In the Event of Flight

Days and nights with a bounty hunter
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THE first time I met Tom Evangelista, he was sitting at his big desk, arguing over the phone with his son Sal's principal, waving a cigarette and occasionally blowing smoke out his nostrils. Evangelista is forty-three, which he looks. He has spacious, experienced eyes and a granular voice. He's not big, but there's something palpably unflinching about him. On his right forearm is a time-blurred tattoo: a black, undulant, many-lipped rose with the word Evan beneath it. Evangelista was upset because the principal had lined up Sal and Sal's classmates and searched them for a stolen calculator. The calculator hadn't been recovered; there were no suspects. Evangelista said into the phone, "I'll tell you something: I find it very disturbing that anyone could just search my kid for a ten-dollar calculator. It would be like me going down the street and searching anyone remotely looks like a fugitive I'm after." He glanced at a copy of the pertinent state law -- his lawyer had faxed it over -- and grimaced. He listened to the principal for a while and then said, "Look, I'll come in and take his drawers off him for you -- I'm his father. Just call me up. But you have no legal right to search my kid unless it's on suspicion of drugs or guns." He was strident but not disrespectful. When he felt he'd made his point, he thanked the principal and hung up. "Should have had him arrested," he said. "This is state law in New York. State law! I read it three times, I called my lawyer, I called the station house and asked if this was legal. You know what they said? They said, 'Nah, that's not legal -- you want us to go arrest him?'"
It disturbs Evangelista when people break the contracts that just laws assume; it disturbs him when people break the covenant of mutual decency implicit in most human interaction. For a decade he has been engaged in tracing and capturing people who have become fugitives by jumping bail. He has cleared around 1,500 cases. The bail bondsmen who hire him when their clients have fled, and other bounty hunters who know of his work, say that he has better instincts and a better case-capture ratio than anyone else they know. An NYPD detective Evangelista has collaborated with told me that Evangelista seems to have more skill than anyone else in the business. Three people have permanently escaped him: two to foreign countries (Jordan and El Salvador, which don't cooperate on extradition) and one by the grace of a Chinese millionaire, who paid off a $15,000 bond in cash. Evangelista has never been hurt on the job and he's never had to hurt anyone. He attributes this to cautiousness and patience. He often knocks theatrically on wood; he's insured for $5 million. He works mainly in New York City, New York State, and the neighboring states of Connecticut and New Jersey, but cases have taken him to Arizona and the Dominican Republic, and he says he will go anywhere in the world in pursuit of a fugitive if the bail is high enough and conditions are favorable to capture. Evangelista gets 10 percent of the bond amount for a surrendered fugitive; he has made as much as $50,000 on a single capture. He'll turn down a promising case only if a sharp photograph of the fugitive is unobtainable.

I was referred to Evangelista by a bail bondsman I had called on a whim, not quite believing that bounty hunters existed outside of frontier myth. Evangelista agreed to talk to me; he was interested in dispelling the myth. His office is on Queens Boulevard in Kew Gardens, which is in central Queens, just north of Ozone Park and Howard Beach and JFK Airport. In this section of Kew Gardens the eight asphalt lanes of Queens Boulevard are generally crowded and brisk. Deep multi-story structures -- the dialysis unit of Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, the Queens County Civil Courthouse, Doshi Diagnostic Imaging Services, the monolithic Queens House of Detention -- overhang the street; the scattered storefront awnings belong to bail bondsmen and lawyers and salesmen of legal forms and body armor and engraved plaques recognizing the achievements of policemen. The curves and subdued rises of Queens Boulevard and the consecutive sides of its large buildings stunt the sightlines up and down the street, which has qualities -- a constancy of engine noise and traffic-displaced air and a tendency to suggest solemn processes unfolding inaccessibly in the buildings all around -- that make a casual pedestrian lonely.

Evangelista works in a spare, gray-carpeted, externally unidentified suite in a 500-unit pale-brick apartment building. The first thing you notice in the waiting room is a big two-inch-thick Plexiglas shield with a circle of sound holes crudely drilled into it, through which all visitors are visually identified before being buzzed in. The waiting room has two chairs and a little table with magazines (Life, Harper's Bazaar) on it. Beyond the waiting room the suite holds a makeshift living room and four offices; one of the offices has a sofa bed with an especially heavy steel frame to which fugitives can be shackled. When Evangelista is forced to detain a fugitive overnight, the fugitive sleeps chained to the sofa bed while Evangelista sleeps on another sofa bed in the living room.

