53-year old Jon Dalman and 28-year old Alex Haynes divide their bounty hunting labor according to their abilities. Haynes handles all the digital research: She runs names through a network of tracking data, allowing her to pin down the exact address where a bail-skipping defendant might be lying low, so they may collect the sum offered by a bondsman for their apprehension. Dalman, who is ex-military and previously worked as a security professional, is the one who opens the door and escorts the fugitive off to prison. Dalman tells me that his ideal bounty is wrapped up in five minutes, with as little excitement as possible. No guns, no tough-guy profanity, no rolling around on the floor — just a quick conversation and a dignified walk to the backseat of his car.
Thanks to piles of vengeful cowboy fiction, the planet Mandalore, and the continued carceral mythology of Dog Chapman, the pop-culture image of a bounty hunter remains an above-the-law renegade with a license to kill. Dalman and Haynes, who are in a relationship and have been bounty hunting for five years, happily volunteer that they think their job is pretty cool. But the realities of how they do their job might deflate the world’s 14-year olds and cop aficionados. Nearly every defendant they’ve processed has come quietly, and Dalman tells me the best tool in his arsenal is to treat each person he apprehends with respect. Together, they spend far more energy researching, travelling, and staking out the residences of their marks than they do during the arrest. Violence is specifically avoided.
Dalman and Haynes are independent contractors, and they work with about 15 bondsman in Georgia. (The couple currently lives in the small Atlanta suburb of Gainesville.) They understand the cultural interest of bounty hunting, and together they record a podcast, called WANTED, where they recap their latest files. But despite their love for the hustle, and the hundreds of cases they’ve completed, Dalman says he’s not sure how much longer fugitive recovery will be a viable industry. Bail reform is sweeping the nation, and for-profit prison bonding is rapidly going out of style. I spoke to both of them about the morality of bounty hunting, the memorable files they’ve chased, and how much you can learn about someone by simply Googling their name.
So how did you both get into this business?
Jon: I got drug into it. I never aspired to be a bounty hunter, I didn’t know the job existed. I thought it was a Wild West, Boba Fett-type job. But I was doing some personal security work in the Atlanta for some families, and one of them knew a bondsman. They introduced us, and the bondsman said I should do some bail recovery, which is the churched-up word for bounty hunting. They said to take this course and go from there. I signed up for the class, and halfway through the guy who was teaching it offered me a job. It was kinda wild. I was like, “Okay, I guess I’m a bounty hunter now,” and I had files the next day.
I’m retired military, so I’ve always done jobs with an element of danger to it. It checks all the boxes for me. I love it.
Alex: I came from a background of being a professional photographer, which is a weird career shift. But as a kid I always wanted to be a spy or a detective. At a certain point, at 23 or 24, I had an existential crisis that I never became a professional investigator. So I started looking into a way to get into that industry. I took a self-defense class, and the very first day that I went I met Jon. He and I didn’t know each other all that well, we’d just see each other in this class, but he knew I wanted to get into investigations. When he got into bail recovery, I was the first person he reached out to. He said, “You’re a lot younger than me. I don’t know how any of this social media stuff works. I don’t know how to find people on the internet, and I’ve got these files and I can’t find them.” At that time he didn’t even know his phone had a front-facing camera. He was completely technologically inept. I was able to find everyone in the files, and we discovered that we had complementary skill sets.
Alex, what was the response from your friends and family when you told them that you wanted to give this bounty hunting thing a shot.
Alex: Because I grew up obsessed with Lara Croft and James Bond and Nancy Drew, they were not surprised. Both my parents have been extremely supportive. They’ve even helped out on cases before.
Jon, you said you went into a training program to get into this line of work. Are those kind of classes required to become a bounty hunter? Or can you show up at a bondsman’s office and pick up files without any certification?
