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Beehive Bail Bonds was recently featured in depth as the cover story in the Salk Lake City Weekly Magazine:
— Salt Lake City Weekly article
written by Amy Vatner
"One of the great things is when you get Christmas cards from reformed hookers. I mean, it makes you feel good to see that 10 years after their life is in turmoil, they've really turned things around," says Gary Walton, commenting on one of the most rewarding aspects of his work as owner of Beehive Bail Bonds.
Located across from Library Square on 500 South, Beehive Bail Bonds has been in that same spot since 1972. Walton's father started the business in 1968.
"Beehive originally started right in my father's home. He retired in 1979, and I took over. It's a family business; my two daughters and son-in-law work here with me." Now, the business, which advertises "Serving Utah & USA—Fast 24-Hour Service" on the outside window, boasts a large lobby area stuffed with memorabilia (an old Chevron gas pump), trophies, folk art paintings and comfortable couches. With a variety of well-behaved dogs running through at all times, it feels almost cozy.
Walton sits back in his easy chair behind his large desk. A large and vibrantly colored modern painting adorns one of his office walls. He is a trim middle-age man with white slicked-back hair—the kind of man who it seems hard to picture not dressed in a white shirt and tie. Walton describes the entrepreneurs who originally went into the bail-bond business as "colorful people—they had some reason to be exposed to other individuals who might need the services of a bail bondsman—and so they started the business."
When Walton first came to the neighborhood in the 1970s, the layout was very different. The jail was located on what is now Library Park and the court was where the new library building now sits. "There was a bar, a 7-Eleven store, the bail bondsman, the city police, the court, the jail—all within a city block. The entire system of justice was within one city block. Those were good times for Beehive and I do regret the jail's move to South Salt Lake," Walton says, reminiscing. But he's nonetheless a fan of the regeneration of downtown life and the new neighborhood around him: "When I first came here in the 1970s, if you wanted to eat here after 10 o'clock at night, you went over to Bill & Nada's. That was the only place open after midnight. It was all cops and cabdrivers. Every cop and cabdriver would eat there."
The phone rings and Walton answers. He listens for a moment, then says in a calm tone, "Why don't we start out with who is in jail and I can give you some better answers." Then, pausing, "Um, hmm, so he was supposed to be out—but he's been in for a month or two." Walton waits patiently while the caller continues a story he must have heard thousands of times. "I can tell you that I'm going to need someone who is buying a home to sign for him—OK, that's what I'm going to need," he says.
"It became apparent real early on in that conversation that this guy she is bailing out is a piece of junk. I mean, he's been locked up since early April, and it's now June. This guy just can't get out of the soup. He had an existing case, and now there are new felony charges. I consider that a bad actor, so I want someone who is buying a home to sign for him."
Three options are open to you when bail is set: First, raise cash to meet the bail amount; second, make a property bond requiring real property as collateral and an attorney to draft the agreement and present it to a judge; or, third, obtain the services of a bail bondsman. Say that your brother is arrested and bail is set at $10,000. You phone Beehive for help. Beehive takes 10 percent of the bail amount upfront and you write a promissory note to Beehive for the bail amount. Beehive can then guarantee your brother's appearance in court, and he will be released, but he must return for all court appearances.
Sometimes, when bail is set, there are "conditions on the bond, or something called 'cash bond,'" says Walton. This means that the bail bondsman must physically take the cash over to the court. "I hate carrying that kind of money. But I do like cash bonds because many of our competitors refuse to do them, so it's an area where Beehive has a competitive advantage," Walton explains.
Most of the time, the bail bondsman's dealings with the court are of a much less physical nature. In Utah, bail agencies are licensed through the state's department of insurance. "We pledge our assets to the state of Utah, and our underwriting authority is about $10 million. That is our line of credit with the state. So we present the 'undertaking of bail' to the court like a promissory note," Walton says.
