In the Event of Flight

Days and nights with a bounty hunter

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.

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