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When he goes out looking for fugitives, Evangelista assembles three or four freelance employees in his office (they usually have heavy builds and daytime security jobs and recovery experience), gets his gear and weaponry together, says, "Let me kiss my wife good-bye, case I get bumped off," walks into Florence's office and kisses her, and then leads everyone out to his van. He wears a black shirt that says FUGITIVE RECOVERY AGENT in tall yellow letters, a bulletproof vest, and a utility belt holding a canister of pepper spray, a flashlight, handcuffs, and an extension baton designed to strike joints and immobilize people without hurting them too badly. He normally carries a .45 caliber semi-automatic Auto-Ordnance Pit Bull pistol in a shoulder holster. Evangelista has never discharged his gun on the job; he has drawn it only a handful of times. He employs the FBI's use-of-force guidelines: subdue a fugitive first with your voice and hands, then with pepper spray, then with your baton. Firearms are defensive, to be used only if your life is in immediate danger and retreat is impossible.
When Evangelista climbs into his van, a 1979 Chevy C-20 with tinted windows and a carpeted ceiling and fake lamb's-wool seat covers, it's usually filled with food-associated trash, a shotgun wrapped in a blanket, and Frankie's car seat. The presence of the car seat always annoys Evangelista, who usually tells Chris to take it back up to the office or calls Bob on his cell phone to come down and get it.
The first few times I went out with Evangelista, we didn't catch anyone. The subjects of conversation in the van were women and past cases. ("Whatever happened to that Hindu guy with the busted leg we hooked up over in -- where was it? -- Jackson Heights?") Evangelista took calls from his family. Once, on the way to a housing project in Fort Apache, in the Bronx, Evangelista's cell phone rang. He picked it up, said, 'Oh, hey,' listened for a minute, and then said, "Yeah, no problem, I'll just stop at the local Entenmann's -- oh, wait, where am I? I'm in the Bronx -- there are no Entenmann's in the Bronx, Dana. What am I, Mr. Cake? Mr. Bake Sale? You want French crumb cake from me now?"
We generally went out at around eight in the evening with a collection of addresses and got home at around five the next morning. We didn't catch anyone because the fugitives had moved or consistently used a single phony address or else nobody was home, in which case we'd watch the house for a few hours. Evangelista had a manila folder for each fugitive; while we waited, he studied the contents of the folders obsessively, muttering to himself. When he knocked on doors and spoke with residents, he did all the talking, his men standing behind him in their bulletproof vests and emblazoned windbreakers, his manner credulous and deferential: he apologized for intruding as he dug through his folder, and the pendulum of his badge, a golden seven-pointed star dangling prominent and bright from his substantial neck, amplified the illusion of conventional law enforcement swing by swing.
One time, we were staking out a house in the North Bronx when a drunk came up to the van and began commentating. "You all do a good job," he said. "Cleaning up the streets. Fireman is my most respected profession, though. Go into a burning building just to save somebody. My worst occupation is doctor and lawyer." Evangelista treated him with canny gentleness: if the guy had known anything, he would have become a snitch. In a derelict apartment building in Flatbush we woke a woman at four in the morning; Evangelista had a bad address. The woman, a Jamaican with a bandanna on her head and high-arched, severely plucked eyebrows, got upset. Evangelista explained his work. He said, "Ma'am, these things happen. I apologize. I'm just doing my job. What can I do? You want me to dance? Look, I'll dance for you." He began a sort of slow-motion minstrel shuffle, head bowed, badge swaying. The woman shook her head and gave a rigid little smile.
Not long after I met him, Evangelista called to say he had just picked up a fugitive and was detaining him in his office for extradition to North Carolina; if I wanted to come interview him, I could. When I got there and asked him about the prisoner, he said, "This kid's a good kid. He ran, but that was a few years ago. Now he's got a girlfriend, he's got a kid, a good job. But this thing came along and bit him in the ass. He might be doing serious time. You might not want to mention that -- he don't like to talk about it. But he's got weapons charges and criminal possession of a controlled substance with intent to distribute -- that's very serious charges down there."