Jon: Bail-bonding varies from state to state. It’s even illegal in some states. Some states like California are heavily regulated, where there’s a required 80-hour course, and some states like Alabama you can say, “Hey, I’m going to be a bounty hunter” and start grabbing people with no regulations. Which is not a good thing. I don’t walk into a hospital and say, “I think brain surgery is pretty cool” and have at it. There should be some sort of standard. Here in Georgia you have to be a bail bondsman, which is only an eight-hour course, but on top of that, you have to fill out applications with every county Sheriff’s department that we turn people into. There’s a vetting process about your background, but not your skill. You basically jump through some hoops to make sure that you’re not judged by the state to be some sort of wackjob.
Usually, people get into bounty hunting due to a relationship with a bondsman. Bondsmen don’t trust anyone, they’re super tight with their money and are afraid of liability. That’s the first rule: Don’t get sued. I get DMs all the time from people saying, “Hey I’ve got all this gear, and some guy said I could become a bounty hunter if I took his school for it, and now I can’t get work because the bondsman says they already have someone.” It’s very, very difficult to get into. There’s not a bondsman in the state that we don’t know.
So break down the whole process for me, from picking up a file to cashing in a bounty.
Jon: We are contractors for different bounty companies. For liability purposes they keep a firewall between us and them. So we’re independent contractors and we pick up files at 15 different offices. Typically what happens is an officer calls up Alex, and he’ll email over the file or we’ll stop by. Alex starts researching the file on her computer.
Alex: I’ll open the file with the phone in my hand and start running their name to see if anything obvious pops up. I love the feeling of getting a new file. Our cases have taken us on so many wild adventures.
Jon: Alex will run the file through databases, open-source stuff, and social media. We dig around a bit, we ask the bondsman about the file — because most people have been bonded out before. Between the human intel and Alex’s investigation, we’ll be like, “Okay, we think the defendant is at his baby mama’s house.” And we like to hit ‘em when they’re snoring. We leave in the morning, I hit the front door, Alex hits the back, we talk our way in, and pick up our defendant. We drive them to the jail where the warrant was issued. So, if the warrant is issued in Manhattan and we pick them up in Philly, we’ll have to drive back to Manhattan. We turn them in, and the jail essentially gives us a receipt. We take the receipt to the bondsman, and they give us money. It’s like recycling.
So Alex, when you’re running names, are you mostly going through social media? Or are you using tools that dig deeper than that?
Alex: I use both. I have access to commercial databases, and to gain access to those you need to provide proof that you’re using them for professional reasons. They’ll give me access to address history, credit history, utility searches, Social Security numbers, all kinds of things. But the first thing I do is Google their name, because you never know what’s going to show up. Sometimes I’ll Google their name and see that the defendant was just arrested last week and is in jail in another county. It’s a good way to see if they’re a business owner, or if they have any significant past crimes. Once I’m confident that they’re not in custody somewhere else, I’ll run them on Facebook. I have a lot of fake Facebook accounts, and I see what I can find on various social media sites.
The pop culture image of bounty hunting involves a lot of guns and a lot of danger, but how often is the apprehension process a quieter, more boring procedure than someone like might imagine?
Jon: On those shows there’s a lot of yelling and screaming and tackling. But we keep track of this: We’ve had about 430-or-so physical arrests over the last five years, and I’ve only fought six people. That’s by design. After I got out of college I worked in the mental health field as an intensive case manager, and I learned pretty early in my bounty hunting career that these were just as much mental health crisis interventions as they were picking someone up for not going to court. I don’t want to fight anyone. I have to drive them in my car. We treat people with respect.
That being said, there’s a lot of gear. There’s guns, there’s bulletproof vests, and all that’s for a reason. I’ve been shot at, I’ve had knives pulled on me and dogs biting me. But that’s not what this job is about to me. The sooner you realize that these people just want to be treated with dignity and respect, this job gets so much easier. I’d say the vast majority of our defendants shake our hands. I’ve gotten hugs from moms in the front yard, because I’m not kicking anyone’s ass for no reason, or talking shit to them in the backseat. I know bounty hunters that do that. That’s not how we work. Ultimately, we’re just there to handle some business.