Task Force Fugitive Recovery Agency is the complex name of Evangelista's company. (Evangelista recently got his bondsman's license; he now simultaneously tracks fugitives and bails defendants out of jail.) The business is a family operation. Evangelista's wife, Florence, and his brother-in-law, Bob, are its chief administrators. His nephew Chris works with him in the field. Sal, who is fifteen, and Evangelista's other son, Frankie, who is four, often loiter around the office, pestering him affectionately.

Evangelista sits at the biggest desk in the biggest office. In the desk is a copy of an essay his seventeen-year-old daughter, Dana, wrote about heroism when she was fourteen, in which she declared, "I will forever regard my father as my true hero." The words "You can Run but you can't hide" slide endlessly across the screen of Evangelista's computer when it's on but he isn't using it. In the distance behind the computer rises the granite face of the Queens House of Detention, with its many small, impenetrable windows.

Cases

THERE are perhaps 3,000 bounty hunters working in America today. They recover a majority of the people who jump bail each year. One bounty hunter recently became a specialist in locating deadbeat fathers. Another beguiled a fugitive with a phony certificate of presidential amnesty. A man from Arizona traveled to West Hollywood and posed as a rabbi to get an elderly mother to reveal the whereabouts of her son. A New York bounty hunter had a holding cell built into his motor home. A woman from New Jersey went to Atlanta, put on a hat and gloves, and attended a church service in order to handcuff a fugitive minister sweating at his pulpit.

Evangelista's cases are often strange and dicey. He has told me of approaching a fugitive who lay in bed waiting for him, a high-gloss black wig listing on her head and a samurai sword under her pillow. He has watched a fugitive's children scurrying to bury their father beneath dirty laundry. Once a fugitive zipped himself into a portable plastic closet; Evangelista noted the minute respiratory expansion and contraction of the closet walls. He has watched a fugitive fill his boat's cabin with propane rather than sign the boat title over to the bondsman Evangelista represented; Evangelista had given up arguing and called the cops and gone home when the explosion lit the dock and leveled the adjacent sailboats like a big hand (the fugitive was killed). Once he broke into the padlocked room of a professional car thief and found, amid tumbled pristine car-stereo equipment and scores of master-key rings, four steering columns mounted on heavy wooden blocks: practice sets. For two solid months two years ago about half the fugitives Evangelista caught declared they'd found Jesus and thanked him. Once Evangelista went into twenty crack houses looking for one guy. He has negotiated crack houses whose clustered booby traps included pits with glass-blade-embedded floors concealed beneath carpeting, and trip wires (of extremely fine fishing line) that released pit bulls or spring-loaded maces. In insular communities mobs sometimes try to kill bounty hunters; Evangelista once escaped a mob the police could barely contain. On several occasions, approaching the door of a staked-out house, he has felt the hollow, chilly tip of an undercover cop's service revolver against his neck.

Here are some of Evangelista's many investigative precepts. Scan cell-phone conversations just after someone has denied knowledge of a fugitive's whereabouts -- the person will probably try to brief the fugitive. Never go after a guy as he's entering his house -- let him go in and feel the peace of his sanctuary for a few minutes, and then knock on the door. Take a drug addict when he's in the deepest depths of sleep, usually around noon. Never forget what an excellent source of detailed personal information trash is -- if a fugitive's addresses are stale or questionable, begin surveillance in the garbage. Be respectful and polite whenever possible, and do not abandon this manner when making threats involving financial or legal action. Page a fugitive (a high percentage depend on beepers) using a special tracing service called a trap line, which immediately yields the location of the phone used to return the page (the fugitive gets a generic message telling him the person he's calling is unavailable).

Also, avoid complicated confrontations like brawls and shoot-outs and car chases at all costs -- if you can't isolate and surprise a fugitive, go home and try again another day. Remember that behavior tends to be repetitious, and concentrate on human connection -- serious illness and significant holidays and pregnancy and sexual desire and the vulnerability of small children all draw fugitives to their families and friends and lovers. If a fugitive takes prescription drugs, search his last known residence for pill bottles, noting the pharmacy address and refill date (collaborating with the pharmacist, who can stall the fugitive by telling him his prescription won't be ready for a few hours, is always a possibility). If financial desperation may be distorting a fugitive's thinking, or if he might be particularly gullible, send him an advertisement-like card telling him he has won something, such as an expensive TV, and how to claim it. (The most famous episode of this kind of baiting, Evangelista says, was orchestrated by the U.S. Marshals Service, several years ago. The story goes like this: a high-level Mafia boss who had flipped agreed to pretend that his son was getting married. He sent invitations to fifty East Coast bosses and their families. The Marshals Service created a lush phony wedding, at which the bride and the priest and the best man were all marshals. The event unfolded lullingly, its true nature finally revealed in the reception hall by the best man, who toasted the groom and then asked the guests not to move, as the many patient, smoothly tailored marshals drew their guns.)

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