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Fugitive Recovery

In The News Around the Nation

Law enforcement balks at cost of outlawing bounty hunting ( Click to read )

The Cincinnati Enquirer:( Full Article )

NEWPORT — Ohio bondsman Kevin Walker should be sentenced to a year in prison and $1,000 in fines for trying to arrest a Kentucky man in 1997 without going through proper channels.

That was the recommendation Tuesday from a Campbell Circuit Court jury that found Mr. Walker guilty of breaking a law that requires out-of-state bondsmen to have a warrant when attempting to arrest someone on out-of-state charges.

The jury also is recommending Mr. Walker pay $250 for misdemeanor convictions of assault and wanton endangerment. They suggested that fellow Ohio bondsman Justin Amyx pay $200 for a conviction of wanton endangerment. Sentencing is May 28.

Mr. Walker, 35, of Sardinia, and Mr. Amyx, 37, of Greenfield, originally faced charges of improper detaining, assault, wanton endangerment, kidnapping and burglary in connection with events Nov. 17, 1997, at the home of Allen Barkley of Newport.

 Assistant Campbell Commonwealth Attorney Richard Slukich said Mr. Barkley was in an Ohio jail in spring 1997 on misdemeanor charges. Bondsman Ray Trimble, 81, of Cincinnati put up $21,000 to get him out. When Mr. Barkley failed to appear in court, Mr. Trimble hired Mr. Walker to find him.

Mr. Walker called on Mr. Amyx and Timothy Smith, 35, of Mason to help.

Mr. Smith testified that the trio barged into Mr. Barkley's home with a pistol and stun gun and ordered several children into another room while handcuffing Mr. Barkley.

Newport police arrived and discovered the men were without a warrant.

Mr. Slukich said the trio behaved like renegades.

Defense attorney Ed Tranter cited a Supreme Court ruling that, he said, proved Mr. Amyx and Mr. Walker had a right to do whatever necessary to return Mr. Barkley to Ohio.

Mr. Smith and Mr. Trimble already have pleaded guilty to detaining a person without a Kentucky warrant.

More In News Around the Nation

Shot full of holes
How the case against three Kenai bounty hunters turned out to be as shaky as Alaska’s laws on justice for hire

June 1 - 7, 2000 / Vol. 9, Ed. 22


Ricky Welch, wanted man, spent the better part of October, 1, 1998 raking leaves and cutting weeds outside the Kenai Peninsula home where he was hiding out. Welch, then 31, knew the bail bondsmen in Washington he’d jacked for ten grand were on to him. Still, he hoped the long arm of the law wasn’t long enough to reach Nikiski.

He was wrong.

Just after 6 p.m. Welch finished his yard work and went inside to eat dinner with his aunt and uncle, who owned the home, and their teenage grandson, Lester. None of them knew that for the past half hour their house had been surrounded by three armed bounty hunters with a warrant for Welch’s arrest.

Minutes after the family members finished dinner and adjourned to the living room, David Cameron came around the side of the house and knocked on the front door. The family’s German shepherd began barking.

“Lester,” Welch’s uncle called out. “One of your friends is here.” (Unless otherwise noted, all dialogue in this story is taken directly from police reports and trial transcripts).

The front door was broken, so Lester, then 15, walked to the garage entrance and peeked his head outside.

“Over here, sir,” he said to Cameron. “The door’s over here.”

Cameron walked toward the boy and spotted Welch through a picture window. He drew his .45 caliber semi-automatic.

“Ricky Welch,” Cameron announced, coming into the house. “You’re under arrest.”

The dog growled. Welch and his uncle got up from the couch.

“What for?” Welch asked.

“You know what for.”

Cameron escorted Welch out of the house without incident and ordered him to lay on his stomach in the garage. Welch’s uncle, Donald Roberts, stood on a step and watched.

Inside the house, the dog had its hackles up. Welch’s aunt, Margaret Roberts, held its collar. She later said she was petrified with fear, and couldn’t see what was happening in the garage.

“Where’s Lester?” she asked her husband. “Where’s the kid?”

Lester was backed up against a washing machine.

“He’s right here,” Donald said. “He’s okay.”

