Monday, April 07, 2008

Dodge Bail Bonds

With his slicked-back gray hair and pastel suits, George Dodge looks more like Ben Matlock than Dog the Bounty Hunter, the muscled and tattooed bail bondsman-turned-reality TV star."That’s all movie stuff," Dodge said of the Honolulu-based show on A&E.

"It’s great for show, but it wouldn’t fare too well in the state of Missouri."

Dodge, who describes himself as "old school," operates differently than many people in the area bail bonding industry.

He doesn’t allow his agents to carry guns or Tasers, citing safety concerns. He said that’s one of the main reasons he has only gotten into two fights while collecting bounties in the past 26 years.

And Dodge is picky when it comes to selecting the clients and bonds he insures. He estimates his agents turn down three out of every five bonds that are requested.

"I’m old. I’m fat. I’m primed for a heart attack," Dodge said. "I don’t need all the adrenaline."

Dodge, who said he stopped hiring ex-convicts and snitches years ago, has a peculiar prerequisite when hiring new employees.

"I like to hire someone that’s a little greedy," he said. "Greed is going to make them kick their feet out at 2, 3 o’clock in the morning and write them bonds. A little greed kind of helps."

Dodge’s rules have served him well.

At 68, he is the oldest continually active bail bondsman in Boone County, having operated Dodge Bail Bonds since 1982. He now works out of his northeast Columbia home, taking calls on his cell phone at all hours of the night and sending his bonding agents all over Mid-Missouri.

At its height just three years ago, Dodge Bail Bonds employed 76 agents across the state, working in all of Missouri’s 114 counties. Now, Dodge said he has cut back. His son, Monty Dodge, moved to Rogers, Ark., and Dodge said he’s content to run a one-man operation, only taking the bonds and clients he wants. Now, Dodge Bail Bonds has some 20 agents who work Mid-Missouri. There are four agents, including Dodge, who work in Boone County.

But what Dodge - a former building contractor and Randolph County sheriff’s deputy - is maybe best known for among police, prosecutors, judges and suspected criminals he works with is being a straight shooter.

"I had a guy I arrested one time tell me that ‘They can take your money, take your life, but they can’t take your word away,’ " Dodge said. "That sort of stuck with me."

Dodge was born and raised in Moberly and attended Kirksville State Teachers College, now Truman State University, in the 1950s. A social science major, Dodge dropped out after his junior year when he realized a humanities degree wouldn’t "quite meet my expectations salary wise."

He then worked 15-plus years as a building contractor - before the housing market went south in the 1970s - followed by a nine-year stint as a sheriff’s deputy in Randolph County.

"Hell, I wasn’t doing much of anything except piddling with selling a house here and there," Dodge said. "And then I run into" former Sheriff Orville Price "and asked him if he needed to someone to work, and he said sure."

Dodge retired as a nighttime captain in 1982 at the insistence of his wife of 49 years, Ilene.

Once he left the sheriff’s department, his former co-workers poked fun at Dodge’s new line of work, he said. At the time, Dodge was one of only three general bail bondsmen in Boone County.

But his new job, he would tell his ex-colleagues, had its benefits. " ‘You boys get up at 2 o’clock, chase down a guy who wants to fight you. His girlfriend bites you, his parents cuss you out, his dog growls at you, and you don’t get paid a damn cent more for that because you work by the hour,’ " he said he told them. " ‘I get up at 2 o’clock and bail the old boy out, and he loves you. His girl hugs you, his parents shake your hand, his dog wags his tail at you, and I get paid extra.’ "

Dodge Bail Bonds has been a family affair - his two adult sons, 48-year-old Marty and 49-year-old Monty, and his wife all have worked as bonding agents for him at one time or another.

But Marty, who has his own excavation company in Hatton, wasn’t really "cut out" for the family business, Dodge said, and Monty recently moved with his wife and kids to Arkansas.

So in recent years, Dodge has branched out from the bail bonding business. He owns a title loan business with four locations in Mid-Missouri and several pasture farms in Callaway, Chariton, Cooper and Randolph counties.

