David Gambale is shouting into the phone: "Do you know where she is? Tell me where she is, and I will pick her up right now!"
His cell phone rings, to the tune of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Now he's talking on two phones at once.
Files and yellow note stickers cover the desk in the disorderly Fairfax City office where Gambale, a Harley-riding former drill instructor with 20 years in the Marines, operates his bail bond business. On the walls are pictures of Gambale, his wife and their four children. One photo, taken for National Geographic, shows him shouting into the ear of a shaved-head recruit.
Gambale is a modern-day bounty hunter. When people skip bail -- which happens about 10 percent of the time in his experience -- he goes after them.
Bounty hunting is a largely unregulated profession in many jurisdictions, including Virginia, Maryland and the District. But in Virginia that could be changing.
On Christmas Eve, a bounty hunter broke into a house in Richmond looking for a fugitive and shot and killed a man. The wrong man. Now the bounty hunter is in jail, and the General Assembly is considering legislation to impose restrictions on the bail bond business.
"Anyone can be a bounty hunter," says Gambale, 40. "I have guys coming in here all the time with big guns on their hips and badges, asking me if I have any cases for them." He prefers to keep the work in-house.
"Are there some people doing this who shouldn't be? Of course there are. Most don't even call the cops and tell them they are in the area because they think they are above the law."
The phone rings again. In Gambale's line of work, crime definitely pays. On an average day, he has $5 million in active bonds on the street. His company puts up the full amount of the bond and charges the client 10 percent. If the defendant blows town and can't be recaptured, Gambale forfeits all the money to the court.
People who fail to appear in court are called "skips," for skipping court, and they come in all types: preoccupied college students who forget to show up, as well as prostitutes, bookies and drug dealers.
Gambale, his head shaved and his chin sporting a goatee, lights a Marlboro Light. There's a pinch of snuff under his lower lip. The phone rings. "This is Dave. When was he arrested? What's his bond? What's the charge?" His cell phone rings. Two phones at once again.
In Virginia, bounty hunters may break into a fugitive's house without a search warrant, a power that police departments do not have. It is a legal anomaly stemming from an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court ruling exempting bounty hunters from the Fourth Amendment's search and seizure rules. The court said bounty hunters may chase a fugitive "into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and, if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose." They also may enter the house of anyone who has co-signed a bond.
Unless a state takes action to regulate bounty hunters, they need no license or training and undergo no criminal background check.
Last month, the General Assembly began considering the first reform recommended by the Virginia State Crime Commission to clean up the industry. The commission is in the second year of a three-year study, focusing first on bail bondsmen, then bounty hunters. Some bail bondsmen hire freelance bounty hunters to track down their skips.
As a first step, the Crime Commission wants the state to require a national criminal background check for all bail bondsmen.
"We thought that by getting the felons and the shady people out of the bond business, that there would be some spillover to the bounty hunting business, and then we'd look at that," says Kim Hamilton, the panel's acting director.
Of the 34,233 surety agents in the state last year, 464 had criminal records, she said, including 157 with an average of four felony convictions each.
In addition to instituting criminal background checks, the bill would require bondsmen to obtain two-year licenses and would bar felons from the business.
Gambale is all for it. "We need some regulation to wash out the knuckleheads," he says.
When he started in business, in May 1998, he worked out of his Jeep Wrangler and a briefcase. Now he has a half-dozen employees and an office down the street from the Fairfax County jail. Gambale used to go after the fugitives himself, but now one of his associates, Sheldon Langford, an ex-sergeant who served under him in the Marines, does most of the tracking.
"A lot of people think you need a long trench coat, a badge and a gun and you go out and knock doors down and pick people up. We don't operate that way," says Langford, 32. "We don't like to use the term 'bounty hunter.' We call it 'fugitive recovery.' "
Across the office, "The Star-Spangled Banner" sounds. This time the caller is a friend of someone who didn't show up for court.