Cameron cuffed Welch, frisked him and checked his ID. He also holstered his pistol.

“Do you have a warrant?” Donald asked.

Cameron did. One week before, a superior court judge in Lewis County, Washington, issued a writ for Welch’s arrest serviceable in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Alaska.

Welch’s trouble with the law began in April 1996, after a woman called the cops in Centralia, Washington and said Welch had threatened her with a gun. Police responded to the scene and surrounded Welch, who was sitting in a truck with a .22 caliber pistol.

The standoff lasted more than an hour. Once Welch surrendered, police recovered the gun, a magazine with four live rounds and a bottle of 151 proof rum from inside the truck. Lewis County prosecutors charged Welch with felony assault, then let him plead guilty to unlawful display of a firearm, a misdemeanor. The court released Welch on probation after he promised to seek alcohol-abuse counseling and not to own firearms, break the law, or leave Western Washington.

Welch broke his promises, violated his probation, got caught, then jumped bail and fled to Alaska. Three Kenai Peninsula bounty hunters were hired to get him back to the state of Washington.

The state of Alaska, however, would charge Cameron and his compatriots with far more serious crimes than Welch stood accused of. The men were tarred in the media as reckless vigilantes.

“The message we want to get out is that [bounty hunting] will not be tolerated in Alaska,” declared Dean Guaneli, Alaska’s chief assistant attorney general.

“This represents a serious danger to innocent people. Where this has been a problem Outside, it has usually involved basically untrained yahoos getting liquored up and kicking in the wrong doors... This is an area where we certainly don’t want to see a lot of freelancing.”

Guaneli made that statement before the bounty hunters stood trial two months ago and were acquitted on all counts. Their vindication received scant media attention compared to their raid on the Roberts house and the subsequent charges against them.

But the recent verdict has done little to dilute Guaneli’s adamant stance.

“Our bottom line is that bounty hunting is not permitted in Alaska,” he says now.

Yet a judge and jury recently ruled that Cameron and his compatriots committed no crimes — which isn’t surprising, given the hazy nature of Alaska law when it comes to bounty hunting.

This is similar to most states. Across the country, bounty hunting remains a quasi-legal undertaking where the violation of one law often appears to supersede the violation of another, and the interests of interstate justice often collide headlong, whether in the suburbs of Phoenix or the woods of Nikiski.

• • •

“Three men, including two guards from Wildwood Correctional Center, charged into a Nikiski home last Thursday... The bounty hunters were wearing camouflage clothes and toting two pistols and a shotgun... Three people — a man, his wife and a teenage grandchild — were home that night... They didn’t know Welch was wanted, and they had no idea why armed men were there...”

— October 8, 1998, Anchorage Daily News

The incessant phone calls to the Roberts’ house in the weeks prior to the bounty hunter raid were the bells that tolled for Welch.

Once a day or more, the Roberts’ phone rang with a bail bondsman or an upset women on the other end of the long-distance connection.

About two months before he showed up in Alaska, Welch had been re-arrested in Washington for not complying with his probation. He’d failed to pay fines, complete his community service or report to his corrections officer, as ordered by the court. He was jailed on $10,000 bail until his girlfriend convinced her friend to sign over her house to Northwest Surety, a bail-bond company. Northwest Surety put up the money to spring Welch, and Welch promised the court he would stay put.

Instead, he fled to Nikiski.

His girlfriend found out where he was, and so did Northwest Surety. The phone calls began.

Welch’s aunt and uncle later said Welch told them his former girlfriend was “psycho” and asked them to lie to her and her “friends” when they called. Donald and Margaret Roberts complied, telling callers they didn’t know where Welch was, or that he’d moved to Tennessee.

Margaret later remembered one phone call from Welch’s girlfriend in which the woman said Welch had violated his probation and jumped bail, and that bounty hunters might be after him.

Margaret said she figured the woman was crazy, just like Ricky said.

Meanwhile, Northwest Surety wanted their $10,000 back, which meant they wanted Welch back in Washington.

The Washington bail bond company contacted a bail bond company in Anchorage, which passed on the information to local process server Steve Arturo, owner of Anchorage and Mat-Su Processing.

