Assault, drug dealing: Many Iowa bail bondsmen have checkered pasts

As seen in the Sunday Des Moines Register, April 30, 2017

In June 2016, Cedar Rapids police responded to a 911 call reporting a kidnapping on the Kaplan University campus.

Witnesses told police that two assailants armed with shotguns had attacked a man, loaded him into a silver Volkswagen and driven away.

The windshield of a student’s car was broken in the scuffle. The campus was placed on lockdown.

The assailants turned out to be Lord Stephen Alexander Range, 33, a bail bondsman from Cedar Rapids, and an associate, who were apprehending a bail jumper.

The pair was stopped by police hours later, after they’d dropped their subject at the Linn County Jail. A 12-gauge shotgun loaded with rubber buckshot and a .45-caliber handgun loaded with bullets were found inside the vehicle.

Police arrested Range’s associate, a convicted felon who was the subject of active warrants out of Buchanan County. But Range, who had an expired permit to carry a weapon, was not arrested, and the incident did not affect his state-approved authority to issue bail bonds and pursue those who fail to pay.

From high-speed chases to reports of assaults, bail bond agents have made headlines across Iowa for controversial tactics, prompting even those within the industry to question how the state licenses and regulates them.

A Des Moines Register review of 192 Iowa surety bond license holders revealed that nearly a quarter had at least one criminal charge or conviction in their past, ranging from minor offenses including public intoxication and criminal mischief to more serious crimes such as assault and drug distribution.

“It was fascinating to me how many bail bondsmen I have found that are convicted felons. It’s absolutely extraordinary,” said Jeffrey “Kip” Fennelly, a former Warren County sheriff’s deputy who now works as a bail bond agent. He owns Custom Solution Investigations, based in Indianola, and is an assistant wrestling coach at Simpson College. “(They’re) continuing to hold onto their license and have the keys to the people in jail that they’ve been in jail with.”

Gilbert James Campbell, a licensed bounty hunter and

Bondsman vs. bounty hunter

The issue, according to some involved in the industry, is whether state lawmakers ever intended for bonding agents to be the people who track down sometimes dangerous fugitives.

In Iowa, bonding agents are licensed by the Iowa Insurance Division, which also licenses the state’s insurance agents, financial advisers and funeral services agents.

There are few requirements to get a license. An applicant must be at least 18 years old, take an exam, pay a $50 fee and pass the same background check required of the 116,000 other licensed insurance producers in the state.

State law lists 18 reasons the division may deny, suspend or revoke a license. Most involve violations of insurance laws and other financial crimes like forgery, as well as failure to pay college loans or child support. A felony conviction precludes most applicants, but the insurance commissioner has discretion to grant a license to applicants with a felony record.

Insurance Commissioner Doug Ommen admits that some applicants who should be disqualified are getting through the system, and license holders who are charged with crimes are not reporting their offenses to the division as required.

“There may be people on the rolls that, if that application were to come to me, I wouldn’t give them the license,” he said.

Not all of the state’s surety bond license holders are involved in the bail bonds industry. Other types of businesses use bonds, such as a construction company that gets a license to assure a financial lender on a project.

According to the insurance division, it has no way to determine how many of its license holders are issuing surety bonds to bail clients out of jail.

Those who do typically require that clients put down 10 percent of their total bail amount. If the client shows up for court, the bond is exonerated and the bondsman keeps the 10 percent as a fee. But, if the client doesn’t show, the court holds the bondsman responsible for the total bail amount.

When someone skips out on court, a bail bondsman has two options: Pay the court or track down the client and drag him or her back to jail.

“That bond has to be paid by somebody,” said James “Texas Jim” Hendrickson of 1 Bail Bonds in Winterset. “It’s in your best interest as a bondsman to get the money back.”

But Iowa has a second type of license — for bounty hunters — to govern individuals who apprehend wanted fugitives and bail jumpers for reward money.

The Department of Public Safety issues bounty hunter licenses through a more stringent licensing process. Applicants must submit fingerprints that the department uses to conduct a national criminal history check. Anyone with a felony or aggravated misdemeanor conviction is denied a license.

Iowa has only 30 licensed bounty hunters.

“If you have a person who is making a living out of chasing people down, you would want to ensure this is a person that has not had fairly serious criminal convictions or convictions of moral character,” said Ross Loder, chief the Department of Public Safety’s Program Services Bureau.

But that’s not always the case in Iowa because so many bail bondsmen are doing the hunting. And the insurance division does not run the same national background check as the Department of Public Safety.

The insurance division does not have the authority under Iowa law to fingerprint applicants for background checks. The insurance industry has fought attempts to change the law.

“Fingerprinting and criminal background checks would actually be a benefit across our regulatory responsibility,” Ommen said.

Bonding agents must reapply for licenses every three years. According to the insurance division, criminal convictions typically come to its attention when applicants self-report them or when they are reported by a third party, such as an insurance company that fires an agent.

