Hunting men

Kevin Nichols teaches students to retrieve bail skips, but not to be bounty hunters

Handcuffs are a bail-enforcement agent’s best tool, Kevin Nichols tells his students.

Handcuffs are a bail-enforcement agent’s best tool, Kevin Nichols tells his students.

Kevin Nichols looked self-possessed, confident, like a guy who was good at manipulating people. He strode around with his hands deep in the pockets of his leather coat and his eyes scanning the world outside the windows, or at rest over the heads of his dozen students—a natural tough guy.

But natural tough guys, it turns out, aren’t likely to thrive in the sometimes-brutal business of retrieving those who have skipped bail. So Nichols’ persona turned out to be only an attention-getter, a veil.

In his three-day training seminar on how to be a bail-enforcement agent, Nichols used the skills of an actor, a small-business man and sometimes the natural tough guy to teach his students how to use brains instead of brawn. His students, if they got the message, would see themselves as professionals outsmarting criminals who’ve put hard-working bail bondsmen and co-signers (read: girlfriend or grandma) at risk of losing thousands of dollars, or maybe their businesses or homes.

The first rule was drummed into their heads quickly: “ ‘Bounty hunter’ is a slur,” Nichols insisted to the 12 guys with super-short haircuts who were looking to leave their jobs as repo men, nurses and Marines. Nichols continued to pace the room he’d rented from the River City Garden Party.

“We’re bail-enforcement agents,” Nichols said, enunciating every word.

There are still power-abusing bounty hunters out there, Nichols admitted, guys who are worse than the people they’re out there to pick up, guys who feel no obligation to abide by certain codes of conduct.

But Nichols, a licensed private detective in Washington and California, doesn’t respect them. He doesn’t even totally approve of famed Sacramento bounty hunter Leonard Padilla, who Nichols feels is too showy and too prone to telling glamorous war stories.

This isn’t a job for “gun nuts,” those guys who know every caliber of bullet, collect the deadliest firearms and join the industry specifically so they can point them at people legally, Nichols said.

“You’re not a cop. You’re not a cop. You’re not a cop,” Nichols regularly repeated. More importantly, “You can be sued. You can be sued. You can be sued.”

Nichols became a bail-enforcement agent in 1996 after training police dogs for a living. Now, he boasts that he’s completed more than 400 pickups without ever shooting anyone or being sued for excessive force.

Bragging that he has a 90-percent retrieval rate in an industry in which a rate of 70 percent makes someone a shark, Nichols trains other bail-enforcement agents through his Pacific Northwest Bail Enforcement Academy, which now offers training in Sacramento. Occasionally, he hires some of his students. There’s no shame in starting out as an assistant, he tells them.

“Your job is to find people who don’t want to be found and, when you find them, to take away their physical freedom against their will,” Nichols said. Then, he upped the ante. Bail agents, he said, have less immunity than police officers, are hounded by a rabid press, and have the responsibility of carrying a firearm and doing everything in their power to avoid violence. Agents have to be organized, intelligent and even wily.

“If you have a personality defect,” Nichols said, “this job will show it. … It’s time to grow up.”

The industry began centuries ago in England, Nichols said. At that time, if a man skipped his trial, his brother would be tried instead. In the Wild West, bounty hunters used to drag their “skips” on long lines tied to their horses. That way, Nichols said, if the guy died, the smell wouldn’t bother the guy dragging him into town.

But bail retrieval is a more gentle business now, confined to a few major steps: search your guy out, confirm his identity, take him into custody legally and deliver him to the jail or to the bondsman.

None of those steps is easy. “The toughest challenge of all,” Nichols said, “is to find a guy who sleeps on a different couch every night, who’s high on crank and won’t talk to anyone outside his own dope circles, and knows that you and the cops are looking for him.”

Start with the public record, said Nichols, who proved to have the instincts of a salesman. “And schmooze everybody. … Call the clerk by name, even if you wouldn’t necessarily date her.”

Agents also should seek out ex-wives, landlords and stepparents.

“I don’t know what it is about stepparents and step kids,” Nichols said, his voice taking on an ironic, saccharin-sweet tone, “but it’s not a tight bond.”

Resistance should be easy to overcome. Should a landlord fail to hand over a key, for instance, remind him that he’ll be left with an expensive repair job if the door has to be kicked in. Landlords, Nichols said, find this logic irresistible.

The skips should be schmoozed, too.