"You say you haven't seen her in two years, but you signed for her in November," Gambale shouts into the phone. "You didn't? I'm looking at your signature. You did. That's right. Well, guess what? We can garnish your wages. Listen to me, I don't want to do that, I AM TRYING TO HELP YOU. I can't take you off the bond until I put her back in jail. Where is she?"
The woman had been charged with malicious assault and released on $5,000 bond. She was last seen in Manassas.
Langford is working another case, a Herndon man who missed a hearing in a drunken driving case. Langford and another employee, Kevin Coumes, head over to the man's workplace, a Herndon barbershop that has a signed Bruce Smith Redskins jersey hanging in the window. John Thompson's basketball show is playing on the radio and "Court TV" is on the tube.
Coumes, 23, goes in and asks about a haircut, while Langford calls Fairfax police. "This is how we do it," he says. "We always notify the police and tell them where we're going, give them the address."
Coumes comes out and says the fugitive may be in there. Their file photo shows a man in dreadlocks. The man in the shop has closely cropped hair, but Coumes says he might have cut off his dreadlocks.
Langford goes in and pulls out the bench warrant for the fugitive's arrest.
"You missed court," he says to the man in the shop.
"What are you talking about?"
"You know what I'm talking about. Two days ago, you were supposed to go to court for DUI, and you didn't show."
"I ain't never had no DUI in my life."
"Is that you?" Langford says, pointing at the picture and the warrant.
"That's my last name."
"You got an ID?"
"No. What do I need an ID for? I'm at work."
"You don't have an ID?"
"No. Look, that's me," the man says, pointing to a framed picture on the wall, "cutting [NBA player] Grant Hill's hair. See what it says: 'To Keith, Best Wishes, Grant Hill.' Isn't that a good enough ID?"
The police arrive. The man says his driver's license is in the car his wife took to work that day. Officers run his name through their computer, and it comes back clean except for an unpaid fine on a dog-license infraction. The man promises to pay. He says the guy in dreadlocks is his nephew.
That night, the nephew turns himself in. Case cleared.
Gambale is still looking for the woman who skipped court.
Lunch arrives, a salad from Wendy's. He says grace before digging in. He has tattoos on both forearms, including a shark and the names and birth dates of two sons, Bronson, 15, and Boston, 3, and two daughters, Taylor, 9, and Madison, 2. He's from Massachusetts, his wife, Chasey, is from Wisconsin. "Aren't those cool names?" he gushes.
He's eating his salad. It's Wednesday, and he's skipping church that night -- he usually goes twice a week -- to go after the woman. It's getting dark as he climbs into his white Plymouth pickup and heads home to change. His wife is feeding the kids and getting ready for church. Gambale nibbles some cheese and crackers, kisses the kids as they go out the door and then his wife. "I love you," he says. "I love you, too," his wife replies.
Gambale pulls into a 7-Eleven parking lot in Manassas. He is meeting the employee who wrote the bond on the woman. He gets a cup of coffee and a fresh pack of Marlboros. He slips in a pinch of snuff, sips the coffee, lights a cigarette and drives off.
The employee leads him to the house, down a dirt road in a wooded area.
"I didn't bring a gun," he says to a reporter. "Do you see a badge? I don't need a badge. What I do have is a piece of paper signed by a judge that says she failed to appear in court. I love my job. Can you tell?"
The small white house is dark. Gambale calls a police dispatcher, gives the address and says he's looking for a fugitive. He kills the truck's headlights and the house disappears in the darkness.
He bounds up the front step and bangs on the door. No answer. It's unlocked, so he opens it, shouting: "Bail bondsman, anybody home?"
There's no heat inside. A wood stove in the kitchen is cold. A plate of half-eaten food is on the table with an empty Sprite can.
Gambale searches each room, snapping on the lights. The place is empty.
Back in the truck, he lights another cigarette. "She was here. I know she was here. I'll get her."
"The Star-Spangled Banner" sounds again. "This is Dave."
Someone's calling from jail and wants to get out. The phone never stops ringing.