“Even improving (reapplication) from three years to two years would increase the likelihood that we’re going to move those people off of our rolls more quickly,” Ommen said.

A long history of arrests

Troy Thacker, the owner of Bail Bonds Pro on Southwest Ninth Street in Des Moines, was involved in a recent high-profile incident that involved the death of a Des Moines man.

But his criminal record goes back decades.

Before he began hunting down bail jumpers, Thacker served at least two stints in Iowa prisons in the 1990s for charges of drug possession with intent to deliver and domestic assault with intent or displaying a weapon.

After being released in 1999, he racked up additional convictions:

  • October 2001: He was charged with extortion and eventually pleaded guilty to first-degree harassment. He received a two-year suspended prison sentence and two years of probation.
  • July 2002: He pleaded guilty to possession of anhydrous ammonia and received a five-year prison sentence. (Anhydrous ammonia is a common farm chemical that can be used to make methamphetamine.)
  • August 2002: He was charged with domestic abuse assault, child endangerment and assault with a weapon. He was convicted on the abuse charge and sentenced to two years in prison.
  • September 2002: Convicted of drug possession. He received a five-year prison sentence.
  • December 2002: Convicted of second-degree harassment. He received a one-year sentence.

The sentences from his August, September and December 2002 convictions all ran concurrently, and he was discharged from parole on May 11, 2005.

The Iowa Insurance Division approved Thacker’s application for a surety bond license in 2008.

“The division is satisfied that sufficient time has passed without another criminal conviction,” reads a consent to work in insurance signed by former Insurance Commissioner Susan Voss. “The applicant has proven adequate rehabilitation and suitability to enter the insurance marketplace.”

Contacted this week, Voss couldn’t recall Thacker’s case, but said there is no bright line on what types of felonies are permissible.

Since his initial application, Thacker has had more run-ins with the law.

In January 2010, he pleaded guilty to second-degree harassment and spent 25 days in jail. In May 2015, he was pulled over for a traffic infraction. A police officer reported spotting a Taser inside the vehicle. After the car was towed, officers said they found four more Tasers. He was charged with possessing the devices without the required permit, according to the criminal complaint.

Thacker’s company posted his $2,000 bond, and the court ultimately dismissed the case, citing a lack of evidence to prove the charges.

In July 2016, Thacker was involved in an altercation with the boyfriend of a client he’d bailed out of the Polk County Jail, court records show. According to a police report, a man later identified as Thacker approached Ryan Thompson in the driveway of a south-side home and struck him once in the face.

Witnesses reported hearing the assailant say “you owe me money.”

Thompson, who was described as dazed after the punch, made it back inside his house. When police officers arrived, he was speaking unintelligibly and slurring his words. He died a day later at Iowa Methodist Medical Center.

Polk County Medical Examiner Gregory Schmunk later determined that Thompson died from a hemorrhagic stroke likely cause by the large amount of methamphetamine in his system. When he died, Thompson’s blood-alcohol content was 0.118 and he had traces of marijuana and Ecstasy in his system, an autopsy showed.

The death was ruled accidental.

In October, Thacker was charged with assault for the punch after Thompson’s girlfriend came forward as a witness. He admitted to hitting Thompson but claimed he acted in self-defense.

Thacker told law enforcement he had walked up to Thompson and had a short conversation, according to the criminal complaint. When Thompson made a move toward him, Thacker said he punched Thompson in the face.

Thacker pleaded not guilty and a trial was set for Jan. 30, but the case was dismissed with prejudice at the request of the Polk County Attorney’s Office, meaning charges cannot be refiled at a later date.

“The only eyewitness has been very inconsistent in her statements regarding the events such that her credibility has been compromised,” the county attorney wrote. “We cannot reasonably prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Reached by phone this week, Thacker told a reporter that he would call to set up an interview, but later did not respond.

The Thompson family is considering whether to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against Thacker in civil court.

Sharon Rife, Thompson’s aunt, has one question she wants answered: “How can you be a bail bondsman when you’ve been a convicted felon?”

Self-regulating industry

Louis Savelli, a former New York City police sergeant who now lives in Iowa, is among those who believe Iowa needs tighter regulation of bail bondsmen.

“Nationally, as far as law enforcement is concerned, there are a lot of sketchy people out there in the bail bonds industry,” he said. “There should be more checks and balances.”

Savelli has a bounty hunter license for his West Des Moines-based business, Homefront Protective Group Inc., but he rarely does that kind of work. He is more involved in private investigations and security, he said. Savelli also teaches law enforcement courses and serves as an expert witness during trials.

“This is a small populated state (and) resources are really spread thin,” he said. “But guys with criminal records should not be involved in the bail bonds industry.”

Brian Johnson, co-author of a Grand Valley State University study that looked at the bail bonds industry in all 50 states, said the business is largely self-regulated. In some states, judges can deny a bond company from issuing bail bonds. And, insurance companies, which back surety bonds, can raise rates or drop bail bond companies if their practices are questionable, he said.

