Jail Bait

Getting sprung from the slammer has never been easier, and the life of a Miami bail bondsman has never been tougher

About a dozen Metro-Dade Department of Corrections officers, most in their uniforms of forest green pants and light green shirts, were bunched together in the small waiting area outside the courtroom on the eighth floor of the Dade County Courthouse. Sitting, standing, leaning, talking, chortling. All at that very moment earning somewhere from $10 to $35 per hour. In good spirits. Waiting to testify at a hearing called this past April by the Florida Department of Insurance, the agency that regulates the state's bail bond industry. The hearing concerned an allegation of illegal business solicitation lodged by a corrections officer against a Miami bondsman.

Inside courtroom 800, where the waiting officers' conversations were audible through the closed doors, everyone else was waiting, too. Not in good spirits. The prosecution's star witness -- only witness -- was either extremely late or just wasn't going to show up. Linda Rigot, the administrative judge who had flown down from Tallahassee the night before, frowned and pursed her lips. The lawyer prosecuting the case for the Department of Insurance, Richard Thornburg, who had also flown down from Tallahassee, cast dark glances at cracking, rotted sections of the old courtroom wall. Michael Levin, the defense attorney, sighed and shifted his shoulders inside his suit jacket. His client, bail bondsman James Viola, who at that moment was incurring $175 per hour in legal fees, sat very still, occasionally shaking his head.

Around noon Rigot called a lunch recess and advised Thornburg that he was running out of time to find his witness, corrections officer Lorraine Cooper. A few of the other officers thought she might be at another hearing several blocks away. Thornburg raced over. No trace of Cooper. She wasn't due at work until 3 p.m., and there had been no answer on her home phone all morning. Without her the state had even less of a case than it had started with, which wasn't much.

Finally Judge Rigot concluded that she had no alternative but to call the whole thing off. She told Thornburg and Levin she would recommend dismissal of the case with prejudice, meaning it could not be reopened at a future date. Although her recommendation would have to be formally approved by State Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, it was rare for a hearing judge's final recommendation to be overturned. Defense attorney Levin had even subpoenaed Gallagher to testify at the hearing, but the commissioner wasn't there; he had challenged the subpoena, saying it wasn't his function to testify at administrative hearings. Viola, smiling tentatively, walked out to tell an associate that the legal problem weighing on him for a year was about to be lifted. The corrections officers, who also had been subpoenaed by Levin to challenge Cooper's credibility, rode the elevator down in green clusters and strolled out into the afternoon sun on Flagler Street.

Cooper had accused Viola of displaying his business card in the window of his car while parked outside the entrance to the main Dade County jail on NW Thirteenth Street. Florida law prohibits such self-promotion any place prisoners are held, unless a bondsman is specifically conducting bond business, and Cooper claimed Viola offered no evidence that he was working at the time. Viola countered that Cooper was inventing the scenario to harass him at the urging of other bondsmen who wanted him out of business. And in fact, Cooper had sought the assistance of two Miami bondsmen, Gerald Laing and his partner Mark Durkee, in filing her complaint against Viola.

Nevertheless the insurance department charged Viola with soliciting business, a second-degree misdemeanor. (Under Florida law, prosecutions of bail bondsmen are handled by the administrative hearings division instead of the State Attorney's Office.) Then the department spent thousands of dollars trying to make it stick, even as it grappled with an expensive, debilitating post-Hurricane Andrew insurance crisis. And in the end, even if the prosecution had been successful, there's little doubt that a visible and probably growing chunk of the county's 200 bondsmen would continue to rely on solicitation of some sort to get business, much of it more egregious than a card on a car window.

So why go after Jim Viola? In another time and place, such a case may not have gotten very far. But these days it almost had to grow naturally from the ferment of Dade County's brutish bail bond industry. True, the bond business has always had a sleazy reputation, at least partly deserved. But sleaze isn't the issue anymore in Miami. Survival is the issue. And Viola's case offers a glimpse into the increasingly competitive world of the bail bond industry here, by far the most dense pocket of bondsmen in the state, and too unwieldy for the law to penetrate.

For fifteen years Ed Sheppard's mother, Olivia, was a bondsman (both male and female bond agents call themselves bondsmen) in the Miami of the Sixties and Seventies. Sheppard, tall and ruddy-faced with blond hair and mustache, followed his mother into the business in 1975, when the big bonds were on marijuana importers, usually local shop owners or car dealers or other entrepreneurs who distributed the weed on the side. Inside a decade, increasing immigration from Latin America and huge sums of money from the cocaine trade had transformed Miami. A lot of bail bondsmen were getting very rich, along with everyone else whose business had anything to do with cocaine. To keep up with the activity Ed Sheppard's wife, Sharla Demsky, a former legal secretary, became certified as a bondsman so she could handle the calls that came to the office when he was out of town.

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