Outdated N.O. system makes it hard for bounty hunters

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wwltv.com

Posted on May 13, 2014 at 10:32 PM

Updated Monday, May 19 at 1:05 PM

Mike Perlstein / Eyewitness News
Email: mperlstein@wwltv.com | Twitter: @mikeperlstein

NEW ORLEANS -- Roland Johnson was looking at 20 years or more behind bars as a multiple offender when he skipped town on a New Orleans marijuana distribution charge.

Accused car thief Donald Ferguson missed court, then disappeared back into the shadows as a semi-homeless drifter.

Daniel Ponder, facing 24 counts of possession of child pornography that allegedly included torture scenes, left the state and went deep into hiding, leaving only a sporadic social media trail behind him.

These fugitives had one thing in common, and that thing would ultimately lead to their capture: A modern-day bounty hunter named Matt Dennis.

“We live in a modern technology society. You cannot hide. It’s stupid to try to hide,” said Dennis, who sports a crew cut and old-school blue ink tattoos, but tackles his job like a computer geek.

Dennis, with Steve’s Bail Bonds, is responsible for making sure his clients appear in court after posting bail on their behalf. Most do. But when they skip, he has 180 days to find them. If he doesn’t, he has to fork over their full bond amount to the court.

And no bail agent wants to pay.

“He has to go court. That’s the only thing I’m in this for. If he doesn’t go to court, then I have to make him go to court,” Dennis said.

Unlike the popular depiction of bounty hunters as tattooed tough guys banging down doors, today’s fugitive recovery agents are far more likely to do their work with a laptop and cell phone than a battering ram and handcuffs.

Steve Adams, owner of No. 1 Bail Bonds, said bounty hunting muscle is only as effective as the cutting edge technology that supports it.

“The criminals, as they get smarter doing their thing, hiding out, we have to evolve as well,” Adams said. “We have automated phone services to check on new court dates. We have access to ping phones.”

Dennis recounted how in one recent case involving a fugitive who fled to Michigan, he displayed his technological capabilities to the defendant’s grandmother. She responded by immediately giving up his hiding place.

“It told her, “This is what I’m capable of doing.” Then I started reading to her family members that died 20 years ago. Their addresses. Their kids. Showing her pictures from satellites. Showing her tracking stuff from different electronic devices.”

In New Orleans, however, there apparently are holes in the system making it easier for fugitives to remain on the run.

Local bail bond companies explained that people who skip court aren’t routinely being entered into criminal justice databases as fugitives. There are two such databases. The local court computer system is known as the “motions system.” The national database is known as NCIC, short for National Crime Information Center.

In many cases, New Orleans defendants who miss a court date aren’t being entered into either system, leaving some New Orleans fugitives off of law enforcement radar.

“They’re not putting them into the system. And it makes it tough on us,” Adams said.

Ronald Boutee, a bounty hunter for Blair’s Bail Bonds, said he’s captured many local bail jumpers and taken them to Central Lockup, only to be turned away because nobody entered an attachment or warrant in the computer.

“We’ll bring him over to local authorities and they won’t accept him into the jail, for whatever reason, because he’s not in that system,” Boutee said. “And it causes us more man hours because we have to sit on that defendant in order to meet our obligation to bring him back to court.”

Entering a fugitive into a computer would seem to be a simple task, but there are complicated layers to the process, depending on the court.

In New Orleans Municipal Court, which handles municipal violations and low-level state misdemeanors, there are two types of warrants, known as attachments, according to a court spokesman. One type of attachment lists a defendant as wanted once they skip court. But another type of attachment, called an administrative attachment, does not alert police that a person missed court.

For example, take Natalyia Jones, currently wanted in several theft cases and missed court appearances. She remains free today and, according to the court and New Orleans police, nobody is looking for her.

Dennis said there are untold defendants just like Jones roaming the streets.

“They can be right here in the city of New Orleans, over in Gretna, Metairie,” he said. “When they get pulled over and they run their names, there are no warrants. Not wanted. Not showing that they’re wanted at all.”

In Criminal Court, which handles more serious state charges, judges routinely issue warrants, but those warrants don’t always get entered into NCIC.

The sheriff's office is responsible for entering fugitive warrants into the local and national crime computers. A spokesman for that office said that is done at the request of either judges, prosecutors or – for a $25 fee – bail bondsmen. But the spokesman did not explain why so many local fugitives are not making it into the system.

“They’re not putting them into the system. And it makes it tough on us,” Adams said.

So how do the truly dangerous bad guys get caught? The ones fleeing felony charges, sometimes crossing state lines and going into hiding?

Enter the bounty hunter. Once the bail bond companies are chasing a fugitive, they almost always pay $25 to get their defendant the NCIC system. That allows bounty hunters to enlist the help of police anywhere in the country. Otherwise, law enforcement has no record that a defendant is on the lam.

“It should be automatic, but it’s not,” Adams said. “We pay a $25 fee for the sheriff’s office to put them in NCIC.”

That’s exactly the process that Dennis used to round up his fugitives. Johnson was hiding out in Texas. Ferguson was caught in Indiana.

And the man accused of possessing child pornography, Daniel Ponder, was tracked through social media by Dennis’ tech-savvy daughter, beating an Internet expert at his own game.

“She tracked that guy from New Orleans to Washington, D.C. to Maine, and knew where he was getting off a bus in North Carolina,” Dennis said. “That just proved to me you can't mess with these kids when it comes to computers."

 

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