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Jumpin' Bail

[whitespace] Bad Boy's Bail Bonds Brotherly Bond: Competitors of Craig and Jeff Stanley of Bad Boy's Bail say the pair has raised the ante on getting bail bond clientele. Where phone book advertising was once considered enough, Bad Boy's has taken its campaign to the streets.

Christopher Gardner

The life of a Silicon Valley bail bondsman used to be serene. Then Bad Boy's Bail Bonds came to town with their aggressive curbside tactics. Whatcha gonna do when they solicit you?

By Will Harper

STRATEGICALLY POSITIONED between the county's main jail and its main criminal courthouse on Hedding Street near the Guadalupe Parkway, two attractive 20-something women wearing form-fitting clothing and red lipstick push fliers into the hands of passersby.

Passing the women is a combination of people who probably wouldn't be invited to the same dinner party: judges, drug dealers, attorneys of drug dealers, ex-convicts, future convicts and relatives of inmates.

"I already have the last one you gave me," complains one lawyerly type walking back from the Hall of Justice.

Most people just walk by, politely accepting the fliers, then toss them in and around a garbage can 100 feet away. There are at least a half-dozen of the rumpled things lying on the ground beside the container.

The two women, one from Bad Boy's, the other working for Aladdin Bail Bonds, shuffle their feet from side to side to keep warm. It's 10:30am in early March, and Mother Nature keeps vacillating between winter and spring. Today, it still feels like winter, despite the sunny skies.

When I stop and ask the woman from Bad Boy's a couple of questions, posing as a potential client, she recites a series of hard-sell phrases like: "Other bail agents can't offer the same deal." "We can work something out for you." "Ours is the best."

One hundred feet to the west, H&H Bail Bonds is doing the flier girls one better. Hogging two metered parking spaces right in front of the main jail's primary exit is H&H's "Mobile Bail Unit," an Econoline 350 truck topped by a beige camper shell with signage: "Easy payment plans available. ... Collateral not always required!"

Other bail bondsmen pass out free T-shirts and calculators advertising their services as if they were hosting the bail booth at a convict convention.

Flier-hawking and mobile billboards outside the main jail and Hall of Justice are just a couple of signs that the bail bond business in Santa Clara County, once a collegial, family affair, is turning into an all-out streetfight.

IT ALL STARTED when Jeff Stanley opened up Bad Boy's Bail Bonds seven months ago. A stocky, barrel-chested man, Stanley used to work as a bounty hunter, bringing back fugitives who skipped town, sometimes by force.

His timing in opening Bad Boy's wasn't great. He'd missed the deadline for getting an ad in the Yellow Pages, the single most important business generator for practically all bail agents.

He decided he would need to do something different to drum up business--he had to be aggressive.

So Stanley, who likes to think of himself as an entrepreneur, began circulating fliers with his card near the main jail and Hall of Justice.

He soon got a call from an old-timer in the business named Lamont "Buffy" Osti, co-owner of the venerable Buffy/Sparacino Bail Bonds. Osti was furious and lectured Stanley on local bail bonds protocol. These newfangled promotional gimmicks are unprofessional and tacky, he said.

But Stanley was unconvinced. Besides, even a bad boy needs to put food on the table. At the time, he says, his wife was six months pregnant and his daughter had been diagnosed with cancer. Stanley also detected an ulterior motive.

"They just hate to see the competition," he says, adding that only other bondsmen are complaining and none of his promotional activities violate state law.

"I think it sucks," scoffs Osti, who has been working in the county as a bondsman for 22 years and regularly gives money to local political campaigns. "How would you like attorneys standing in front of the emergency ward of your local hospital? That's basically what these guys are doing."

State law prohibits bondsmen from soliciting business "in and around" jails, prisons and courts. Besides, Osti argues, it just looks sleazy. But even Osti concedes that what Bad Boy's is doing is technically legal if the hired guns do their business on a public city sidewalk and not on court or jail property.

Once Bad Boy's started handing out fliers, other agencies like Aladdin, which has offices statewide, also chose to push the legal envelope. Aladdin vice president Steffan Gibbs says that he resisted copying the Bad Boy playbook at first but changed his mind when he realized it was cutting into his business. "It got to a point," Gibbs recalls, "where I didn't have a choice, so decided to fight fire with fire."

The competition quickly escalated. And so have the number of complaints coming into the bail association: that agents are slipping fliers into phone books in the jails, going to courtrooms to look for prospective clients and getting verbally abusive when someone refuses a flier.

