Monday, March 10, 2008

Bondsman Slain

James W. Woolfolk III finally had found his calling.

After years of working at the family's restaurant and in the construction industry, Woolfolk started a bail-bonding business in Feburary 2007 with his brother, Kermit.

"He loved it," Kermit Woolfolk said. "He really loved to do the pickups. I don't know if it was the thrill of the chase or what."

One of those pickups led him in the predawn hours Thursday to a house in the 2300 block of Joplin Avenue in South Richmond, a working-class neighborhood just off Jefferson Davis Highway. He was looking for a man wanted on a felony warrant for failing to appear in court on drug and other charges.

James Woolfolk never made it out of that house alive, a grisly turn of events that now weighs heavily on his brother's mind. Kermit Woolfolk had been invited to go along, but he had other business that needed attention.

Richmond police reported to the brick-and-frame rancher at 2:22 a.m. and found Woolfolk, 39, shot to death.

Woolfolk is the first bail bondsman killed in the line of duty in Virginia in the memory of people in the business.

"I don't remember it ever happening in Virginia," said Carl D. Armstrong, president of the Virginia Bondsmen's Association and a member of the state advisory board for private security services.

Bondsmen acknowledge the inherent danger in their business, and a scan of newspaper sources showed at least one killing of a bondsman last year in Miami.

Two others -- one in Tennessee and one in North Carolina -- were killed in the line of duty in 2002. But such cases appear to be rare.

James Elbert Carr, the man Richmond police believe was responsible for Thursday morning's shooting -- and the man Woolfolk was tracking -- surrendered several hours later after police said he held seven people hostage in a house several blocks from the shooting scene and about a block from an elementary school.

Carr, 20, will appear today in Richmond General District Court in Manchester to be arraigned on a murder charge.

He had been arrested in January on a felony drug-possession charge and three misdemeanor charges. He was released on bond on those charges but failed to appear in court Feb. 20.

Woolfolk was attempting to arrest Carr to make the bond good. The warrant listed the house on Joplin Avenue as Carr's home address. A law-enforcement source said Woolfolk was alone when he entered the house, and he was allowed into the dwelling without force.

. . .

Kermit Woolfolk said when he and his brother started Woolfolk's Bail Bonding, James worked full time. Kermit kept his night-shift job at a manufacturing plant and helped James during his off hours.

Kermit Woolfolk is haunted by his last conversation with his brother, who called Wednesday evening before he went looking for Carr.

"He asked me what time I got off work and if I wanted to go with him on a pickup," Kermit recalled.

But Kermit had two other bonding cases to attend to, so James Woolfolk -- 6-foot-4 and solidly built -- went to Joplin Avenue without his brother.

"I guess he wanted me to go along with him," Kermit said softly, wiping away tears.

Nothing in state law requires a bondsman to be accompanied in apprehending someone who has skipped bail, but it is standard practice.

"You just don't do it by yourself," said Armstrong, a bondsman for more than 20 years who works for Duvall Bonding Inc. in Fairfax County.

The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services will investigate Woolfolk's death and whether he operated within the rules established by the state since it began regulating the bail-bond business almost three years ago.

. . .

The homicide investigation turned into a hostage standoff just after dawn Thursday, when police used a tip to track Carr to a relative's house a few blocks away in the 1800 block of Joplin, near Oak Grove Elementary School.

Police said Carr was holding four small children and three adults hostage in the house.

They surrounded the house, cordoned off the area for blocks around, and prompted the school to delay opening.

Children walking toward school were sent home. School buses were diverted to the Arthur Ashe Center.

Police began talking with Carr around 6:30 a.m., and he surrendered about 8:10 a.m. Police recovered a gun from the scene.

"They did a terrific job of locating him and getting him into custody without incident," said Chief Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Matthew P. Geary, who will prosecute the murder case against Carr.

Woolfolk was a graduate of John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond and was taking classes at Saint Paul's College in Lawrenceville, said Alicia Rasin, a family spokeswoman who has known the Woolfolk family for years.

Woolfolk is survived by a 14-year-old daughter.

He had worked at Woolfolk & Sons Seafood Restaurant, which his family has operated for more than 30 years on Mechanicsville Turnpike. He also had worked in the plastering business with his father James W. Woolfolk Jr., who also had served as a bail bondsman.

A few hours after Carr's arrest, Kermit Woolfolk sat in a television room of his Chesterfield County home and struggled to find the right words as he recalled his brother and business partner. "Just a great person," Woolfolk said. "Everybody loved him."

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