The prisoner's name was Andre; he was twenty-three. Evangelista had shackled him to a desk in one of the smaller offices. Light chains ran from his cuffed hands to his cuffed legs. Andre was lean and had narrow eyes and a cursory goatee. He spoke without inflection, in a penitent tone. I shook his hand and thanked him for talking to me, and he said it was all right, he believed strongly in God and was trying to make his peace with what had happened. Then he pointed to a pack of Newports on the desk and asked if I could light a cigarette for him.
Andre smoked his cigarette and told me that his charges were four years old and that he had completely changed since then, which he attributed to the influence of his daughter. He'd grown up in Brooklyn; after high school he'd gone with his girlfriend to North Carolina, where he had relatives. Soon he started selling crack. By the time he got arrested, increased competition had made his job especially dangerous, and his girlfriend, who was seven months pregnant with his daughter, had decided to return to Brooklyn. He followed her and left his case behind. Now he was a department-store manager; he was in his second semester at New York Tech; he'd just bought his girlfriend a $2,000 engagement ring.
Evangelista's younger son, Frankie, wandered in. Frankie has a wiglike mass of hair and an unwavering, wide-awake stare. The intense fluorescent lighting in Evangelista's office made him look preternaturally bright-eyed. He walked up to Andre and said, "I like your shirt." Andre said, "I like your shirt. Mickey Mouse." Frankie said, "Cuff your hand?" Andre said, "Yep. What's that? You got a lollipop?" Frankie bowed his head bashfully and said, "Yeah." Andre said, "Where's mine?" Frankie ran away grinning and waving his wet lollipop, which glinted.
A few minutes later Evangelista poked his head in and asked Andre if he needed some food. Andre said Florence was making him a sandwich. Evangelista looked at me and said, "Hey, don't give him no candlelight!" and removed his head from the doorframe. Andre laughed and said Evangelista was a good guy. Chris, who is thirty-five and wide and low to the ground and sort of manic, and has a shaved head and a broad, dynamic face, walked in. He said, "Look, we're good to him because he's a good guy. Now they're gonna send him back and be good to him. You know why? Because he got his life straightened out." Florence, who is tolerant and outspoken and has long, light hair, brought in Andre's food: a turkey-and-cheese sandwich and some potato chips and a Coke. Chris looked at Andre and said, "You tell them, 'I'm trying every day. I got a wife, a kid, a job. I was just a kid. And people change.' In a way it's good that you're getting this over with. You're trying to better yourself, and that's gonna count for something."
Andre was quiet for a moment, and then he said, "Yeah. I mean, I never forgot I had warrants. As soon as I seen Tom at my door, I knew what it was. But I was happy with my daughter and my girl, so I figured something must be right, and if the time comes, it comes. But my girl, she told me she and my daughter will be waiting for me when I get out, so that was the best thing I could hear. But she's a beautiful young woman. She just -- even when we're out together ... Put it this way: she could have anyone she wants. She's smart, she works at a bank -- she don't have to ask nobody for nothing. About to graduate college. So I have to realize, if I lose her because of this, it's not her fault. She's a winner. She's the type of female -- if a guy was smart, he'd take care of her and my daughter. That's part of why I didn't turn myself in. Didn't want to lose her. I gambled and I -- I guess I mostly won. I raised my daughter from one day to three years. She knows who I am. The roots got planted."
VANGELISTA didn't really know what he wanted to do in life until after he left college -- his parents couldn't afford to put him all the way through. He took a job in a department store spying on shoplifters from concealed perches. It was an entry-level position, but his instincts were uncommonly good. He relished the galvanizing stealth of the work, and identifying crooked employees -- who had exploited access-granting contracts that left the stores vulnerable -- satisfied him more than anything he'd ever done. From then on he sought work that offered comparable moral satisfactions. Within a few years of getting the department-store job, Evangelista had become the chain's regional security manager. He foiled employee credit-card scams. He orchestrated undercover buy-bust operations at flea markets: when audits revealed discrepancies, he would rely on snitches to finger the thieves and identify the fences' markets; store security men would go buy the merchandise back with marked bills, setting the fences up for arrest. One Christmas, Evangelista broke up a half-million-dollar Cabbage Patch doll ring. Demand for the dolls was so high that the stores kept them in a padlocked storage room and required customers to pay first and give their receipts to a guard, who would retrieve the dolls. Still, one store was steadily leaking dolls. Evangelista staked it out and soon observed the manager standing on the roof lobbing scores of cartwheeling dolls into an idling produce truck with high slatted sides.