One month ago, the Department of Correction received an anonymous complaint that unnamed bail agents are allegedly paying "finders fees" to jail employees who tip them off to potential clients. (A jail spokesman says the county has found no evidence of such activity.)

The whole thing has gotten to the point where Osti and another veteran local bail agent, Tedd Wallace, are determined to pass a law that will force the rogue agents to return to what they consider normalcy.

TEDD WALLACE'S GRAY hair is neatly parted, his face is smooth. He is wearing a J. Crew-type blue-checkered oxford and casual blue cotton slacks. President of the Professional Bail Agents Association of Santa Clara County, he does business out of his antique-furnished Los Gatos home. The house next door is on the market for $1.4 million.

Wallace has been in the bail bonds business for 20 years. When he started, there were perhaps 15 bail agents in town, Wallace recalls. Back then, local bail agents engaged in friendly competition.

"There used to be a gentleman's agreement that if someone called you up to get a bail bond, it was yours," Wallace says. "All of us were just trying to make a living, and everybody respected each other on that level."

Lynn Simon, the owner of Reagan's and Zig Zag Bail Bonds, expresses a similar nostalgia.

"All the businesses were individually or family-owned, and we all knew each other. Everybody worked together," says Simon, whose family started their bail bond business 31 years ago. "We all had the same-sized ads in the Yellow Pages. We used to go on picnics together."

That has all changed, Simon and Wallace say.

The competition to spring criminals is fierce now. But it's not all Bad Boy's fault. While there are more bail bondsmen than ever, there are fewer criminals being held on bail than there were 20 years ago, says Marco Limandri, president of the California Bail Agents Association.

Limandri says only about 10 percent of inmates eligible to be released in the state are required to post bail. Buffy Osti says that in Santa Clara County the figure is more like 6 percent.

Because of overcrowded jails, most defendants are released on their own recognizance now, Limandri explains. That means there are more bail agents--about 1,500 licensed ones statewide--competing for pieces of a smaller pie.

"The problem is," Limandri says, "there's too many dogs trying to eat out of the same bowl."

ONE NEED GO NO FURTHER than the local Yellow Pages to see the intensity of the competition. There are nearly 30 pages in the phone book dedicated to bail bonds--more than for churches.

Wallace argues that Santa Clara County is an attractive market because it has a relatively high "bail schedule"--a prescribed bail amount judges set for certain crimes--compared to other counties. Bondsmen come from as far away as the Sierra and Modesto to spring crooks here, he says.

Most bail agents make their money by charging a 10 percent fee--the industry standard--based on the bail amount. (Even though some advertise a 5 percent fee, there is always an asterisk--at the end of the transaction the fee is 10 percent, Wallace says.) That means for a $5,000 bail, a relative or associate of an inmate must cough up a $500 nonrefundable fee; a $1 million bail yields a $100,000 fee.

Even with the business growing increasingly competitive over the past decade, Wallace says that it wasn't until seven months ago with the arrival of Bad Boy's that agents started resorting to hustling new customers around the jails and courts.

"We have some new self-serving people doing things differently in this county," Wallace fumes. "It's really creating a negative image that we've vigorously tried [to combat]. I'm not about to stand by and have a couple of people abuse the business opportunities of the rest of us."

THE BAIL ASSOCIATION, with Buffy Osti as its point man, is negotiating with city and county officials to pass a law prohibiting Bad Boy's and other agencies from peddling their services anywhere near the jails and courts.

Osti concedes that it could take months to get anything done, if anything ever gets done at all. This is legally tricky territory, acknowledges county counsel Ann Ravel. "If they are on a public sidewalk, they have a First Amendment right to do that," Ravel says. However, she also says that an ordinance might be workable if it were narrowly tailored to regulate the time, place and manner of the activity.

In the meantime, agencies are going to keep handing out their fliers and strategically parking their marked vans.

Steffan Gibbs, Aladdin's vice president, says he can't just sit around and lose business while waiting for the bail association to get some law passed.

And even though Bad Boy's has an ad in the new edition of the Yellow Pages, owner Jeff Stanley vows to keep his girls out there. He has to, he says. Other bail agents are now taking out two-page ads, which cost $9,000 a month--a price he refuses to pay.

Tedd Wallace warns that if the association can't persuade local government officials to stop the new promotional tactics, he's going to encourage all bail agents to start hanging around the courts and jails. That way, he reasons, the place will becomes such a circus, officials will have to do something.

It certainly wouldn't be a pretty sight. But there would be plenty of free T-shirts and calculators to go around.

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From the March 18-24, 1999 issue of Metro.

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