When Christopher Schulthies set out March 15 with a group of bounty hunters to search for an Ada County fugitive, he carried a .40-caliber Smith & Wesson semiautomatic pistol. Ninety minutes later, Philip Clay, 58, lay dying on the pavement at an apartment complex in Ammon, east of Idaho Falls.
Clay had said he would not surrender willingly. Authorities say he pointed a loaded handgun at two bounty hunters. Schulthies fired five times at Clay, striking him four times.
Yet Schulthies, a 30-year-old Idaho Falls resident, lacked any formal training as a police officer, a soldier or even as a private security guard. What he did have was experience working a handful of shifts as a nightclub bouncer, hunting with his family, and racking up drug, alcohol and traffic convictions.
In Idaho, that’s more than enough background to qualify as a bond recovery agent who can track down bail jumpers. The law’s only requirement is that you be an Idaho resident. Even convicted criminals find work as armed bounty hunters. Of the six bounty hunters who pursued Clay that day, three had criminal records.
Bonneville County Prosecutor Daniel Clark declined to bring charges against Schulthies. He said the bond agent acted reasonably in shooting Clay after the fugitive waved his gun around and refused commands to put the weapon down.
But Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney believes the system is too lax. He said that bounty hunters should be required to undergo training and that the state should have an oversight process to evaluate incidents such as the fatal shooting in Ammon.
“We have to have hundreds of hours of training,” said Raney, referring to armed sheriff’s deputies. “We have to have constant ongoing training, both in what the law is and in tactical situations and how to handle that without escalating to deadly force.
“A bail recovery agent doesn’t have to have any of that. They could put a gun on their hip, they could put tactical vests over the top of them and go out. It’s dangerous for them, and it’s dangerous for the person they’re taking back into custody.”
Idaho is one of 15 states that doesn’t require training, certification or any other formal process to become a bounty hunter. Nearby states — including Utah, Nevada, Washington, Colorado and California — require training and testing. Nevada also requires a psychological evaluation. Oregon and three other states don’t permit bounty hunting at all.
Adequate training might have caused Schulthies and the other bounty hunters to handle the operation differently, said Kevin Ratigan, owner of Special Operations Asset Recovery, a bail-recovery and private security company in Boise. Ratigan said he trains his agents to be less confrontational and to try to defuse what is already a stressful situation.
Ratigan said he was saddened when he learned of Clay’s death. “There’s no reason that anybody’s life should be taken over something as simple as a bail bond itself,” he said. “There’s always something else that can be done.”
HOW BOUNTY HUNTING WORKS
When a person is arrested and taken to jail, and bail is set, he or she must put up money to be released from custody. The payment, which is refundable, is meant to guarantee the defendant’s appearance for court hearings. The more serious the crime, the higher the bail.
For misdemeanor crimes, the bail amount is set by state law. Persons charged with felonies must appear before a judge, who determines the bail amount. The judge takes several factors into consideration, including the seriousness of the crime, the defendant’s past criminal record, whether the person is employed, and his or her ties to the community.
But accused criminals in Idaho do not have to post the entire amount themselves if someone else will. Bail bond companies make a business of that. The suspect pays a nonrefundable percentage of the bail amount — Idaho sets no limit, but it is typically 10 percent — to the bail bondsman.
The bail bond company requires the suspect to have a co-signer and will require collateral, which can include property. The company buys a bond from a surety company. That bond is a written promise to pay the full amount to the court if the suspect fails to show up for a court hearing.
The surety and bail bond companies have a powerful financial motive to make sure the suspect appears in court. If the suspect doesn’t, the court typically will give the company 180 days to find and produce the suspect, or forfeit the bond.
Without a bail bond, the suspect or another person must put up the entire $50,000 in cash. Either way, the court will refund the full amount if the suspect makes all court hearings. The court can keep the money if not. The bail bond company keeps the 10 percent payment no matter what.
BOND AGENTS’ POWER OVER DEFENDANTS
Bail bond companies have wide latitude in dealing with their clients after they put up money on their behalf. Under an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, companies may revoke a person’s bail any time, even if the client has shown up for all court hearings. The court ruled that bounty hunters can even break down the door of a residence without the warrant that would be required if police tried to enter the home.
If a suspect fails to show up for court, violates a condition of release or violates a contract with the bail bond company, the company may send an agent after the suspect or may hire a bounty hunter.
Clay, the Ammon shooting victim , failed to show up for a Sept. 17 hearing in 4th District Court in Boise to enter a plea to drug charges. Clay, who lived in Rigby, had come to Boise seven months earlier to buy a generator for his mother’s house. He had been staying with a friend on probation for forgery, domestic violence and drug use convictions when the friend’s probation officer came to his home in the 300 block of South Phillippi Street.
Police officers who accompanied the probation officer found seven baggies containing methamphetamine in a gym bag. The police had no search warrant, but a condition of the friend’s probation was that he permit a search of his premises at any time.