Arturo joined the pack of dogged callers to the home in Nikiski. He says he once left his name and number, and another time asked Donald Roberts to pass on a message to Welch requesting that he give himself up.

Eventually, Arturo contacted David Cameron, then 45, who lived in Kenai and worked as a process server, and a corrections officer at Wildwood, on the Peninsula. Cameron had worked for Arturo before, and had 18 years’ experience transporting prisoners. Arturo offered him $1,000 to capture Welch.

Cameron understood bounty hunting to be a thorny issue, so he contacted the Alaska State Troopers and asked to speak to a desk sergeant (the following is from a Troopers dispatch tape).

“I don’t have anybody available,” the dispatcher said. “Can I help you with something?”

“I’m getting an arrest warrant sent to me by fax tonight for a fugitive of justice on a weapons charge. I’m going to go arrest this guy and I thought I’d give you guys a heads-up before I go do this.”

Cameron left his name, and also talked with Barry Ingalls, Sergeant of the Anchorage Warrants Unit of the Alaska State Troopers.

Ingalls told Cameron what he says he tells any would-be bounty hunter: Bail bondsmen or their agents still have authority, under an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court decision, to arrest fugitives, even across state lines, so long as they have the proper documents (in this case, a copy of the Washington state warrant for Welch’s arrest, amended by the state of Washington to make it serviceable in Alaska).

So Cameron began to put together his crew, starting with Ron Williams, then 54, a fellow Wildwood guard who had been a police officer in Oregon for 16 years and assisted bounty hunters as a uniformed cop. Williams agreed to go along for $100. A few hours before the two went after Welch, Cameron and Williams signed on Seth Oehler, then 28, who had just returned from a job on the North Slope and had recently applied for a job with the State Troopers.

Oehler grabbed a bullet-proof vest he’d purchased while he was a student State Trooper, along with a camouflage hunting mask and a 12-gauge shotgun.

Despite the armaments, Cameron later told Troopers, “If it got any kind of stupid, we were leaving. We weren’t going to shoot anybody... That was the most important thing.”

The most important thing to Welch, as he lay handcuffed on the floor of the garage, was that he was in stocking feet. He asked to go inside for a pair of shoes and Cameron told him no, then escorted him to Cameron’s Ford Explorer, with Oehler and Williams trailing. The four got into the SUV and drove away.

Donald Roberts was incensed as he watched them leave. “This is bullshit,” he told his wife. He grabbed his cell phone, got in his car, and followed the Explorer.

Then, for some reason, Roberts stopped and had a beer at the Place Bar on the Spur Highway.

Perhaps he mulled over his own legal situation for a few minutes before he called State Troopers from the tavern parking lot to report that his nephew had just been kidnapped from his house by three armed men. State Trooper Sgt. Dan Donaldson responded to the Place Bar a few minutes later and took a quick statement.

Meanwhile, the bounty hunters and Welch were in the parking lot of the Kenai Kmart, where Cameron had purchased a pair of size 11 slippers for Welch.

“I knew somebody was going to come and get me sooner or later,” Cameron remembers the captive saying.

Cameron gave Welch a cigarette and told him Steve Arturo was going to meet them and take Welch back to Washington. Then Cameron called the Troopers to inform them of the arrest. The dispatcher encouraged him to stay where he was, because Sgt. Donaldson was looking for him.

Donaldson pulled into the Kmart parking lot and got out of his patrol car. “I’ve got three people out here in Nikiski saying you guys pointed guns at em’ and scared the shit out of them,” he told one of the bounty hunters.

Donaldson questioned the trio for more than an hour, during which time Cameron showed the Trooper all the information he had on Welch, and detailed his conversation with Sgt. Ingalls of the agency’s warrant unit.

“I told my partners that this was all on the up and up,” Cameron told Donaldson. “After talking to the Troopers, I figured — hell, if you guys didn’t know what was going on, who would?”

Donaldson told Cameron that Sgt. Ingalls — the Trooper who explained the general authority of a bounty hunter — was an “idiot that talked out of both sides of his mouth.”

Then the Trooper pressed for details.

“[Roberts] said you had your face painted with camouflage.”

“No,” Cameron chuckled.

“The other guys have their faces painted?”

