Crime

Boise bounty hunters kill their target, allegedly impersonate police: ‘It didn’t have to end in a tragedy’

Ninety minutes after a briefing on his first bounty hunter operation, Christopher Schulthies fired five shots at Philip Clay, hitting him at least four times.

Clay, 58, died March 15.

By his own account, Schulthies had no experience in bail recovery, and his security career consisted of six to eight shifts as a bouncer at a nightclub, working weekends for VETS Security.

Details of the bounty hunters’ efforts to track Clay were gleaned from police records and interviews conducted by the Post Register.

Bonneville County Prosecutor Danny Clark announced last week that Schulthies would not be charged in Clay’s death.

Schulthies was the last member to join a group of bounty hunters tracking Clay, a fugitive with a warrant out of Ada County. He had skipped out on a $100,000 bond on felony drug charges.

Led by Guy Bracali-Gambino, the tracking tactics employed by the bounty hunters in the days leading up to the shooting have been criticized by an expert, as well as nearly everyone they encountered.

According to police documents, those tactics included harboring a fugitive, unlawful search and seizure, and impersonating an officer. Clark said an investigation is underway into alleged illegal actions that preceded the shooting.

“It appeared to be once again that Guy was trying to play law enforcement so he could apprehend Philip,” wrote Bonneville County Deputy Randy Flegel in his narrative report. “At this time I lost all trust in Guy due to him continuing to lie or be deceptive with us. I told Guy he needed to stop contacting dispatch at their request and to stop contacting the Sheriff’s Office due to his lies and deceptive behavior.”

RUNNING OUT OF TIME

The day Clay was shot was the last day the bounty hunters could have retrieved Clay and collect a reward.

In Idaho, bail bond companies have 180 days to apprehend a fugitive before the bond is forfeited. If they failed to bring him in, the $10,000 — to be split between the six bounty hunters — would disappear.

Rob Dick, a California bounty hunter and bail enforcement instructor, said that as time runs down, bounty hunters can exhibit more risky behavior.

“In your mind you would kind of want to pull out all stops,” Dick said. “... On the last day, we don’t have time to wait around. You might be quicker to do things or take more chances.”

According to officer summary reports, law enforcement officials said the bounty hunters’ plan, which included apprehending Clay while an innocent woman was in the car with him, was unacceptably dangerous.

“We spoke with Guy and explained (to) him the risk of injury or death with the information he had at this time, was not worth the risk to deputies,” Flegel wrote. “We explained to Guy that at this time, Philip was not harming anyone and there were too many unanswered questions.”

Gambino and his crew did not heed Flegel’s warning.

‘PLAYING LAW ENFORCEMENT’

Gambino and Mike “Bubba” Moore arrived in Idaho Falls from the Boise area the morning of Friday, March 13, and quickly started staking out Dad’s Travel Center, near the house of one of Clay’s relatives. Within hours of their arrival, according to police reports, they had unlawfully pulled over Leslie French, a relative of Clay’s, and her juvenile son while wielding assault rifles.

Video obtained by the Post Register shows Gambino and Moore pulling over French. During an interview with Deputy Michael Williamson, French said two of the bounty hunters started banging on her car, pointing their weapons at her and her son. They demanded to search the car and the trunk. After finding nothing, they drove off.

Shortly after, Gambino and Moore showed up at Richard and Jamie Ockerman’s house, Clay’s son-in-law and daughter, with badges and guns. According to the Ockermans, Gambino introduced himself and Moore as federal agents of some sort.

“We were thinking it was something really serious, because of the feds being here. That’s what they made us feel like, like they were some type of federal marshal,” Richard Ockerman said.

The Ockermans let the bounty hunters into their residence. According to interviews and police reports, Gambino said his team could travel around the world and do whatever they wanted to apprehend Clay, including “bomb” the house. There were several children present at the time.

According to police documents, many of Clay’s relatives reported similar experiences.

INTERACTIONS WITH LAW ENFORCEMENT

From his first day in town, Gambino had been in contact with law enforcement officers. Criticism of Gambin’s and Moore’s tactics are littered throughout officers’ narrative reports.

Deputies began investigating reports of the bounty hunters pulling over and detaining civilians.

Perhaps the most scathing account came from Flegel, who met the bounty hunters in person in a parking lot at 535 E. 17th St. in Idaho Falls the day before the shooting. Gambino’s group had grown to four. Bounty hunters Kathleen Flores and Alfredo Arreguin had driven over from Boise. Gambino repeatedly asked for the Sheriff’s Office to be the “strong arm” during the operation to get Clay.

Moore told investigators that Jennifer Estrada, who was close to Clay, approached them willing to participate in Clay’s capture because she “wanted to get her life straight and wanted to see her kids.”

Estrada had warrants out for her arrest, and Gambino tried to talk deputies into calling a judge to get her warrants dismissed in return for her help in apprehending Clay.

During the meeting, Gambino proposed a plan whereby Estrada would be driving Clay and deputies would pull over the car during a traffic stop and arrest Clay.

“I asked Guy where the female was that had the local warrants,” Flegel wrote. “Guy stated, ‘We don’t know where she is at’ and did not want to tell me. I told Guy he would be charged with harboring.