For a short time, Dodge also was a newspaper publisher as part owner of the North County News-Leader, a weekly newspaper that serviced Centralia and northern Boone County.

It was a lofty venture, and Dodge admits he "didn’t know a thing about newspapers." The paper’s office closed in April 2002 - about two months shy of its one-year anniversary. The failed venture was just another testament to where Dodge’s strengths lie.

"It’s not all peaches and cream, like sheriffing, but some people are cut out for bonding, and I guess I’m one of them," he said.

Dodge is one of 139 active general bail bond agents in Missouri who oversee the state’s 858 active bonding agents, said Emily Kampeter, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Insurance.

Industry experts say agents are an odd mixture of career criminals and former law enforcement officers. In recent years, Dodge said, the bail bonding business has become increasingly competitive with agents "looking to make a quick buck."

The growth has created some substantial problems, especially for state regulators. Bail bonding agent applicants who have been convicted of a felony within the past 15 years are barred from receiving a license but, in years past, the state Department of Insurance has had some discretion in granting licenses to ex-convicts.

A change in state law in 2006 requires bail bond agents to submit fingerprints on all applications and renewals. State officials have tried unsuccessfully to regulate the bail bonding industry even further - including a failed attempt in the General Assembly last year to require all bail bonding agents to report a felony arrest within 10 days, Kampeter said.

"It’s not the intent of this administration to allow discretion regarding felony arrests," she said.

Jack Hastings, a 39-year-old former Ashland and Boonville police officer, works full time as the head of security at Stephens College and moonlights as a bail bondsman for Dodge. He said the bail bonding industry - including Boone County’s 28 active bail-bonding agencies - is rife with problems.

"When I interviewed, George came across as a really good guy who did everything by the book, which is different than what I’ve seen," said Hastings, who has worked with Dodge Bail Bonds for about 2½ years.

Hastings, who worked as a police officer for 13 years before becoming a bondsman, said he quickly learned one of the vital tricks of the trade from Dodge - a good bond is all about the co-signer.

"A good co-signer is someone who is either going to pay that bond if that person runs out or help us find him," Hastings said.

"One of the first questions I ask is, ‘Where do you work?’ If it’s a mother who says she’s worked at University Hospital for 10, 15 years, I think it’ll work. But if it’s a girlfriend who wants to get her boyfriend out of jail, and she works at Wendy’s - well, you and I both know she’s not going to be able to pay that bond."

Hastings, who said a good part-time agent can make upwards of $20,000 per year, said he goes to painstaking lengths to vet his bonds and, as an insurance policy against clients who fail to show up in court, takes 10 percent of his earnings and puts it in an escrow account for a rainy day.

Dodge, Hastings and other agents said they’ve built up their client base largely through word-of-mouth.

Rodney Kemp, the 37-year-old owner of MO Music Records, said Dodge is a helpful, friendly and, most importantly, honest bail bondsman.

"It ain’t just about the money with him," said Kemp, who has previous drug and assault convictions dating back to the early 1990s. "He’ll try to help you. Back in the day, I got into trouble, and I didn’t have a lot of people to show how to do things better, but George did."

But trust is a hard commodity among bonding agents these days, Dodge said. In light of a record-breaking $750,000 bond posted for murder suspect Kristopher Prince in September, the 13th Judicial Circuit, which includes Boone and Callaway counties, overhauled its bonding rules in January.

Under the new rules, the court performs a more thorough check on whether a bail bonding agency working on an inmate’s behalf has enough assets to post a surety bond. The circuit clerk’s office also requires administrators to be contacted if a bond of more than $250,000 is posted, and those bonds can only be posted between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The bond for Prince, who is in custody at the Boone County Jail on charges of second-degree murder and three weapons offenses, was posted on a Sunday. Prince is accused of killing 17-year-old Teddarian Robinson in April.

As a result, Boone County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Knight has called for more cash-only bonds for criminal suspects arrested in connection with violent crimes. That has some bonding agents, such as Dodge and Hastings, worried.

"Things aren’t like they used to be," Dodge said. "It used to be a better business, but you’re not always going to make a ton of money."

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