After years in the business, Walton knows exactly how he likes to structure transactions: "If bail is set at $1,000, then it's a very casual relationship and signatures [of the promising parties] are all I'll need. But if it's a $10,000 amount I'm dealing with, then I'm going to secure against real property. I want a legitimate, serious guarantee on my money." Walton also knows whom he does not like signing the promissory note: "I don't like dealing with the girlfriend or the wife of the person needing the bond. I don't like girlfriends or wives signing because they really don't have control over the person in jail. I prefer to deal with a mom or dad, or a big sister.
"I'll tell you I recently wrote a $100,000 bond on a kid with some very ugly sex charges, and the parents signed using their house as equity. Believe me, on that kind of troublesome bond, we record those liens with the county. Then I heard last month that the parents were trying to sell their house or borrow against it. If I didn't have that lien recorded and perfected, then I would be getting nothing," he sighs.
"One time someone pledged two horses to me as collateral. So we took the horses, put them to pasture and the guy skipped on us. One horse got sick; we had to pay the vet bill. Then we had to buy hay. Now, we don't take things that eat."
Another time, Walton took a stereo as collateral. The stereo was infested with cockroaches. "All of the sudden, we had roaches everywhere, and I had to get this place fumigated twice before we could get all the roaches out. Believe me, that was a nightmare," he says.
Beehive's contractual obligation ends once a defendant (for whom Beehive has guaranteed appearance in court) is sentenced. If a defendant appears in court on all necessary dates and receives a sentence, then Beehive and the party contracting on the defendant's behalf (e.g., a parent or sibling) walk away free and clear of each other. For its part, Beehive has taken for keeps a full 10 percent of the bail amount, but the defendant's family has not needed to raise the entire bail sum necessary to release the defendant from jail. It's a system that works and generally makes everyone happy. Walton comments that in many other countries, "they aren't used to this whole bail-bondsman system and the notion of pretrial release, and I'll tell you, they love it!"
When a defendant fails to appear in court, bail-bond agencies are notified, as required by statute. A significant part of Walton's business is dealing with clients who fail to make their court appearances.
"Let me tell you, [notifications] just roll in. They come by certified mail, and they just roll in every day. My daughter's primary job is to deal with the 'failures to appear,'" Walton explains. "We start on the phone. We call the defendant, and we give very specific instructions on how the defendant can rectify the situation with the jail and the court. Rarely does it go beyond this," Walton states with emphasis.
Although about 20 percent of the original group of people for whom Beehive has pledged appearances fails to appear, these failures are usually cleaned up by persuasive phone calls—or an occasional "field trip," as Walton calls them. A very small number are arrested for failing to appear. "That work, where people completely fail to appear and need to be re-arrested, we contract out to Bail Enforcement or Bail Recovery Agents. We used to do that kind of work in the old days, but nowadays there is a special license for it; it's been totally separated from the bail-bonds business," Walton says.
"I'll tell you, though, it may not sound pretty, but we like domestic assault cases. These are cases where it's about emotion, and addiction is not involved. Those people, where it's just emotion, they tend to be the types who typically go to court—and that is what we care about."
During the 1960s, there was a movement away from using bail bonds and toward other types of pretrial release. But as Walton explains, a study conducted at the University of Chicago revealed that this move away from bail bonds was "not working well. Although several states, including Illinois, Kentucky and Wisconsin, had experimented with doing away with bail bondsmen—it was not a success." Walton states proudly: "Next to keeping people incarcerated, the finest system for ensuring your appearance in court is bail bonds.
"Nationally, the loss percentage is less than 1 percent that we [the bail bondsman] will not produce the defendant's appearance in court, in some manner. The pretrial-services percentage is about 10 percent. We are beating them. I'm not saying that the bail-bonds system isn't archaic and imperfect, but if the judge wants to assure the appearance of a defendant, it's a pretty good system. We, as a society, do not want to pay the money to hold people, we want them to be able to get on with life, and we also want to obey the Constitution."