Do you think there are people who start bounty hunting for the wrong reasons? Do you think people have a toxic mindset in this business?
Jon: I think when people act like that — be it bounty hunting, or corrections, or a prison guard, or law enforcement — there’s a culture of aggressiveness, and a lack of training makes you operate from a basis of fear. You’re in a naturally scary situation. I go into people’s houses by myself to take someone to jail against their will. On the surface, it’s sketchy as hell.
What are some of the scariest situations you’ve been in?
Jon: The ideal case is I show up, I knock on the door, they say, “He’s in his room,” we pick him up and leave. But when it starts to get dangerous is when you’re yelling through the doors in a standoff. When neighbors, cousins, and brothers-in-law come over, that’s when it gets weird. What is it that Nietzsche says? “Insanity in individuals is rare, but in the mob it’s the rule.” That’s where I get wigged out.
When you cash in a bounty, is that a flat rate, or does it depend on the case? How do the finances shake out?
Jon: So we make 10 to 20 percent of the total bond amount, plus our expenses, and if we have an informant fee or out-of-state travel. So if the bond is $10,000, we get a $1,000 check. If we say, “Hey, we bought some lady Target giftcards to find out where he was,” we can bill for that. We have a minimum, if it’s a $500 bond we’re not going to do it for $50.
What’s the biggest bond you guys have taken on?
Alex: $150,000, and that was for a woman who was involved in a cartel drug deal.
Jon: The biggest ones have all been drug mules. These poor folks get hemmed up because they’re moving weight for someone who’s obviously a bigger player. The guy is a gardener who gets caught with four pounds of dope on him. Clearly this guy isn’t manufacturing this stuff, and he has to go to court.
What’s a good month for you guys, in terms of the money you’re bringing in and the number of bonds you’re cashing?
Jon: Maybe $10,000 a month, split equally between ourselves. That’s a good month. There were times three or four years ago where business was slow, and we might only bring in $3,000. It’s a true small business.
You mentioned buying someone Target gift cards to get them to snitch on a case. I’m curious to hear more about that, the sort of social engineering part of bounty hunting.
Jon: That’s what makes a good bounty hunter. We always say catching is easy, but finding is hard. We have to find out what buttons to push, what people are afraid of, and work with that. Each case is different, you can’t use a flowchart. You have to be really fluid in how to get intel out of them. Every culture, and every family is different.
You’ve expressed some doubts about where the business of bounty hunting is going. That maybe, in the near future, it’s going to be much more difficult to do this for a living. What gives you pause about the industry’s direction?
Jon: Well, bail reform is a real thing in the United States. For-profit bail is already illegal in Kentucky, Illinois, and Oregon. California is trying to make cash bail illegal. The writing is on the wall. Bail is a uniquely American thing. As time goes on, more and more states are going to limit in. We’re both already state-licensed private investigators. That’s our fallback. We should have a seamless transition to that when it happens. We’re ready for it, but I don’t know if the bondsmen are. They’re fighting it tooth and nail, and rightfully so, that’s their livelihood. But I think there’s room for improvement in the current system. I get that. It should be better and more fair to more people. But for now, it’s what works. It’s what gets people back to court. Is it perfect? No, not by any means. Eventually, I think it goes away.
Do you ever feel any sympathy for the people in your files, even when you’re picking them up? Or are you able to shut that out?
Jon: One of my skills that I’ve had in this job, and in mental health, is that I have the ability to compartmentalize. In the moment I can just do the work. But we’re sympathetic. Alex and I picked up a kid about a week ago, and within five minutes of talking to him I could tell he wasn’t right. He had a brain injury from huffing Freon. I felt badly for him. He didn’t even know what was going on. I feel badly for some people because you can tell that the cyclical nature of poverty and crime — and you gotta own some of it, some bad decisions — have lead you to that point. I feel empathy for the majority of them. There are some that are legit assholes. But for the most part, it’s nothing personal. We come at every case with an open-mind, and without us being crusaders.
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