Monday, October 20, 2008

Bondsmen Lose One Of Their Own

To this day, Richard Hodges is an enigma to former Austin police officer Burt Gerding.

Hodges, who died Oct. 6 at age 85, was a bail bondsman, someone Gerding bumped into frequently at the courthouse during the 1960s and '70s. In those days, if you were accused of a crime and couldn't make bail, you needed someone like Hodges to get you out. Judges wouldn't let you out on the promise to appear in court.

The job, and the way he did it, made Hodges a fixture at the courthouse during his heyday. The courthouse community was smaller then, and for a time, Hodges was the man you talked to if you didn't want to sit in a cell, according to those who remember him during those days. They said the brown-eyed, olive-skinned Hodges was a central character at the courthouse. He defied easy characterization by gregariously rubbing elbows with pretty much everyone there: cops, judges, prosecutors, celebrities, clerks, defense attorneys and criminals.

In exchange for a fee, usually about 10 percent of the bail, a bondsman vouches for a defendant, promising to pay the full bail amount if the accused doesn't appear in court.

"He did bonds for the Overton Gang, for Webbie Flanagan," said Gerding, who worked with FBI organized-crime investigators. "But then again, he did them for a lot of people. He was on the edge of everything."

The Overton Gang was a notorious clan of bank burglars, and John Webster "Webbie" Flanagan, the Overtons' lawyer, was among the attorneys with whom Hodges worked. Flanagan was later convicted on drug-smuggling charges.

Roy Minton, then a young criminal defense attorney, said Hodges established a profitable arrangement with some defense attorneys. Hodges would be called if a lawyer he knew found a client who needed a bail bondsman; conversely, one of the lawyers would get a call if someone Hodges bailed out needed legal counsel.

"To be honest," Minton said, "we abused (the arrangement) top, side and bottom in those days."

Frank Maloney, then a prosecutor, remembered Hodges as a scrupulously honest man. But his profession came with rough edges. Hodges' daughter Sheila Meeks, 52, recalled that one of his clients ran out on a $100,000 bond, leaving Hodges on the hook for the entire amount. Hodges hauled the accused drug dealerback from Mexico — and got a Christmas card from him every year, Meeks said.

"Daddy treated everyone respectfully, whether they were rich or poor," she said. "He was one of those people that everyone is drawn to."

Meeks said Hodges established a social network that included luminaries such as former Texas Gov. Price Daniel, Travis County Sheriff T.O. Lang and country singer Willie Nelson. "You'd think Daddy wanted to get a picture with Willie," Meeks said, "but it was Willie who wanted to get a picture with Daddy."

Away from the courthouse, Hodges hunted and fished, raised his seven children and pursued other business ventures. One of them was an establishment on East Sixth Street called Bar 609, where Hodges would sing and serve drinks to customers. He opened the place before the college bars moved in, at a time when, as Gerding put it, "that part of town was like Skid Row."

By the mid-1970s, changes in the law were making bail bonding a less lucrative business. Following a nationwide trend, the courts began releasing those accused of low-level crimes on the promise to appear in court. Other changes followed. Bail bondsmen began disappearing from the scene. Hodges' family said he continued bail bonding until the early 1990s, when he retired to his 138-acre ranch in Leander.

Courthouse regulars say Hodges began fading from the scene in the late 1970s — taking a little bit of its character with him.

"He looked the part," said Hodges' son, 65-year-old Richard Hodges Jr. "He played the part. He was the part."

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