“I treat a guy just like my buddy,” Nichols said. “If he doesn’t run, I don’t get paid. … Run for us!” he said with glee. He took the joke a step further: “My best buddies are the ones who’ve tried to murder people.” (Because bail-enforcement agents are paid a percentage of the bail, the worse the crime, the better.)

Laced with humor, Nichols’ most valuable advice was about good business practices, such as saving and organizing everything.

“My office is like a paper mill that someone grenaded,” he said, but there’s a logic to his shoeboxes of cocktail napkins, phone numbers on matchbook covers, and other pieces of special private-eye minutia. Nichols operates along the razor’s edge of the law, but sometimes he can’t help reveling in the romantic image of the Hollywood gumshoe.

“If this job were easier,” he told the roomful of future competitors, associates and assistants, “everyone would want to do it.”

Are there special private-eye secrets that Nichols doesn’t share? Absolutely. At least, he doesn’t share them with the press. At the midpoint of the second day, when the discussion went from schmoozing landlords to developing clever, only slightly legal ways of getting information, Nichols kicked the journalist out of the room and swore his students to secrecy.

On the third day, he opened with a lecture on deadly force—how to use it but, more importantly, how to avoid it. He’d already shown a training video on how to dodge an “edged weapon”— the images were graphic enough to make some of the men’s faces flush—and wanted to move on to guns.

With this transition, Nichols’ demeanor went through another shift. Though he’d been joking about skips who looked like wimpy “pooh-butts” and “Birkenstock-wearing, pipe-smoking lawyers,” he now turned deadly serious. Agents had to use the least amount of force possible, said Nichols, and that meant leaving the heavy artillery at home.

“Anything with ‘magnum’ attached to it,” Nichols said, and then shook his head.

He recommended using the guns preferred by law enforcement, and he insisted his students practice extensively. If the agent’s gun would be buckled into its holster, the agent had to practice pulling the gun from a buckled holster. If the agent planned to wear a coat that had to be pulled up to expose the gun, he had to practice using the gun in that coat.

And it’s never legal to impersonate an officer, Nichols said again and again. He admitted, however, that it was helpful to let people jump to their own conclusions.

Moving on to other equipment, Nichols held up a black, nylon bag that rattled and clanged. Here were the handcuffs, restraint chains, cans of pepper spray, waterproof note pads, binoculars, food rations and extra cigarettes that he kept in his car at all times.

With all of it out on the table, it was like Christmas.

Nichols’ flint-hard delivery style evaporated. Suddenly, he sounded like a small-business man describing what it took to open a storefront—even when suggesting that military body-part bags were perfect for holding restraint chains.

After suggesting that agents keep an extra change of one-size-fits-all clothes in the car for skips covered in pepper spray, he added, “I keep a pink muumuu. If you make me use up a $14 can of pepper spray on you, you’re going to jail in a pink muumuu.”

Though Nichols’ bag was packed with tools, one piece of equipment sat in the spotlight: the handcuffs. Nichols compared the manufacturers and styles and showed how an open cuff could be used as weapon.

Then, Nichols shocked the class with the last thing he asks a guy before loading him into his car and turning him in: “Do you have anything on you that you don’t want going to the jail?”

Rub the drugs into the ground, so they can’t ever be consumed, said Nichols, but get rid of them. It will keep the guy from trying to run just long enough to ditch his stash. It will keep him from saying the agent planted the drugs, and it will mean the skip owes the agent a favor. This may seem counter-intuitive for a police officer, but not for a bail-retrieval agent.

At the end of the seminar, Nichols gave his students one test, and it wasn’t on how to seek out criminals or how to point a gun at them. It was on how to handcuff them. Handcuffing wasn’t about bullying the skip into submission. Just the opposite. Like everything else, handcuffing had to be handled professionally and with the least force possible. If the skip comes in with black and blue marks, said Nichols, the agent’s reputation takes the hit. And, in such a risky business, all that matters is reputation.

Nichols closed by offering his students his full support, telling them in a fatherly way to call and celebrate their first arrests.

Once receiving their certificates of completion and access to the alumni pages on the Web site, the students seemed to perk up for the first time. All of a sudden, they were trading contact information and promising to keep in touch. They still had to sharpen their instincts and convince bondsmen to hire them, but, under their belts, they had a three-day lecture on how to wear a hundred hats and how to keep at least a handful of tricks and tools under each one.

With these beginnings, Nichols hoped they would never have to resort to old-fashioned bounty hunting.