In the Event of Flight

Days and nights with a bounty hunter

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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