If he could have kept that job, Evangelista told me, he would have died a happy man, but after he'd been there ten years, the chain folded. He sold insurance for a while and eventually became an investigator for the insurance company, again pursuing crooked employees. One day he was wandering the Internet and came across a site called World's Most Wanted: Bail Jumpers and Fugitives -- a list of identities and rewards posted by bondsmen. Evangelista tried to locate a New York fugitive using the personal-information databases he had access to as an insurance investigator; he found the fugitive, made some money, learned that he could legally capture and detain any bail jumper he located and thereby make a lot more money, and that was pretty much it: within the year he had quit his job.
Since he started tracking fugitives, Evangelista hasn't wanted to do anything else. He never gets tired of the work, and wishes he had started doing it earlier. He appreciates its antic strangeness and puzzles of concealment and the adrenaline it produces. He also experiences bounty hunting as a kind of moral tonic: it restores a necessary balance to society. Evangelista is partial to the symmetry of Old Testament morality.
The antecedents of certain of Evangelista's beliefs about covenants and retribution are traceable to his family, which has always been big and multi-generational and close-living and feud-riddled. He lives in a 3,500-square-foot house in Medford, on Long Island, with his wife, his kids, his mother, his nephew, and his brother-in-law. The feuds suggest rigorous notions of loyalty and betrayal: Evangelista has been estranged from his mother for several years, but he recently added a wing to his house for her private use; he is not on speaking terms with his sister, but it is her ex-husband, Bob, who lives and works with him.
All Evangelista's grandparents came to the United States from Palermo, Sicily's principal city -- his father's parents in 1914, his mother's parents in 1916. Evangelista's paternal grandfather and great-uncles all carried guns. What they did in Sicily remains a mystery. When he was a kid, Evangelista would ask his great-uncle Vito, who had owned a few acres of olive trees in Sicily, why he carried a gun. Vito would say, "Before I came here, I used it to shoot the olives off the trees."
Evangelista's oldest son is named, according to Sicilian tradition, after Evangelista's grandfather, Salvatore. Evangelista described Salvatore to me this way: "He was five feet tall if that, but he was tough. He had hands like frigging anvils. And he always had a stiletto with him he brought from Italy. It was one of them pop-up jobs, real pearl handles, and he was good with it -- he could turn around and shave your face before you knew what happened. He always drove a big Lincoln." One of the stories Evangelista likes to tell about his grandfather: Salvatore worked as a crane operator at the Brooklyn naval yard until he turned seventy, when he retired and bought a hot-dog cart. One day a teenager snatched his change box. Salvatore chased him down, caught him, dragged him back to the cart, put one of the kid's hands on the cutting board, and stabbed it so hard with the hot-dog fork that the fork went through the kid's hand and pinned it there. Salvatore called the cops, thinking they'd take the kid to jail; instead they took Salvatore. When Evangelista's father bailed him out, Salvatore expressed his desire for a Remington rifle with a silencer. He said, "I'll shoot him in the head and nobody'll hear nothing."
Evangelista recounts the significant stories of his life as parables, scores of which adorn his speech. He employs them on a rotating basis and steadily broadens the canon with new episodes. When he discusses his negotiations with criminals, he often wields the following parables:
Once, while staking out a house, Evangelista was approached by a crack addict who offered to collect information for eight dollars. Evangelista warned the addict that if he took the money and didn't produce, it would be the worst eight dollars he ever made in his life. Evangelista said he understood that addiction made it hard to honor commitments. The addict told him not to worry and disappeared with the money. On subsequent trips to the house Evangelista searched the neighborhood until he found the addict among his associates, and then ostentatiously thanked him for his help with the case. After the second or third time, the addict began begging Evangelista to take the eight dollars back and stop destroying his street credibility. Evangelista refused. Eventually a dealer got suspicious and the addict ended up in the hospital.
