They call them bounty hunters. What they hunt is people.
People who have failed to make court appearances and once again are wanted by the justice system.
It is the responsibility of the bail bondsman to return the fugitive to the justice system, and that's where bounty hunters — or bail agents — come into play.
Sometimes all it takes is a knock on the first door. Other times, it takes days of tracking and planning. And some days, it's a fight.
Ryan Lopez is the founder and backbone of Pursuit Team OKC, a four-man operation that tracks down, snares and returns fugitives to jails in the counties where they're wanted.
In a field that lacks licensing and is encumbered by little regulation, Lopez is as professional as they come.
He stands just over 6 feet tall. On the job, he wears a tactical vest with the tools of his trade — including pistol and Taser — secured to its front. Even without the vest, Lopez is formidable. He bears a considerable amount of muscle on his solid frame and walks and talks with the confidence of a fighter.
It could be because he has been reining in bail jumpers since he was a college student and has had a fair share of scuffles with them. Or it may be because he has more than 25 mixed martial arts bouts and a couple of boxing matches under his belt. Inside the cage he's known as “The Hunter.”
An easy catch
It's late in the afternoon May 7 when the Pursuit Team has its first target of the day: A man wanted for failure to appear on a controlled dangerous substance possession charge.
The address on the bail bond is the first stop.
Lopez and Eric London, his right-hand man, take the steps leading up to the second-story apartment. Tjay Nikkel and Mike Parsons run around back and keep their eyes on the windows. It wouldn't be the easiest escape route — and the risk of injury from jumping down onto the parking lot is there — but as Parsons says, some guys will do just about anything not to go back to jail.
Lopez pounds on the door and announces himself in a voice that echoes off nearby buildings like a loudspeaker. If anyone is inside, they definitely heard him.
A minute or so later, a man opens the door. It's their target.
A television inside the apartment is tuned to an episode of “Cops,” but the rest of the apartment is clear and they allow the man — Fred — to lock up before being cuffed and put in the back of the team's Dodge Charger.
He's polite and apologetic, and makes no excuses or attempt to talk himself out of capture.
“I'd say half of them are like that ... Most of them don't fight,” Lopez said.
“We get at least one every day. Ideally, it's more like two or three,” Nikkel said.
The team members' demeanor immediately changes. The shock-and-awe aggression dissipates as quickly as it appeared. Some concern is shown for their bounty's comfort, and they give him no more hassle. An easy $200 bounty that took only moments to snag.
“Most of them don't deserve to be treated badly,” Lopez said.
The long hunt
“About 90 percent of our files, I know where they could be or where they're going to be before I ever leave the house,” Lopez said.
But Christopher Arterberry is not one of those cases. Arterberry, 42, is a felon accused of threatening to blow up Integris Southwest Medical Center hospital while he was visiting a sick relative, court records show.
He was charged April 4 in Oklahoma County District Court with making a bomb threat and a warrant was issued for his arrest. According to the probable cause affidavit, Arterberry told hospital workers that he “hated Oklahoma” and he was “going to blow this (expletive) up” after he received some bad news about the relative's condition during a March 8 visit.
Arterberry's extensive criminal background includes multiple cases in which he was either a suspect or was arrested on complaints of domestic violence, homicide, pointing a firearm, rape and injuring a child, the investigator reported.
Pursuit Team OKC was tasked with his capture by a local bondsman.
“We have to chase all of them when we're hired by the bondsman, and we have to be hired by the bondsman. We don't get to pick and choose,” London said.
Arterberry eludes them for about two weeks, vacating locations where he was spotted before they arrive. Tips are chased, surveillance is placed and knock-and-talks are employed to try to roust him out of hiding.
“Pretty much all we had was the co-signer's address. We hit that house multiple times, so we were trying to burn that bridge for him,” London said. “He was laying really, really, really low.”
Then they got lucky.
On May 10, an informant spots Arterberry at the Buy For Less at NW 36 and MacArthur Boulevard. The team gets into position. London spots him, radios to the other members and closes in.
“He started to the north, and that's when Ryan blocked him in with the car. He thought about running for about a split second, but once he saw Tjay and Ryan get out of the car, he thought better of it and lay down,” London said.
“It's rewarding, especially picking people up for drug trafficking or child abuse. That's better than getting paid. You're getting scum off the street. But, at the end of the day, they're still people too,” Lopez said.
As seen on TV
The bounty hunter image conjured by American television tracks the last kind of fugitive — the one who runs or hides.
And there are plenty of those, Lopez says.
They suspect their collar on May 14 is one of them.
The team tracks Wesley Baker, 36, to a pawnshop near Britton Road and Western Avenue. Two of them are in one car, and the other pair in a second vehicle. They watch Baker and his girlfriend as they walk back to his home.
Lopez decides not to try to snatch him along Britton Road, fearing he may bolt into traffic. But the neighborhood provides too many escape routes as well, so the team eyeballs him walking down his street and into his home from a distance.
Since they have seen him enter the residence, they can breach it — or go inside — to retrieve him.
Nikkel and Parsons take their positions in the backyard. London and Lopez take the front.
Lopez pounds on the door, giving Baker a chance to surrender. The offer is declined.
So Lopez and London storm the back entrance of the home, clearing the back part of the house quickly and cornering the woman in the front room of the house. A knife on the table is flung out of grasp, and the pair head to the darkened second story.
They test walls for hollow places, look under beds and behind closed doors. About five minutes of searching ends fruitlessly. But they know Baker is inside and the other members of the team radio to confirm that he has not fled the home.
London begins scouring a closet foot-by-foot, stamping down on blankets, clothing and other items that are piled a few feet deep.
He suddenly spots Baker and starts screaming. Lopez rushes toward them. They quickly apprehend and handcuff Baker, leading him downstairs and giving him a moment to say goodbye to his girlfriend before heading to the Oklahoma County jail.
At the jail, he is allowed a final cigarette in the parking lot before being booked on warrants stemming from failure to appear in court on charges of possession of a stolen vehicle, obstructing an officer and possession of a controlled dangerous substance.
“There's nothing bad I can say about these guys. They've done their job, and they've done it well,” Baker said.
In the state of Oklahoma, no licensing is required to bounty hunt, but it does require the authorization of the bondsman who holds the bond for the fugitive.
“The law says you've got to have a certified copy of the bond,” said Dudley Goolsby Jr., president of the Oklahoma Bondsman Association.
“A bond agent makes a contract with the state and with the defendant. That's where the bondman's authority comes from. There's usually something in there about bounty hunting, finding people and arresting them,” Goolsby said.
“A bounty hunter is not in the business to serve warrants. That's reserved for police officers,” he said.
Oklahoma City police Sgt. Jennifer Wardlow said bounty hunters don't cause law enforcement problems.
“I've never heard anything negative from our end, that we've ever had any sort of an issue with them,” she said. “I think we work fairly well with them.”
Lopez says that they inform police about lengthy surveillance operations and other circumstances which might require their involvement.
He said he enjoys the freedom of his job.
“The only way I can get fired is if I don't catch people,” Lopez said.