“I expressed to Guy that Philip (Clay) will know he was set up if they allow the female to pick him up and all of a sudden the county is stopping them. I told Guy that I would not put the female in a vehicle with a suicidal and armed subject and put her life at risk of being shot because Philip was mad that he was set up. I expressed to Guy that it was not worth it.”

Flegel also told Gambino to obey the law.

“I explained to Guy if we find he is making traffic stops he will be arrested for impersonating a police officer,” Flegel said.

LAST-MINUTE ADDITIONS

That night, Gambino and Moore ran into VETS Security owner James Eggleston at the Shilo Inn, where he was working security. The two started talking, and Moore said Eggleston told him he was a police officer in a nearby county. Moore then told Gambino that Eggleston was a cop and the pair recruited Eggleston to join their effort.

Eggleston agreed, and asked Schulthies whether he was interested as well.

“Yeah, of course, why not?” Schulthies said.

When deputies asked Schulthies what the plan had been, he said, “You know, bounty hunter-type deal.”

Also during the Sheriff’s Office investigation, Schulthies said Eggleston was a “former cop.”

Eggleston never has been a police officer. During an interview with the Post Register, Eggleston could not explain how his comrades got that impression.

Eggleston also said he wasn’t concerned with Schulthies’ lack of experience.

“We wouldn’t have taken him out there if we felt it was going to be an endangerment to him or the person we were after,” Eggleston said.

At 10 a.m. March 15, Gambino texted the group. They all convened at the Shilo Inn an hour later. That was the first time Schulthies met the other bounty hunters and was briefed on the subject.

According to the report, Schulthies told investigators he was informed Clay would be armed, dangerous and on drugs, and would kill before going back to prison.

“They threw a vest on me, and gave me a badge, and basically we just headed out to the gas station on Ammon and Lincoln,” he said.

During interrogation after the shooting, Schulthies was confused about the identity of Clay, claiming Clay’s first name was Kerry. When asked about the informant, Estrada, Schulthies said he knew nothing about her, other than her name. He then identified her by the wrong name.

When questioned by investigators, Schulthies said he had no formal firearms training, but had hunted with his family and taken a hunters safety course.

THE SHOOTING

Gambino’s original plan was for Estrada to drive Clay to a gas station, where she would go into the store to purchase gas, taking the keys with her. That’s when the bounty hunters were to converge on the car.

Clay reportedly got upset for an unknown reason and got out of the car while it was moving north on Ammon Road, before they reached the gas station.

At roughly 12:20 p.m., Clay saw the bounty hunters following him and took off running. The bounty hunters found him at an apartment complex at 3500 Greenfield Drive. All were wearing street clothes, bulletproof vests and carrying various types of official-looking badges.

At this point, accounts from the bounty hunters and eyewitnesses vary considerably. All six bounty hunters claim Clay fired at least two shots. Gambino yelled out, “Shots fired, shots fired,” according to reports.

Clay posted up between two parked cars.

Schulthies moved around to the back of one of the cars while Gambino and Eggleston moved toward the front from either side. Schulthies later said Clay was bobbing up and down and started to lift up a black item in his hand.

Schulthies said he knew Eggleston would be coming around a corner and into the line of fire. According to Schulthies account, he fired once aiming for Clay’s back. Schulthies said the bullet didn’t appear to affect Clay, and Clay started to turn toward him, so he fired twice more. He said he saw the pistol still in Clay’s hand, so he fired once more.

The investigation showed Schulthies fired five shots. Clay never fired his weapon.

“This (expletive)’s on my soul, I’ve got blood on my hands now,” Schulthies told investigators.

At about 12:30 p.m., the bounty hunters began administering first aid and deputies soon arrived on the scene. All the bounty hunters were disarmed and handcuffed. It wasn’t until this point that Gambino and the others learned that Eggleston wasn’t a police officer.

In a later interview with Deputy James Foster, Gambino said he had received a threatening phone call from Clay’s son. Gambino indicated that he feared for his family’s safety.

“(Gambino) said that if they mess with his family he knows Special Forces people and that he would bring the fight to their doorstep and burn their house down,” Foster wrote.

Foster told Gambino to calm down.

FEARING FOR HIS LIFE

The Bonneville County Prosecutor’s Office ruled the shooting was justified. It was ruled that Eggleston was in reasonable fear for his life, and therefore Schulthies had the right to defend him with deadly force.

Sheriff Paul Wilde said that although he doesn’t disagree with the ruling, he felt the bounty hunter’s lack of experience and training played a role in the outcome. Wilde said the training police officers receive makes them better-suited to handle such situations.

“That training that we go through, understanding the drug addiction, understanding mental health issues, understanding fight-or-flight; all of those pieces, I believe, give us an advantage when we deal with a situation,” he said.

Multiple relatives of Clay said he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. His brother, Greg Clay, said he warned the bounty hunters that if they cornered Clay, he could become paranoid and his behavior could become unpredictable.

Wilde said bounty hunters and law enforcement have differing motivations, and that makes a difference.

A District Court judge in Boise last week denied a motion filed by the bail bond company seeking to exonerate the bond. The bail bond company is out $100,000, and Clay is dead.

Related stories from Idaho Statesman

  Comments