Evangelista bailed a homeless kid out of jail and gave him a clerical job in his office. He warned the kid that staying straight was the condition of his generosity. The kid was a good worker, and everyone in the office grew attached to him, including Evangelista. Then one day the kid stole some jewelry and hocked it, and Evangelista found out about it and threw him against a wall and cuffed him and took him to the cops and told him never to come near him or his wife or kids again. For a few days the kid called sobbing from his jail cell, pleading for a second chance. Evangelista hung up every time without a word.
Evangelista told me that although he felt bad about doing these things, the feeling didn't last long and he hadn't hesitated to do them: they were necessary; they were just. He speaks of them as fixed and neutral events: in his experience they have hardly migrated from the past. Nothing seems to haunt him, which explains his frequent incongruous occupational kindnesses. He offers fugitives legal advice and referrals to treatment programs and attorneys. When fugitives have demonstrably reformed or missed court for a legitimate reason, Evangelista petitions their bondsmen to reinstate the bail. He is the only bondsman in the city who allows clients to pay the bond deposit in installments and who accepts cars as collateral. I have heard him say to Florence, "I can't keep a kid in jail just because his parents can't find the car title," and watched Florence roll her eyes. And he often hands cash to clients who have spent their last dollars on the bond deposit. Evangelista offers these kindnesses impetuously but generally as a contractual condition. If the condition (court attendance, repayment, respect) is violated, he imposes a measured concoction of penalties (recapture, repossession of property, permanent disassociation) and leaves the incident there in the past. His high-risk generosity remains undiminished.
Evangelista uses the following parable to illustrate the necessity of immaculate capture:
Recently he and Chris and a former employee, Joe, spent two months watching the house of a Nigerian counterfeiter Evangelista had been tracking for the past year. Evangelista calls the counterfeiter Floyd, which is half of one of his aliases. According to NYPD detectives, Floyd, who is still at large, has a Ph.D. from Harvard. He recently helped design one of the largest bank-fraud scams in the history of New York City. Evangelista has never wanted anyone so badly. One day Floyd drove up in a gold Mazda Millenia, parked in the house's driveway, which abutted a busy street, and waited while a woman led five children into his car. Evangelista told me, "When I saw Floyd, the blood got to my head so quick if I'd have got out I probably would have torn his heart out. Chris and Joe are saying, 'Let's go! Let's go!' and I said, 'Shut the fuck up -- you see all those kids? You see that traffic? We're not moving.' They didn't talk to me for like two days after that. But if it don't look good and it don't smell good, it's probably not going to turn out good. You got to control your emotions if you want to ordain your destiny. Now, I could turn around and start taking chances, or I could turn around and start letting bondsmen pay me just to go get their money back, repossess collateral, but to be quite honest, my opinion of that is, if you're gonna turn around and do that, what do they need you for? Any idiot can stick someone in the ass with a screwdriver; any idiot can squeeze a fugitive for cash. The reason for the bail is to keep them from running -- you make sure they don't run, and if they run, you hook them up, professionally. Otherwise, what are you doing? Who are you?"
Evangelista worries about the future of his profession. In most states bounty hunting is unregulated, and he says he wouldn't trust 80 percent of the bounty hunters working today. In the past five years bounty hunters have broken into a vacationing family's Disneyland hotel room and accused the innocent mother, while holding a cocked gun to her temple, of being a fugitive prostitute. They have broken into the home of the wrong man and shot him in the hand, the leg, and the ear. And they have beaten a pregnant woman severely enough to precipitate a miscarriage.
