Jail Bait

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

To the point that Sheppard and his wife wonder if it's worth staying in the business. Sunlight streams through the windows of their small, modern office near the main jail; long, idle intervals stretch the days. Sheppard has been trying to get two members of a Miami family out of jail in Anahuac, Texas, but after four days insurance agents there still haven't put up the bond money. He and Sharla joke about the recalcitrant Texans messing up their chances for the biggest bond commission they've had in a while and about the fact that it had to come all the way from Texas instead of Dade County. But they're serious about the professional dilemma they're facing.

"If things continue the way they are, with people soliciting and drawing off business, and pretrial release drawing off business, and more agents coming in, I actually have to make a decision," says Sheppard, a member of the county bail bond association board of directors. "Either I have to start breaking the law or I close the office. And I didn't work for eighteen years to go into some other business." Still, he doesn't plan to run for re-election to the board during this November's election. "Let someone else go to all the meetings and meet with the county commissioners. I'm tired of working for the good of the industry when the only ones who benefit are the hustlers."

Veteran bondsman Don Sinclair, for whom Viola worked when he first started in the business, has become even more jaded. "At one time I was all gung-ho against hustling," he says gruffly. "I wouldn't let my people do it. Now I've reversed completely. Let me put it to you this way: If we could control pretrial release, everybody would stand a chance. We can't, so everybody's out there doing what they gotta do to make a living. I don't see any solution. I'm planning on getting out."

Jim Viola's bail bond office, a white concrete building with a terra cotta tile roof, sits on a small asphalt parking lot on the busy corner of NW Eleventh Street and Twenty-Second Avenue. It's dark inside, no windows; Viola's secretary keeps an eye on a video monitor attached to an outside security camera. A solitary metal desk occupies each of two tiny back rooms.

Viola is at the main jail this morning, trying to arrange bond for a repeat customer, a man arrested on drug charges several months ago and released on bond; the man is locked up again for possession of cocaine and marijuana and other illegal drugs. As Viola heads for the south entrance of the jail where prisoners are released, a woman with two small girls approaches him tentatively. "®Fianzista?" she asks. Barely able to hold back the tears, she covers her mouth with her hand when she isn't talking.

"Si," Viola says, recognizing the word for bondsman, though he doesn't speak much Spanish. The woman murmurs with great embarrassment that her husband was arrested the night before, "for fighting with me," and she wants to get him out of jail. She shows Viola the checkbook from her husband's body shop business. His bond is $5000; they can pay the $500 premium. All bondsmen say they like domestic violence bonds because the men almost always make up with their wives or girlfriends. They'll show up in court and tell the judge everything's rosy.

Viola says he'll try to help the woman. They head over to the release area, where he fills out paperwork to get his client released and inquires about the woman's husband. The officers on duty say they'll check where he is and whether he can be released. While they wait, who should walk in but Mark Durkee. He is one of the bondsmen who, a year and a half ago, assisted with the original solicitation complaint to Tallahassee against Viola by corrections officer Lorraine Cooper. Durkee is at the jail to write a $1000 DUI bond. The two men are cordial, although the atmosphere is strained. But here they are, both at the mercy of the labyrinthine jail processes, so they might as well make the best of it. "You must be doing pretty good, buddy, with that gold watch and those fancy beepers," Durkee banters.

"It's just a beeper," Viola says defensively. He's wearing jeans and a Gold's Gym T-shirt and carries an expandable leather briefcase from which he pulls a bond furnished by his insurance company. He hands it to the officers behind the glass windows in the waiting room.

The conversation begins to turn serious. Viola asserts that his long legal ordeal came about because Durkee and other bondsmen want to ruin him. Durkee says that's ridiculous, adding that in retrospect, for appearances' sake, he and his partner Gerald Laing probably shouldn't have helped Cooper write her complaint. "Listen, buddy, it's over now," Durkee says. "Let's put this behind us and work together. Pretrial release is the real enemy." Viola isn't so willing; he's still fuming over his $12,000 legal expenses and his certainty that he has been unfairly singled out as a hustler.

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