A stocky man in a black uniform strolls into a roadside McDonald’s in the tiny city of Golden, Colorado. A gun is visible in a holster attached to his belt as he approaches the counter. But, instead of making an order, he walks behind the till point to where a group of young, nervous-looking staff are preparing food.
"Is that him on the fries?" the man asks the till assistant.
"You looking for Bryce?" he replies.
The uniformed man approaches the fryers, looking the young man who’s operating them up and down. “Is that him on the fries?” he asks the till assistant again. He walks closer to the man behind the fryer, who’s wearing a cap and a McDonald’s polo shirt. “Okay, we got him! You’re in custody.”
A second man sporting a black uniform follows behind and produces a pair of handcuffs, while the first man holds Bryce’s arms behind his back. He doesn’t struggle.
What just happened looks to bystanders like a straightforward arrest. But neither of these men are police officers - they’re bounty hunters.
Bounty hunters are the subject of a new BBC Three documentary, presented by Stacey Dooley. In many US states, people with no police powers, and sometimes no training, are allowed to use force - and weapons - to bring people who skip bail to prison. Bryce, 21, has missed court numerous times over the last four months, after going on the run. He has multiple charges against his name, including domestic violence and driving under the influence.
“In America, if you’re charged with a crime, you have the right to get out of jail while you wait for your trial but, to make sure you show up again, the court will ask for some money - a bond,” Stacey explains. “If you show up for your trial, you’ll get this money back. The idea is that people won’t run away if they’ve got money to come back for.”
If someone doesn’t have the money, though, they have to stay in jail. Or, there is another option - enlisting the services of a bondsman. They’ll lend you the money to get out of jail but charge you 10-15% of the cost, which is how they make a profit. In the UK, people released on bail sometimes have to pay a sum of money to the court to ensure they don't disappear before their trial. This can be retained if they break their bail conditions but Britain doesn't have bondsmen or bounty hunters - catching fugitives is the job of the police.
“All over the US, their adverts promise freedom to desperate defendants,” says Stacey. “They sell their services using anything - from sex to religion. They’re the friend to turn to in your hour of need and they make the process look simple and speedy.”
What you won’t see in adverts for bondsmen is that, if you go on the run, the lender might not get their money back from the court. If this happens, in many states, they can hire bounty hunters, whose job it is to track you down and bring you back to prison.
Stacey meets Scott Gribble, the bounty hunter who was hired to catch Bryce. Hope Bail Bonds - the company he works for - posted several bail bonds for Bryce, who had multiple charges against him, totalling $24,500 (£20,000). When a bondsman’s customer fails to appear in court, bounty hunters have the right to forcibly enter any property where they have reason to believe the defendant is hiding.
“Catching a fugitive is a lot like popping a pimple,” says Scott. “We apply pressure and eventually it pops. And, when it pops, our guy pops up.”
Scott has attracted more than 20k followers on Instagram, where he posts photos and videos of his captures. He also runs a training scheme called the Bounty Hunter Bootcamp for people who want to learn his craft.
One of his students is Brie, a 25-year-old exotic dancer who wants to start working as a bounty hunter in the evenings. When asked why she wants to be a bounty hunter, Brie says: “I really like the idea of taking bad guys down and being in the action - I'm a huge adrenaline junkie. I really like being part of the justice system.”
Scott’s course provides aspiring bounty hunters with certification in using tasers, handcuffs and firearms. But it’s only in 17 US states that any kind of training is required to be a bounty hunter - and this can put both the hunters and the hunted at risk. Some states also have a minimum age for becoming a bounty hunter, and stipulate the number of hours you have to train for. There are six states where bounty hunters do not operate.
“Washington requires 32 hours [of training],” Scott tells Stacey. “In some other states, you just go to an association meeting and pay a fee. No taser training, no pepper, no baton training and boom all of a sudden you’re a bounty hunter… They’re gonna be kicking doors in, and it’s those guys that give us a bad name.” In Scott's state, Colorado, bounty hunters must acquire a licence - to qualify they have to complete a training course and pass a background check.
Commercial bondsmen have been lending money since about 1898, and today the bail industry in the US brings in revenue of between $1.4bn (£1.2bn) and $2.4bn (£2bn) per year. In 1990, a quarter of people needing bail money relied on bondsmen - by 2009, that number had almost doubled for people arrested for felonies (crimes classified as more serious). In some circumstances - often when someone has committed a more minor crime - a person can be released on bail without payment, at the judge's discretion. This is called a release on recognizance (ROR) or a "personal bond".
Assuming a bounty hunter takes on 100-150 cases a year, they could earn an annual salary of between $50,000 (£41,000) and $80,000 (£65,000) - Scott calls his work a “recession-proof business”.