Evangelista teaches a four-day bail-enforcement certification course that generally costs him money; he wants trained people on the street. He recently co-founded the United States Association of Bail Enforcement, which is dedicated to reforming the industry. USABE lobbies for legislation that would require criminal-background checks, certification, and licensing for all bail agents; it advocates the use of the synonymous terms "bail-enforcement agent" and "fugitive-recovery agent." A recent issue of USABE's newsletter, National Enforcer, carried an editorial by Evangelista under the heading "Message From the Vice-President."
On August 15th my office received a very disturbing e-mail concerning another incident involving "wanna be" bounty hunters.... It is obvious that these "wanna be" bounty hunters are untrained and do not know (or care) about the laws concerning the entering of third-party dwellings.... It is time that the trained professionals in this industry force the untrained "wanna be" bounty hunters out of business before the general public forces us all out!
BOUT the fifth time I went out with Evangelista, he caught someone -- a Russian named Nikolai who was forty-two and had no family and spoke no English and worked at a car wash in Central Islip, on Long Island. Nikolai had entered the country illegally; the Immigration and Naturalization Service had caught him, heard his case, and denied him residence. He had been out on bond during the proceedings; when the INS ruled against him, he agreed to voluntary deportation. He bought his plane ticket to Russia and showed it to the INS and signed his deportation forms, but he didn't leave. He got a refund on the ticket and went back to work. He was at work when I went with Evangelista and Chris and an employee of Evangelista's named Bobby to get him.
In the van Evangelista told me to unhook Frankie's car seat and throw it in the back. On the way to Long Island, Chris said, "Can we go through the car wash and then grab him? That'd be great. Hey, you missed a spot -- now put these on." We went to an office on Long Island to meet Nikolai's ex-boss and bond guarantor, another Russian, who had agreed to accompany us to the car wash and get Nikolai into a conversation so that Evangelista and Chris and Bobby could rush him. The Russian looked apologetic. He wore a silk Versace shirt and thick gold jewelry -- the gleams it threw off had a kind of fleeting weight. Evangelista asked him some questions about Nikolai's strength and temperament and instructed him to get Nikolai into the open. We followed the Russian, who was driving a customized late-model Range Rover, to the car wash. Evangelista said the Russian had recently sold the business; Evangelista thought he'd been bonding out other Russians held on immigration violations and employing them at the car wash, paying them starvation wages and charging them steep interest rates for the bond deposits he'd put up. The Russian drove erratically. Evangelista, beginning an old routine, said, "May the fleas of a thousand camels lay eggs on your face." Bobby -- who had just completed Evangelista's training course and was the little brother of another of Evangelista's employees and had hardly said anything -- said, "And may they hatch at the same time!"
Eventually the Russian pulled into the car-wash parking lot. We parked at the curb and watched. The Russian approached a van and began talking to the man in the driver's seat and then cast a few significant looks in our direction. Evangelista and Chris and Bobby, vested and belted, quickly surrounded the van. Evangelista slipped his hand through the window and slid the keys out of the ignition. For a while Nikolai didn't move. Then, with the intense deliberation of the resigned, he got out, unfolding his long limbs, and allowed himself to be cuffed. He wore old sandals and a red jumpsuit that said NU IMAGE CAR WASH AND DETAIL CENTER -- WE KEEP IT CLEAN! He looked older than forty-two: his hair was whitening at the temples, and his face was scarred. Vacantly he clutched a soiled toothbrush he'd been using on a detailing job. Chris took it from him. Nikolai spoke infrequently and with little modulation to the Russian, who translated. His sole concern seemed to be making sure that his pants weren't left behind. Chris went inside and got them. Like Andre, Nikolai had chosen to allow his life to become a contingency; now he seemed simultaneously relieved and grateful and stunned and anguished.
Evangelista led Nikolai to the van and fastened his seat belt for him as if he were a child. Nikolai said almost nothing on the ride back to Queens. When he was addressed, he gave rueful, constricted smiles of incomprehension. For long stretches we forgot he was there and talked about whatever came into our heads. With the clean capture the broken bond contract had been repaired, and Nikolai, eyes now closing, head beginning to loll, had become a symbol of restored symmetry.