MAUMEE bail bond agent Mary Frances Smith had a bad feeling about the drug suspect.
But it was Christmas. And the man's mother wanted him home for the holidays.
So Ms. Smith, 44, agreed to cover the $25,000 bond needed to spring him from jail two years ago. But just as she feared, the suspect fled. Ms. Smith was rewarded with a sore head and a concussion when she and a colleague caught the combative man in a Toledo shopping mall.
But the veteran bail agent didn't give a thought to changing professions. "It's a good business," she declared in an interview.
A lot of other people apparently think so too.
The number of Americans competing for an estimated $2.5 billion in fees collected on $25 billion in bail bonds annually has shot up 50 percent the past five years, according to a top industry executive.
Today, more than 15,000 bail agents - up to half of them women - ply the trade popularized by modern-day swashbucklers like reality TV star Duane "Dog" Chapman, said Gene Newman, legislative chairman for the Professional Bail Agents of the United States. The number is up from 10,000 five years ago, he said.
Toledo is no exception.
The number of agents licensed in Lucas County has tripled to 26 since 2002, according to records at the Ohio Insurance Department. With colorful names like Blue Collar Bonding and You Walk Bail Bond Agency, new firms in recent years have hung out shingles near the Lucas County jail and throughout Toledo.
"It's very competitive," said Martin Pope, a 36-year-old University of Toledo political science graduate who opened his own agency last year.
Competition, which some in the industry describe as cutthroat, has led to accusations of illegal conduct against some firms.
Toledo's oldest bail bond group, Wittenberg Associates Agency Inc. - which is no longer owned by the well-known Toledo family who founded it in 1902 - faces the loss of its license after Ohio insurance regulators accused it of violating state laws.
State insurance superintendent Ann Womer Benjamin contends that the firm illegally used an unlicensed agent to pass out its business cards and recruit clients on four occasions between 2001 and 2005. A hearing on the charges is scheduled Thursday in Columbus.
Wittenberg officials declined to comment. At least two other local firms face similar charges.
Part of the profession's appeal, said Toledo's Mr. Pope, is the mis-conception that "you get rich overnight." In reality, "It's a quick way to go broke," he said.
But agents who know how to evaluate a prospective client's risk of flight, who have a strong system for keeping track of clients to make sure they make court appearances, who are known around town, and who have good contacts in the legal community can earn a nice living.
Agents in large cities can make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, according to the Professional Bail Agents organization. But the average income nationwide is $25,000 to $50,000, the group said.
Top agents in Toledo make significantly more than the national average, according to people in the business.
Mr. Pope's office, above a downtown Toledo print shop, defies industry stereotypes.
A votive candle burned slowly in the white-washed reception area. A photograph of a young boy playing a trumpet hung on the wall. The magazine selection included Sports Illustrated but also Men's Vogue, People, and Better Homes & Gardens.
Mr. Pope and other local bail agents said that Mr. Chapman's A&E TV network show, Dog the Bounty Hunter, is unrealistic because the star spends too much time pursuing suspects who have fled.
"If I'm doing that, I'm not making money," Mr. Pope sniffed. "I make money getting people out of jail."
To spring a suspect from jail, agents in Toledo and most other places charge 10 percent of the value of the court-set bond.
A 2001 Ohio law that increased training requirements for agents and refined licensing outlaws use of bounty hunters and so-called "recovery agents" to pursue fleeing subjects. That task is left to the bail agent personally, licensed private investigators, or off-duty police officers, said Ms. Smith, the Maumee bond agent.
In the nearly three years since he got into the business after a brief post-college career in sales, Mr. Pope said, only five of his clients have jumped bail.
"I'm a businessman," said Mr. Pope, whose slogan is "We'll come get you" and whose company logo depicts a cartoonish, potato-shaped character stepping out of a jail cell. He works throughout northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.
Risks are high, he said.
Although bond agents are backed by insurance companies, the agents bear most of the risk if a suspect flees and the court demands payment on the bail bond, according to insurance executives.
Under contracts with insurers, agents are required to deposit a portion of the 10 percent profit from each bond they write into a build-up fund. Ideally, when a suspect successfully flees, the fund is large enough to cover the bond.
When the fund is too small, the agent must dig into his or her own pocket. The agent will then try to recover the money by going after real estate or other collateral put up by suspects or their families.
Insurance companies are typically on the hook only in situations where the bail bond agency goes broke, agents said.
UT sociology graduate Eric Hill, a bail bond agent for 3 1/2 years, recalled an incident when he stormed into a home to capture a fleeing suspect. Only after he caught his breath did he spot the reception the man had waiting for him: a shotgun, out of its case, propped up against the door jamb.
More scary, however, were the early days in 2004 after he started his own agency, Blue Collar Bonding.
"Most people in this business have money to start with," recalled the 34-year-old. "I started off with a wing and a prayer. If I had to do it all again, I'm not sure I could."
He was attracted to bail bonding not because of the excitement portrayed on TV shows and films but because, he said, "I wanted to be an entrepreneur since I was 12."
The son of a retired auto worker and a youth job counselor from Elyria, Ohio, he was introduced to the profession by a family friend. But when he informed his parents of his career choice, "I caught all kinds of flak," he recalled. "My mother said, 'Why don't you get a real job?'
"After they saw I was serious they gave me their full support."
Unlike older generations of bail bondsman, he hasn't shunned the limelight.
Mr. Hill has advertised extensively in newspapers and on radio. He also gets a leg up from the location of his Toledo office: directly across the street from the county jail.
He came up with 60 possible names for his business before settling on Blue Collar Bonding. "It signifies hard-working," he explained.
It hasn't hurt that he is African-American. Blacks account for a disproportionate share of jail inmates, he said.
He plans to open satellite offices elsewhere in Ohio.
Interest in the profession has grown in recent years, he said. "Defendants ask me, 'What does it take to be a bail bondsman?' I say, 'Do you ask your doctor what it takes to be a doctor?'•"
Ohio law bars felons from entering the profession.
Because their fees are set by law in Toledo and many other places, agents say they must compete on service.
"It has caught on as a profession," said Linda Braswell, an agent in Stuart, Fla., who is president of Bail Bond Agents of the United States.
"It's profitable if you do it right. But it's a bail-bond way of life. You don't run the business, it runs you. I'm on 24-7. When my kids are playing baseball, I'm running down to the jail."
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