“Are there questionable bounty hunters out there? Sure,” Johnson said. “But when you start taking a look at this, it’s a multimillion-dollar profession. The industry pretty well regulates itself.”

Fewer than half of states require bail agents to be licensed, with varying requirements as to age, criminal history and experience or education in the field, according to the Grand Valley study. Eighteen states have no laws governing the industry. Four states — Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky and Oregon — ban private bail bondsmen entirely. California is considering scrapping most of its monetary bail system, a proposal opposed by the bail bonds industry.

Florida has some of the strictest licensing requirements and prohibits the traditional bounty hunter role. The state insurance agency offers three types of bail bond licenses. Applicants are fingerprinted and must be free of felonies or crimes punishable by imprisonment of one year or more.

“It’s really based on honesty and integrity,” Savelli said. “If you have that part of the system fail, like any other part of the criminal justice system, you could have witnesses killed, you could have investigations compromised, you could have judges’ orders circumvented, warrants circumvented. A whole bunch of things could go wrong.”

Missing child support payments trigger revocations

One trigger for license revocation that appears to work well is when the Iowa Department of Human Services flags a bonding agent for failure to pay child support.

Range, the agent involved in the Cedar Rapids incident, had other run-ins with the law that didn’t affect his license. For example, he was charged in October 2014 for assault while displaying a dangerous weapon. He was accused of assaulting his wife and another person while displaying a handgun. A no-contact order was lifted on Feb. 9, 2015, and Range pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and was fined $65.

But his license wasn’t called into question until the Department of Human Services notified the insurance division in December 2015 that Range wasn’t paying child support. His license was suspended on March 31, 2016, and reinstated on April 22 after Range complied with DHS terms.

On June 23, 2016, Range was again charged with assault while displaying a dangerous weapon after allegedly threatening to shoot a woman at her home in Hiawatha. His permit to carry a weapon had expired four months earlier.

“The defendant was identified as a bail bondsman who was trying to locate a subject with an active arrest warrant,” a Hiawatha police officer wrote in a criminal complaint.

Three days after the Hiawatha incident, on June 26, officers responded to the fight at Kaplan University.

Range again kept his bonding license, until he was flagged on Dec. 2, 2016, once more for failure to make child support payments. His license was suspended, and Range has not reapplied, the insurance division confirmed.

The Register reached out to Range’s attorney, Assistant Linn County Public Defender Sara Smith, who said she passed along the request for an interview to her client.

What changes are needed?

According to Ommen, Iowa law does not allow the insurance division to hold bail bondsmen to a higher standard than any other surety agent licensed by his office. His plan is to hold everyone accountable, he said.

“I’m going to be involved in proving they demonstrated that they’re worthy of the license,” said Ommen, who was appointed insurance commissioner in December.

Jacob Lederman, the owner of Lederman Bail Bonds, said he wants to establish a state bail bondsmen association to help the industry regulate itself.

His company operates in five states. It opened a drive-through location near the Polk County Jail in 2015.

(Lederman’s company made headlines in Iowa on April 23, when an employee of Lederman Bail Bonds was found dead inside the company’s office at 518 S. Capitol St. in Iowa City. The body of Jonathan Wieseler, 34, reportedly had “multiple sources of trauma.” His death is being investigated as a homicide.)

Lederman told the Register in March that the bail bond industry saves law enforcement and the court system time and money by chasing down wanted fugitives.

“I feel this industry has a couple bad apples, but we have to remember that one or two bad apples doesn’t ruin the bushel,” he said.

Lederman and other bondsmen said county clerks of court should serve as the first line of defense against those bad apples.

Court clerks play an important vetting role after the insurance division licenses bondsmen. They require bondsmen to show proof they own a business, have the backing of an insurance company and have paid off any debt to the courts, including traffic ticket fines or victim restitution.

If they’re free of debt, the clerk’s office places the bond companies on a certified list posted at all jails and law enforcement agencies in the judicial district.

“If the clerk sees enough complaints, they should do something,” Lederman said. “I think they don’t do that as much in Des Moines.”

Anne Sheeley, who was appointed Polk County clerk of court in January, said her office refers complaints to the insurance division, which has an online complaint form.

The insurance division said complaints filed against its licensees are confidential. It refused a request by the Register to release the number of complaints leveled against bond license holders.

Beyond background checks, Savelli, the former New York City police sergeant, wants to see the state institute training requirements for all bail bondsmen and bounty hunters. Some in law enforcement agree.

“If they want to operate and have an industry that’s parallel to us and does at times get dangerous people off the streets, that’s great,” said Des Moines police Sgt. Paul Parizek. “The problem becomes when you have inexperienced, untrained people trying to deploy tactics that are sometimes aggressive and they go haywire.”

Hendrickson, the Winterset bond agent, is skeptical that any changes will actually happen.

“We’re their dirty little secret,” he said. “Nobody wants anything to do with regulating bonding agents.”

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