“No,” Cameron said. “Seth had one of those turkey masks where it leaves your eyes open... he was the last backup guy.”

“Where was your handgun?” Donaldson asked.

“It was holstered,” Cameron said. “When I went in the house, I had it out. I didn’t have my finger on the trigger. I was ready because I knew this guy was a fugitive with a weapons charge. I didn’t point (the gun) at anybody. I didn’t threaten anybody.”

Donaldson interviewed Williams later. “I’m a little bit angry about this,” Donaldson said. “I think you and (Cameron) should have known better. I’m not familiar with the process enough to tell you exactly how it’s supposed to be done, but the way this was done tonight is not how it’s supposed to be done.”

Donaldson told Oehler that he was going to forward felony charges to state prosecutors.

“I think you fucked up,” Donaldson said.

The Trooper noted that all three of the bounty hunters had beer on their breath (there are no laws in Alaska that restrict bounty hunters from drinking alcohol while bounty hunting). Cameron refused to take a breathalyzer. Oehler complied, and blew a .045. The legal limit for driving is .10. Apparently, none of the men were found to be intoxicated, as none was charged with a misdemeanor firearms offense.

Donaldson seized the bounty hunters’ weapons and released them on their own recognizance. Welch was taken into custody, booked at Wildwood Correctional, and later extradited to Washington where he served a 45-day jail sentence.

The investigating officer then drove to the Roberts house and interviewed the family together, noting their descriptions of men wearing face paint busting into the house, brandishing guns. They said a gun was stuck in Donald Roberts’ face, and Oehler pointed his shotgun at young Lester.

Donaldson later told a jury he made a promise to the Roberts that night. It went like this:

“I’m going to tell you folks and everybody else — ain’t nobody going to do no bounty hunting in my area.”

• • •

“Three bounty hunters who dragged a man from a Nikiski home at gunpoint last fall... stand accused by the state of kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, first-degree burglary and three counts of third-degree assault... The men are built like NFL linemen... Anchorage process server Steven Arturo, 34, who hired the three Kenai-area men, faces the same charges.”

— April 24, 1999, Anchorage Daily News

The Nikiski bounty hunting trial began April 6 before Kenai Superior Court Judge Jonathan Link. On cross-examination, defense attorney James McComas grilled Donaldson like a turkey melt.

“You testified earlier that you don’t know exactly what bounty hunting is,” McComas said.

“I still don’t know what that means,” Donaldson replied.

“Whatever it means — it’s not going to happen in your area, right?!” McComas shouted.

“It’s a form of vigilantism as far as I’m concerned — and it ain’t gonna happen in my area!”

Another attorney ripped into Donaldson’s police report, in which he wrote that Cameron “pushed” Lester out of the way when he went into the house — despite the fact that neither Cameron or Lester said it happened that way.

“You wouldn’t put any false facts in your police report would you?” the attorney suggested. “Now where did you get this ‘pushed’?”

“I don’t know,” Donaldson said. “It appears to be an embellishment.”

Welch fared no better on the stand. Like his aunt and uncle, Welch testified that the bounty hunters had on camouflage face paint. The defense then produced a police report of Welch’s initial interview with the Troopers, which had him saying the opposite.

“Well, it’s been 18 months,” Welch said. “A little thing like that can get mixed up.”

It quickly became clear that the state’s case was as riddled with holes as the news accounts of the bounty hunters’ actions were exaggerated.

The defense brought a number of contradictions to the jury’s attention, including:

• Margaret Roberts testified that she remained in the house throughout the events, and that two of the bounty hunters, Oehler and Williams, stayed in the garage, making it impossible for the pair to have pointed a gun at her.

• Donald Roberts, who initially said he saw Oehler point a 12-gauge shotgun at Lester, later conceded that from where he was standing, he could not actually see Lester.

• Lester positioned Cameron between him and the shotgun on a mock-up of the alleged crime scene.

• Lester also admitted he could not see Donald Roberts from where he was standing. Asked to explain how he then knew Oehler pointed a shotgun at Donald, Lester testified “because [Donald] told me he did.”

• Donald Roberts admitted that his initial claim that a gun was stuck “right in my face” was inaccurate.

