Jail Bait

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

But then the corrections officers call Viola to tell him the woman's husband will be out on pretrial release in a few hours. He misses out on an easy $500. No longer a big surprise for a bondsman. Viola explains the situation to the woman in a combination of Spanish and English, and she smiles broadly, for once revealing the missing teeth.

"Did I do anything wrong?" Viola asks rhetorically as the woman herds her girls out the door. "That woman came up to me; I never said a word to her." Durkee says he wouldn't have agreed to post bond for her; he would have pointed out the list of licensed bondsmen that hangs on the walls of the jail and let her call one. His DUI detainee walks into the waiting room, and they leave. A few minutes later Viola's client limps out in a filthy white T-shirt and jeans. Under a few days' worth of beard and a haystack of hair is a hollow face and darting blue eyes. He starts talking immediately. "Man, what a bad day I had! First my girlfriend broke up with me, then I got shot, and then this. Look at this shit." He pulls up the legs of his jeans to reveal dark scabs scattered over his shins. "Some of the gunshot is still in there. They didn't even take it all out. Oh, man!" He explains that the police never would have found the drugs if one of his friends hadn't called 911 after he was shot. Viola doesn't bother asking who shot him, or why.

"Come on," he says evenly. "Your brother's going to meet us over at my office." They get into Viola's white Subaru across the street.

Across the street from the county courthouse on Flagler, bondsman Ricardo Rodriguez takes a deep, relaxing breath and opens the door to another bond agent's office. He's here to make damn sure this guy knows he is serious. A few weeks earlier Rodriguez and a bondsman named Marty picked up a fugitive for a bondsman named Frankie, saving him from the threat of losing $100,000. Frankie had promised them $50,000 for the job. But he isn't paying. Frankie is an agent for the bondsman Rodriguez is visiting.

Their conversation is pleasant enough. "It p-o'd Marty big time," Rodriguez says. "He's upset."

"I'll give Frankie a call," says the other bondsman, Frankie's boss, a man in late middle age with a face the color of cigar ash.

"All we want is the money. It's in the best interests of everybody. He has a bad reputation on the street. People don't trust him anymore."

"I'll give Frankie a call," the other bondsman repeats calmly, without expression.

Rodriguez leaves quickly; he has a lot of errands today. He isn't too worried about getting his money. Even if he doesn't, Frankie will pay anyway: combing state court files, Marty found an old $100,000 forfeiture on a bond Frankie wrote and never paid -- overlooked by the clerks, a not-uncommon occurrence. Now the county has been notified that Frankie owes $100,000. "We all get along, but you can't trust any of them [bondsmen]," Rodriguez says. "Everyone talks about being professional, this and that, but the bottom line is if they can beat you, they will. It's a sleazy business. You're dealing with the scum of the earth."

He gets a beep and pulls out his cellular phone to call his office. A client is coming by to pick up the collateral for a bond on a case that is now closed. Rodriguez heads to his bank to pick up the collateral, jewelry he stored in a safe-deposit box. He likes being out and about; he drove an ice cream truck before becoming a bondsman. This is better money and more excitement, even if his wife does hate it. Rodriguez hopes he can retire in fifteen or twenty years. Everyone knows him at the bank, where his Reeboks and green plaid shirt contrast with the business suits of the other customers. He and the teller make small talk in Spanish while he waits for the jewelry. A bank employee brings it out in a manila envelope. "It's not even really valuable jewelry," he muses. "But it means a lot to the family."

A relative newcomer in Miami terms, Rodriguez has been in the bonds business for five years, during which he's managed to build a solid clientele. He thinks it's stupid to worry about a bondsman displaying a business card on a car window; in fact, he used to have a card taped to the windshield of his well-worn green Honda (even the president of the bail bond association, Russ Walters, Jr., has a front license plate identifying him as a bondsman). Rodriguez tore the card off, he says, when Viola started having problems with the insurance department in the spring of 1992. Around the same time, Rodriguez had problems of his own: he and four other bondsmen were the targets of complaints, along with Viola, by the corrections officer Lorraine Cooper, though the allegations were different. The cases against Rodriguez and two of the bondsmen were dropped after preliminary investigations; two other cases remain open.

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