It’s through his bounty-hunting academy that Scott met his wife of three years, Lydia, who he calls the “compassionate one” on the team. Lydia was interested in becoming a bounty hunter and contacted Scott about his training programme. But their romance hasn’t been without its complications. One of Scott’s captures was Lydia’s biological mother and Lydia, who was adopted as a child after her mother struggled with addiction issues, helped him track her down.
“I put her mom in prison for two and a half years,” Scott says. “She couldn’t stay out of Walmart, she was charged with trespassing at Walmart for shoplifting over and over.”
“I knew she was using,” adds Lydia, visibly choked up. “I wanted to put her in prison, knowing she’s in there, knowing she’s getting clean.”
“I watched my mom beg for help,” she continues, wiping away tears. “And nobody was there to help her, and I couldn’t do anything about it… But now I’m married to Scott and he always tells me ‘Call your mom and let her know that she has us now’.”
“She actually got sentenced to five years in prison,” Scott explains. “I told her, ‘Do all the right things and I will always make sure that your daughter is in your life’.”
Like Lydia’s mum, people captured by bounty hunters are often some of the most vulnerable people in society. Another capture we see Scott make is Keri, 29, a mum of two who is struggling with alcohol and wanted for a domestic violence assault on a former boyfriend.
Stacey wears a bulletproof vest as she follows Scott to the house where he believes Keri is hiding.
“I see you’ve got a handgun and a taser gun,” Stacey says to him. “Everyone has a vest, everyone has a handgun, there’s a shotgun in the car, they’ve all got taser guns.”
“You’ve gotta tilt the odds in your favour with weapons, techniques and tactics that are superior so that they don’t fight,” says Scott. “We’re going after sometimes dangerous people and we put our party dresses on and we do the best we can.”
But, when Scott knocks on the door of the house where he believes Keri is hiding, it’s her grandmother who answers the door, and invites them inside.
When Scott tells her they’re looking for Keri, her grandmother, looking overwhelmed, shouts down the stairs to the basement to see if she's there.
When Scott gets down into the basement, all the lights are off and a male figure shuffles slowly out of the darkness, followed by a woman - Keri.
“Hey, how you doing?” says Scott. “Go ahead, put your hands behind your back.”
“Can I put some shoes on please?” asks Keri.
“It breaks my heart,” Keri’s grandmother says when Scott brings Keri back upstairs. “I love you,” she says as her granddaughter is led out the front door, her hands cuffed behind her back.
Sitting with Stacey in the back of Scott’s car, Keri starts to cry.
“Are you scared?” Stacey asks her. Keri nods. “What are you scared of?”
“Being away from my family,” Keri replies, through sobs.
Keri had been on a $2,000 (£1,600) bond, for which she paid a $200 (£160) fee, and was meant to return for her trial on 18 March but didn’t show up. After being caught, her bond doubled, with a $450 (£370) fee on top. She couldn’t afford to pay, so she was taken into custody. After being captured by Scott and sentenced to 30 days in jail, she agreed to speak to Stacey about the experiences that led her to this point.
“It’s 30 days, it’s not years, so I’ve got to think of it that way,” she tells Stacey from behind the bars of the prison visiting area. “I wanna talk to my kids so bad.”
Keri says she’s been arrested somewhere between 10 and 13 times, mostly for not showing up to court.
“[My partner] Sam was urging me to go but with everything that’s been going on... We lost our baby on Easter, and everything went to shit,” she says. Keri also explains that she’s been struggling with alcohol and that, when she stops drinking, she vomits and has seizures.
In the end, McDonald’s worker Bryce pled guilty to driving without a licence and accepted a plea deal on his domestic violence case. As part of that deal, all of his other charges were dismissed.
The fact that bounty hunters are paid per capture to find people like Keri and Bryce, who’ve had to use the services of a bondsman due to financial hardship, has caused some people to criticise the American bail system. But Robert Boykin, owner of the company that lent money to Keri, doesn’t see his role that way.
“There are factions out there that would say that, yes, we’re taking advantage of the poorest of society,” he tells Stacey. “Well, then maybe the courts need to do something because we’re doing what the state says that we can do to get you out. There’s the mom that’s got five kids at home that can’t possibly afford a bond. There’s the guy that’s sitting in jail on something very stupid and if I wasn’t there he would continue to sit there.”
In states with a commercial bail system, using a bondsman is the only way many people can afford to avoid going to jail prior to their trial. “If you need a bondsman to get out of jail," says Stacey, "you have to accept that, when you don’t play by the rules, you risk armed bounty hunters kicking down your door.”
Stacey Dooley: Face To Face With The Bounty Hunters is on BBC Three iPlayer now
This article was originally published on 1 August 2019