On April 15, five days before the case went to the jury, Judge Link granted a motion by the defense to dismiss the charges of kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping and burglary, ruling the state had failed to make a case worthy of the jury’s attention on those charges.

On April 20, after a few hours of deliberation, the jury found the bounty hunters innocent of the remaining assault and trespassing charges. Shortly thereafter, the state dismissed its case against Steve Arturo.

• • •

“Despite their broad powers, bounty hunters receive almost no governmental oversight. At present, only six states have any licensing requirements for bounty hunters. For the remainder of the nation, bounty hunters are completely unregulated. No training or insurance requirements exist. There also are no conduct guidelines... Bounty hunters now make approximately 30,000 arrests a year...”

— September 22, 1997, American Lawyer Newspapers Group

Ricky Welch is back living with the Roberts in Nikiski. These days, he’s less worried about a sudden knock on the door than finding a steady job. He says he came back to the Peninsula after he served his time in Washington and that his parents have since disowned him.

“I’ve disgraced and embarrassed them,” he says.

Welch says he and the Roberts are still trying to understand how Welch’s warrant was issued for a felony, not a misdemeanor. It was a mistake made by the Washington courts, troopers and bounty hunters.

“I’m a nice guy. I’m a God-fearing person. I don’t lie. I wish that I would have handled things differently in 1996 and all this never would have happened.”

Welch plans to spend the summer with the Roberts, then go back to school somewhere to study electronics. Though contrite for his own transgressions, he has no kind words for the bounty hunters who brought him in.

“I’ve done something wrong and I’ve been punished for it. They did something wrong and they should be punished, too.”

Whether the bounty hunters who busted Welch were wrong is debatable. The actions of bounty hunters in other states the same year, however, are not.

For example:

• In January of 1998, bounty hunters broke into the Kansas City home of an innocent man and shot him three times.

• The next month, four bounty hunters stormed into the wrong house in Buffalo, New York, weapons drawn.

• In April, 1998, on two separate occasions in two weeks, the same bounty hunter in Providence, Rhode Island pulled a gun on innocent people.

• In July, in Colorado, a bounty hunter with a nasty criminal record handcuffed, shoved to the ground and put a pistol in the face of the wrong man.

• In August, 1998 a squad of five bounty hunters in black tactical uniforms and body armor broke through the front door of a Phoenix home with a sledgehammer, carrying a warrant for a California bail jumper who had no relation to anyone in the dwelling and had never been there. The owner of the home opened fire. More than 30 shots were exchanged and two people died: the home owner and his girlfriend. The five bounty hunters pleaded guilty to manslaughter.

Two months later, with U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde calling for congressional hearings to consider a federal law to license and restrict bounty hunting, Cameron, Williams and Oehler took down Ricky Welch and threw themselves into the recently-ignited firestorm.

Shortly after the Nikiski bust, Alaska State Rep. Fred Dyson introduced legislation for an outright ban on the bounty hunting of bail-jumpers in Alaska.

What was initially a simple bill, Dyson says, turned out to be a tangled mess — Do we want to limit a citizen’s right to make a private arrest? Do we want “people in black pajamas” knocking on our doors with semi-automatics? Do we want to turn the cops into bill collectors?

The bill died in committee this year, and Dyson doesn’t intend to introduce it again next session.

For now, it seems, bounty hunting is still legal in Alaska.

However, even though Cameron, Oehler, Williams and Arturo were acquitted, the message state prosecutors sought to deliver may have found its mark.

Williams, now 56, says he would think twice before accepting another bounty-hunting gig. After he was charged, he was suspended from Wildwood without pay, and eventually had to retire. He says his defense cost nearly $50,000 and devastated him financially because he couldn’t find a job.

“Who wants to hire somebody who’s under indictment for six felonies?” he asks.

Williams says his wife, a retired police dispatcher and dispatch trainer, has had to go back to work. She’s currently employed at a Tesoro refinery.

“It certainly caused a lot of stress for my wife that her husband might spend 99 years in prison.”

A few weeks after Arturo was acquitted, a local bail bond company asked him to help collar a fugitive whose Anchorage whereabouts were known.

He said no.

“No one’s willing to take the chance anymore,” he explains.