However, Walton sees as the biggest current threat to the bail-bond industry similar experimental alternatives to incarceration. "Basically now what happens is if you have a first-time arrest drug charge, that is considered a nonviolent felony and you are booked and released. Then you go to some daily reporting center, and you stay clean and compliant. But if you don't comply, then you become a fugitive. So the net result is that by the time your family might deal with me, things have gotten a lot more expensive and everything is a much bigger deal. And, your family hasn't been involved from the get-go, which I think is a big mistake."
Walton has a punishment philosophy. That is, to "cause people some grief at the time of the grievance. People need jail and the threat of jail. I want you to go jail and reflect on your life and your behaviors right away—even if it's just for six or eight hours. You need to make immediate answer for your deeds."
And as a bail bondsman, Walton may sometimes follow his own moral compass. He tells the story of a woman trying to get her husband out of jail on domestic-abuse charge—for the third time in a row.
"I told her that I just couldn't help her. At that point, it starts to affect my social conscience. I can just say no and that is truly a luxury of this line of business," Walton says.
The strangest crime for which Walton ever posted bail involved a cohabitating couple who together made an adult home movie featuring each other in starring roles. When the couple broke up, the woman wanted the copy of the movie. Her ex-boyfriend, however, refused to give it back. "So then the girl gets her brother to go and beat up her ex-boyfriend and get the movie back. Her ex is then charged with assault, and that's who needed our services," Walton explains. "I was laughing with the attorney on the case, and we were joking that I should hold the movie as collateral. But I never got my hands on it."
The bail-bond business has changed in may ways over the years. "The business now—the emotions and personalities are out of it. It's not as much fun as it used to be. We don't get to know the defendants. It used to be that he'd walk right over and sign everything here. Now it's all done electronically, through fax and computer. The personalities have been taken away," Walton says in a sad tone. He also misses the personal relationships with the local legal community: "It used to be that Friday night you could go to the bar and you would see other judges, attorneys, bail bondsmen, the cops—we were all friends. Now I can't even get in to see a judge in his chambers if I wanted to."
The bail-bond industry today is fiercely competitive. In the 1980s, two bail-bonds companies did business in Salt Lake City, there are now 26. National franchise bail bondsmen are a relatively new, but strong, trend. These franchises, according to Walton, "make no effort to establish a local presence. The underwriting is done out of state and the people who are here in Utah are not making any case-by-case decisions."
Still, the pressure is on and Beehive competes—advertising on TV and radio—where Beehive boasts its own original music jingle. Walton tends to select stations playing hard rock music. Beehive tries to make sure that its clients, especially Spanish-speaking ones, are happy. "I won't hire anyone who isn't bilingual anymore," he says.
The crimes Walton sees have also changed. "When I started making a living, it was drunks, prostitutes and kids with traffic warrants," he says. "Now it's felony drug charges and charges of serious sexual abuse. The situations are more damaging. It's no longer the cowboy stuff of taking a swing at someone. Now, most of my clients are going to prison."
Yet some things remain the same. People who come into Beehive Bail Bonds are still "nervous and uncomfortable at first," Walton says, with a favorite dog, a white poodle named Cosita curled up under his desk.
"But then they see people wearing ties they see female faces, they see the dogs around and then they relax a bit. They can talk about other things than the situation at hand," he explains.
Walton adds that the advice his father gave him when he took over the business holds true: "My father said, 'Don't believe a word the inmates say. They will tell you they own the LDS Church.' They will say and do anything, underline do."
He loves coming to work every day. He believes that the bail-bond business is more fun than any other financial business.
Although he's concerned about current experiments in pretrial-release alternatives to the bail-bond industry, he knows one thing for certain: "The liberal alternatives of the 1960s failed and today's experiments in pretrial release will also fail. Jail is bedrock. Anything else is hope and a prayer."
Amy Vatner is an attorney and law clerk for Judge Monroe G. McKay of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Salt Lake City.
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