each client, he fosters a bond that lasts beyond the transaction itself, so that his clients become his informants. And today, one of them has seen his mark.
Watts pulls up to a home in the Kinsman area and picks up a dark, thick man wearing a T-shirt, a pair of Lees, and a baseball cap with "redneck" emblazoned across it. He only speaks when necessary, and on the job, he speaks only to Watts. He is merely a shadow in the shape of a man. With a grip and a whisper, The Shape hops into the car, and together they make their way toward the notorious Outhwaite Projects. Pulling into the complex, Watts makes one last phone call:
"Hello, CMHA Police?" he says into his cell phone. "Good afternoon, I'm a registered bail bondsman in the honorable city of Cleveland, and I'm about to serve a fugitive-arrest warrant." He's not calling for back-up -- and good thing, because the police, by law, can't assist him. He makes the call in case someone calls the police on him. So it's him, the Good Lord, and The Shape in the PJs as the shit goes down. But when Watts pops the trunk, it's obvious that he came with more than just the Word -- after all, God's grace is not to be tested. So Watts pulls a bulletproof vest from his goody bag and puts it underneath his shirt. He pops what looks like a blackjack and a pair of handcuffs into one pocket and a Glock 9-milly into the other. As he straightens out his shirt and puts his agent's badge on, The Shape scans the vicinity for looky-loos, but no one is studying them. A man in fancy clothes, standing by a gold-trimmed Lincoln and cocking a handgun in broad daylight, isn't so unusual in this neighborhood. Walking with a casual but purposeful gait, the two of them descend into Outhwaite.
They make the address, and The Shape loops around the building to guard the back door. On cue, they enter the apartment from both ends, as Watts finds the mark asleep on the couch in front of the TV. "Don't move your hands!" he screams, and the perp freezes as Watts pulls out his cuffs, rolls him over, and makes the arrest. The house is occupied by a young sister and children home on summer vacation; they all begin to scream as The Shape spreads his arms. "Step back, so no one gets hurt," he says, barring their way. "You are interfering in a police matter."
The handcuffed perp, wearing only cornrows and a pair of shorts, walks barefoot through the room. No time to put his shirt or shoes on: The whole nick, entry to exit, took 36 seconds.
"Wassup, man?" asks Watts, as they make their way downtown. "Why did it have to come to this?"
"I tried to call you," says the skip. "Maaaaan -- my girlfriend stabbed me."
"Ain't that the one that bailed you out!?"
"Yeah, man . . . I wanted to go out and kick it, and she just fuckin' stabbed me, and then called the police on me. I been laid up for, like, two weeks on this wound." He nods his chin at his rib cage, where the remnants of stitches along a 2-inch wound are clearly visible.
Watts shakes his head. "She was just gonna make you stay, huh?
"Some bitches are just possessive, man."
"I guess." Watts gives the guy a hard look. "You need to leave that girl alone and get right with God, man. Ain't nuthin' in them streets but trouble."
The Justice Center on a Monday morning is a funky mix of criminals, cops, and administrators milling about. Looking up from the lobby, you can see and hear all the people moving from floor to floor like ants in a sandstone colony. Ralph Watts can look up into the collection of faces and tell you each story -- no need for a crystal ball. He shakes his head and looks away, and his empathy is palpable. There, but for the grace of God, go I, he's thinking.
Stepping hard and sure, and swinging a black attaché case, Watts doesn't look like a bounty hunter in his tan silk set, topped off with a Dobbs and polished with a pair of jaw-dropping burnt-orange reptiles. "Oooh-ee!" says a lady cop, as she makes her way to court. "Those are some serious 'gators."
"All glory to God," he says humbly.
The gold-nugget bracelets and the two necklaces accent his single gold tooth. His style and rhetorical flair could be taken for the tools of either the pulpit or pimpdom, and there's good reason for that. Watts doesn't collar shoplifters or DUIs. He's arresting predators -- real thugs, who are adept at sizing up people and situations -- so he dazzles them with the threads, arresting them with the quickness, before they have a chance to think.
Most bondsman just write bonds, but Ralph Watts is a one-stop bond-and-recovery machine. When a person is arrested, a detective has 72 hours to make a case. After a judge reviews the evidence, he decides on a bond amount, giving the accused a chance to find legal representation -- or get a good lay -- before his trip to the booty farm. When a perp doesn't make the court date, a capias is issued, and the bonder has 30 days to bring in the perp or pay the entire bond -- sometimes as much as $20,000. A bonding company then pays an agent 10 percent of the bond to bring back the perp by any means necessary.
Not long ago, bounty hunters seemed to exist below the radar and above the law, bringing fugitives to justice with handcuffs in one hand and ass-kicking in the other. Last year in Kansas City, 23-year-old Ta'Mar Grant died in a struggle with three bounty hunters, which resulted in a manslaughter conviction. In Arizona, three men posing as bounty hunters robbed a drug dealer. And earlier this year, Duane "Dog" Chapman and his confederate were held in a Mexican jail, charged with criminal association and deprivation of liberty for kidnapping Andrew Luster, the Max Factor heir accused of rape. These were the kinds of stories that captured the attention of Ohio Senator David Goodman and led him to present House Bill 730, the bill that changed the way bonds are recovered in Ohio. Today, bounty hunters have to be state-licensed private investigators, bond agents, or retired cops, and 80 hours of education are required.
"I just got tired of hearing about that kind of stuff," says Goodman. "I didn't want the streets of Ohio to become the Wild West."