Clay told police that the meth was his and that he planned to sell it. Police arrested Clay on a charge of possession of methamphetamine with the intent to deliver and possession of drug paraphernalia. Clay arranged for his $50,000 bail to be paid by Aladdin Bail Bonds in Boise, with the bond put up by American Contractors Indemnity Co. of Los Angeles.
TEAM OF HUNTERS PURSUES OFFENDER
When Clay did not show up for his plea hearing, District Judge Cheri Copsey ruled that he had forfeited the bond. Copsey reset bail at $100,000 and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Northwest Surety Investigations, which has ownership ties to Aladdin Bail Bonds — both are headquartered in Carlsbad, Calif. — assigned bond recovery agent Shaun Skogrand, of Caldwell, to apprehend Clay.
Skogrand, a former Caldwell police officer, has police academy training and is certified as a bond recovery agent in Washington, Utah, Nevada and Colorado. He chased leads in Rigby, Boise and Nampa, places where Clay formerly lived. He spoke to relatives and other people who knew Clay and checked out bars and other places he was known to frequent.
Skogrand faced a March 16 deadline to capture Clay before the 180-day life of the bail bond expired. If he missed that deadline, the bond company would forfeit its money.
He arranged for James Eggleston, 29, owner of Vets Security in Idaho Falls, to join the search. Eggleston employed Schulthies as a security guard.
Northwest Surety sent four additional employees or contract agents — Guy Bracali-Gambino, 50, Alfredo Arreguin Jr, 29, Kathleen Flores, 46, and Michael Moore, 47, all from the Boise area — to search for Clay. He had reportedly been spotted near Idaho Falls.
THE HUNTERS’ CRIMINAL RECORDS
In addition, Schulthies has numerous Idaho convictions for lack of auto insurance, not wearing a seat belt, speeding and failure to obey a traffic control device.
Bracali-Gambino was charged with domestic violence and four counts of injury to a child in 2011. He later pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace and was sentenced to four days in the Ada County Jail. He had failed to appear for a July 11, 2011, hearing in that case, prompting a judge to issue a warrant for his arrest.
He also has several convictions for driving without privileges, failure to provide auto insurance, operating a vehicle without registration and for having an invalid license. A third domestic violence charge from 2007 was dismissed.
Skogrand did not take part in the operation on the day Clay was killed.
‘THEY HIRE OUT PEOPLE WHO HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THEY’RE DOING’
Eggleston said Schulthies has declined to speak with reporters since the Ammon shooting. Aladdin Bail Bonds, Northwest Surety Investigations and Skogrund did not reply to calls seeking comment. Two numbers associated with Bracali-Gambino were no longer in service. Numbers for Arreguin, Moore and Flores could not be located.
Bounty hunting seems to attract people with criminal backgrounds, Raney said. “I wouldn’t say all of them are of that type of person, but certainly a lot of them that I’ve run into are,” he said.
Acacia Hamilton, co-owner of Double Trouble Bail Bonds in Boise, agrees. She said she’s bothered by the tactics used by some bounty hunters, which she said border on illegal. The bounty hunters involved in shooting Clay were accused of pulling over a relative of his and of refusing to tell Bonneville County deputies where a person who had information on Clay’s whereabouts was. A warrant had been issued for that person’s arrest.
“I hate getting the government involved, but I think they should be licensed or they should take mandatory classes,” Hamilton said. “What I’ve seen is they hire out people who have no idea what they’re doing.”
Hamilton said her company handles fugitive apprehensions itself. Double Trouble last week was searching for 11 fugitives out of hundreds of inmates the company had bonded out of jail, she said.
TRAINING WON’T HELP , EMPLOYER SAYS
Eggleston, who employed Schulthies, said he doesn’t see the need for specialized training for bond recovery agents.
“You can have as much training as you want, but when somebody has a gun or other weapon pointed toward you or someone you care about, you’re going to do what you need to do to protect that person or yourself, regardless of training,” Eggleston said. “Mr. Schulthies had the training that he had, yet at the same time, Mr. Clay was a convicted felon. He never should have had a gun in the first place.”
Eggleston notes that the police training of Bonneville County sheriff’s Sgt. Nathan Bennion didn’t stop a fatal April 6 confrontation with Tyrell J. Larsen, 31, of Rigby. Larsen jumped out of his pickup with a rifle in his hand after trying to elude police just before midnight. Video and audio footage showed that Bennion repeatedly ordered Larsen — toxicology tests later showed that he was under the influence of methamphetamine — to put down the gun. The deputy fired six shots, striking Larsen four times.
“Did he need more training before he was put out on the road?” Eggleston asked. “My guy did what he thought was right, and I’m grateful for that. I had a family I wanted to go home to, and so did everybody else on the job.”
State Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, a former Idaho State Police trooper who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, thinks what happened in Ammon was an anomaly. Still, he said he thinks there should be some kind of criteria for bounty hunters.
“Certainly, I think just this phone call is going to make me ask some questions I haven’t even considered or thought about,” he told the Idaho Statesman.
Raney said: “Unfortunately, we often wait until those tragic situations occur before we change the law.”