Devil or Angel

David Collins is not an imposing man. He's a baby-faced 37 years old, about five feet, five inches tall, heavyset, with thinning hair. He has a habit of talking fast and crass, which makes him seem nervous or gives him a hustler's air -- depending on the subject.

But lack of polish and physical stature haven't held him back. In the world of shoulder-holstered bail bondsmen and the clients who need them, Collins looms large. "Many respected bondsmen have reiterated to me how Mr. Collins is the number-one player in the bail-bond industry in South Florida," says Sally Burt, former bail-bond coordinator for the State of Florida. In the industry, Burt was the law -- until she resigned last year to join Collins.

So he's done well for himself, quite an accomplishment given that Collins has been in business here a mere three years. And it's a crowded field. In Miami-Dade County alone there are more than 500 bondsmen. Most work out of grungy offices that satellite the criminal courthouse near Jackson Memorial Hospital, cluttered places smelling of burned coffee and decorated with mug shots of clients, all of whom are in legal limbo and willing to pay to temporarily maintain their freedom.

Anybody who watches television cop shows knows the system: Judges set bail to assure that a criminal defendant shows up for trial. If the defendant can afford to pay the bail amount, he's free until the trial concludes. If not, he can pay a bondsman ten percent of the bail as a fee. The bondsman guarantees the court that the defendant will appear as required; should the defendant skip town, the bondsman will be liable for the full bail amount. Bondsmen, in turn, pay insurance companies between fifteen and twenty percent of their fee to insure the bond. Ultimately the insurance company must pay if the defendant vanishes.

This is where Collins is a big man. He's Florida's general managing agent for New York-based Seneca Insurance Company, which underwrites millions of dollars in bonds each year and has more than a hundred bondsmen bringing it business statewide.

It's a service at the threshold of law and order, a place where people are not yet wards of the state but have already lost many of their rights, where they have been charged with crimes but have been proven neither innocent nor guilty. The bond business itself operates in a likewise complex place, straddling both the criminal courts, where judges set bail, and the civil courts, where the rules governing bond contracts are enforced.

Over the years some bail-bond companies have exploited this complexity, using one court's ignorance of what happened in another court to avoid paying a bond after a client has fled. Collins, who personally signs off on the bonds for Seneca Insurance, has benefited handsomely from this murky setup. In 2003 Miami-Dade judges vacated nearly a million dollars' worth of Collins's Seneca bonds after defendants skipped out. That was ten times the money vacated for his two biggest competitors, money that otherwise would have gone into the county's "fines and forfeiture" fund. In a notorious case from last year, Collins beat the county out of $400,000 after one of his clients, an accused drug dealer, disappeared. The deciding factor? A minor typographical error on an envelope.

But Collins, a Rhode Island transplant, says it's all perfectly legal and he's just a good businessman. The way he runs his operation is a source of pride for him. Who else could have opened shop and become a force in the bail-bond world in three short years? Who else could have so quickly become the state's top man for a huge insurance company? Who else could have hired the former state regulator of the bail-bond industry, adding clout that reaches all the way to Tallahassee?

No wonder there's a bit of swagger about Collins. He's gained prominence by writing eye-popping bonds, betting hundreds of thousands of dollars that a defendant will stick around for trial. And so far it's paid off. Collins parks his black Mercedes at his office building, which he has remodeled to resemble a mini-Italian villa, complete with columned portico and polished stone, a far cry from the cluttered hovels of the lowly bondsmen.

To those who know his background, his success is not only astounding, it's literally unbelievable. That's because, technically, Collins shouldn't be allowed to work as a bail bondsman. Florida law prohibits convicted felons from obtaining the required state license. Collins has been convicted of at least two felonies, armed robbery among them. But a Rhode Island state judge annulled these criminal convictions, erasing them from official records through a procedure known as expungement. The judge did this after a couple of high-level law-enforcement officials testified on behalf of Collins. That testimony was given in closed hearings, and the authorities never publicly explained why they vouched for Collins or what relationship they had with him.

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Tristram Korten
Contact: Tristram Korten