Watts has a different approach. When a nick goes bad, he lets it go. One way or another, they have to come in. After all, as fugitives from the law, they are likely to be turned in or shot by a trigger-happy cop on a humble. Better for them just to surrender.
Like the guy Watts once staked out for a week.
By phone, he set up an arrest of the young man at his parents' house, but ended up wrestling the perp on his family's porch. Now, Watts -- 6 feet, 250 pounds -- could have chopped him in the neck or kicked him in the groin. But the kid's parents could have gotten hurt as the situation escalated, so Watts let him go and watched as he ran up the block. A few weeks later, Watts got a call from the guy and talked him in.
The law forbids agents to use excessive force to capture a fugitive. Watts tries not to use any force to capture his prey. The object is to get them to come in without harm to either them or himself. "Is $250 worth putting someone's eye out?" he asks. "Because then I have to go to court and face charges, and that ain't in my interest. What you want to do is rush 'em -- put the gorilla on 'em -- but incur minimum damage."
A former janitor and recovering alcoholic, Watts is on a mission from God. He's just trying to stop the cycle of crime, one felon at a time. "This is a ministry," says Watts. "People define my clients by their circumstances, but they're just people who made bad choices -- just like me."
Early in the morning, Watts walks the Justice Center and services accounts as they approach him. His wife, Natasha, also works the bonds and occasionally goes out on a recovery with him. Smiling and nodding at his wife as she walks past, Watts calls her one of his "misdirection tactics." A tall glass of tea, shapely and well-appointed, with a neck-breaking bounce in her stride and a beguiling smile, she could be a formidable distraction.
"I go out with him sometimes," she says later over lunch. "But he mostly goes to get the skips himself. I don't worry about him, because he knows what he's doing." But then she adds: "He don't tell me too much about it -- on purpose, I think. He don't want me to worry, I guess."
Later, Watts checks in with Danitra, his cousin and assistant, who's busy on one of the public-records computers. "I check the civil-records-index computers to see who's skipped," she says, clicking away at the keyboard. "I make a list out, and then -- believe me -- he gets 'em."
Some bondsmen write out the bonds and wait for the perps to fall off; then they can pull out a pistol and haul them off to jail. Watts wants to make sure perps make their date, so he baby-sits them, calling to remind them of court dates. A bondsman for seven years, he handles only felony bonds -- which ends up being a lot of drug cases involving young men. So he acts as a father figure, building a positive relationship with his clients and trying to convince them that together, as a team, they can make sure that justice is served. Handling his accounts with this kind of care, Watts makes sure that there's no way they "accidentally" miss a court date. When they do miss an appearance, he's gotta go get 'em, gathering them up with as little fuss as possible.
"I'm not trying to hurt or kill anybody," he says. "I'm just trying to bring him in to answer to the judge, so I don't have to come out any money. It's a thinking man's game, because everybody ain't got it in 'em to go get these guys off the street."
The cell phone rings, and Watts whispers something into it. He takes the perp who was stabbed by his girlfriend to the Justice Center, signals The Shape, and hauls ass for the West Side, turning onto West 28th and Washington in Tremont. He pauses briefly, lets The Shape out of the car, and drives on. Moving up the block, a young man dressed in jeans and a T-shirt flags Watts down. Watts stops the car as the guy gets in, and out of nowhere The Shape comes off the sidewalk, closes the passenger door, and gets into the back seat. In a split second, it's all gone down. A call set up the perp, and he willingly hopped into the car. Before he could belt himself in, The Shape cuffed him. End game.
Watts doesn't lie to the marks, but sometimes he has to set a trap. The clothes, the jewelry, and the gold-trimmed roller are all part of his gimmick -- the marks are mesmerized by the luxury vehicle and fine vines. They're looking for someone wearing combat fatigues to jump out of the bushes, guns drawn, to come hunting them down, A-Team style. But with Watts, by the time his targets realize what's going down, it's going down. He manages to pull criminal types off the block, without bloodshed or altercations, in record time: This trap was sprung in 13 seconds.
No blood. No shootouts. No funky, scratchy guitar licks or staccato trumpet blasts. No problem.
Watts tells the kid that he'll get a new court date, but chances are better that he's going straight to the pokey. Watts has done all he could. "I'm trying to heal these people on whatever level I can," says Watts, bouncing down the Center's steps. "I'm just trying to be a witness to God's grace." He checks his watch; it's late, and he's restless for the street. "Uh-oh," he says, "we gotta get rollin'."
Tires screeching, he hits the highway hard, pulling off into a strip mall in Westlake. He slaps his pockets to verify their contents -- check! -- as he and The Shape make a rush for the Dairy Queen. They step to the counter and look around, relieved. The Shape gets a Snickers Blizzard, later pouring in barbecued potato chips for a distinctive taste. Watts gets a banana split. They aren't staking out a skip -- just enjoying a treat at his favorite DQ. The Shape crunches away at his concoction, while Watts dabs at a drop of chocolate that has stained his silk top -- the worst stain he's gotten in this business. He's never had to draw a weapon or had one drawn on him -- the Golden Rule keeps things from getting physical. The skips he brought in today were not unusual. "Ten times out of 10, I open a door and make the arrest," he says, taking a spoonful of vanilla. "This is real life, not no knock-'em-down, shoot-'em-up TV show." This business is about relationships, he says, and it's just not that hard to do this work, when you treat people right.
"I'm just a simple man," he says, wiping the corners of his mouth, "doing a simple job."