Big Mike is used to double takes and strange looks. For one thing, he’s huge. For another, the sad truth is that nobody starts out to be a bail bondsman.
“Kids don’t come to their parents and say, ‘I want to deal with miscreants and wear a bulletproof vest,’ ” he sighs.
True to form, Big Mike’s intentions did not involve a place within the criminal justice system. Big Mike wanted to be a marine biologist. It was the age of National Geographic specials with Jacques Cousteau, but after he got to Florida State University, his passion switched from ichthyology to genetics. Somewhere after Florida State, he lost his passion for genetics.
He was tending bar in Vero Beach when one of the regulars told him he’d make a good bail bondsman, said regular being a retired bondsman from Fort Lauderdale.
“Who wants to be a bail bondsman?” Big Mike asked rhetorically.
As it turned out, Mike Nefzger did, and 30 years later he still does. His business card says it all: “Got Big Trouble, Get Big Help. Big Mike’s Bail Bonds.”
Big Mike used to be 6-foot-7, but the inevitable shrinking of age might have brought him down to 6-6. Still, he’s an imposing figure, without any fat. He gets a lot of repeat business because, as with any other business, you build relationships. Nefzger is now dealing with the third and fourth generation of families whose connection to the law tends toward the antagonistic.
Which brings us to that interesting question aroused by that retired Fort Lauderdale bondsman: What makes a good bondsman?
“You have to be a marriage counselor,” says Nefzger. “You have to be a drug counselor. You have to be a psychologist. You have to be a good listener. You have to be willing to shepherd people through the maze.”
Ah, the maze.
For those whose experience with the criminal justice system is limited to “Law & Order” marathons, it goes something like this: After someone is arrested, it can be a good eight to 10 hours before a bond can be written and they can get out of jail. The arrestee needs a co-signer, someone who will take the responsibility of getting the person to court and who can make good on the bond if the arrestee fails to show up. They often offer up the name of a loved one or friend.
“Is this a good friend?” Nefzger will ask.
“Sure,” they will answer.
“What’s his last name?”
“I’ll have to get back to you.”
“Every day is an adventure,” says Nefzger. “If their mother doesn’t want to sign for them, I figure she knows him better than I can. To a degree, you get jaded. The clientele, especially the street clientele, can push the limit — I can’t tell you how many bad check artists have asked me to take a check.”
There are 22 bond agencies in Palm Beach County, six of whom get the majority of the business. Nefzger is also president of the state association of bail bondsmen, 1,700 strong. It doesn’t sound like a lot of work, but it’s turned out to be just that. He’s on the go constantly. Besides tending to his own business, he has to represent his profession. One week he’s liable to be in Orlando, a week later in Tallahassee.
He still gets calls in the middle of the night, but less than he used to. Between 2008 and 2012, crime has declined in Palm Beach county by about 20 percent, more or less mirroring the national trends. Less crime means less demand for bail bonds.
Nefzger has a placid, fatherly demeanor that goes nicely with his 60 years, perhaps because he’s learned the hard way to roll with the punches. An arrestee who needs a $500,000 bond has to give Nefzger 10 percent, or $50,000. Assuming the person shows up for his or her trial, that $50,000 is the bondsman’s to keep. A percentage of every bond goes into a trust fund to pay for the occasional no-show.
If the person doesn’t show up for trial, things get interesting.
When somebody skips, Nefzger has to make the bond good in a civil action, usually by going after the co-signer’s collateral. He sues them in court, gets a judgment. On a big bond, he can take the co-signer’s house, which used to take around six months but can now run into years.
Sometimes he just goes after them to bring them back, turn them in and get his money. Generally, Nefzger doesn’t carry a gun, but when he goes after someone who’s skipped, he not only carries, he wears the aforementioned bulletproof vest.
There was the time he showed up at a small-town police station in Arkansas to ask for help in locating a skipper. “We don’t like your kind here,” said the police chief, channeling Rod Steiger in “In the Heat of the Night.” “Who you looking for?”
Nefzger showed him some pictures and the cop said, “We like him even less than we like you.” With help from the local cops, Nefzger got his man. “Rural areas are more likely to help a bondsman because they don’t want the criminals there.”
Nefzger’s personal skip rate is about .25 percent; the rule of thumb is that if 9 percent to 10 percent of your people skip, you’ll go broke. (The local average is around 5 percent.)
In all his years, he’s only failed to bring in a skip once: David Britto, the Boynton Beach cop arrested on drug conspiracy charges who fled to Brazil because he held dual citizenship. “A total scumbag,” says Nefzger. Brito’s skipping cost Nefzger $50,000. The only bright spot is that he now holds the mortgage on Britto’s mother’s house.
Can you tell who is likely to skip?
“You can develop a gut instinct, but you never really know. The question can narrow down to something as simple as, ‘How long have you lived here?’ I have had guys that were looking at 40 years in jail that I didn’t think would show, and they showed. And I have had guys that were family guys, guys who lived here all their lives, who blew it off.”
Nefzger can tell hilarious stories until closing time, but he also has a serious side, mostly regarding the seedy public image of his profession. “The industry is much maligned,” he says. “It’s portrayed as something it’s not. Do I look like Dog the Bounty Hunter? No ponytail. No leather. As a matter of fact, bounty hunters are illegal in Florida; you have to be a licensed bail bondsman to go after someone.”
What he does have are three kids and a wife that handles his office. “My kids have been going to jail since they were six months old. I cling to the belief that, when they get to the stupid age, they’ll pause for five milliseconds.”
The rampant changes in society are mirrored in the bond business. “People want things done fast, but the criminal justice system doesn’t work that way. It’s underfunded. Palm Beach County doesn’t have enough judges, and the clerks and the public defenders are all underfunded. Jails are state hospitals for the mentally ill.”
Not only that, there is a different kind of criminal. “Pills. The reds and the blues eat the brain. We don’t get a lot of meth here, which is good. Meth is in Polk County. Meth here is on the fringes. But the pills are everywhere, and because of pills we have a lot of dumb people. When I first got into it, there were guys who, if they weren’t career criminals, they were close. Now, it’s the microwave generation. They want it, they want it now and they don’t want to work for it.”
Public defender Carey Haughwout says that Big Mike is one of the best in his profession.
“A good bondsperson is one who reaches out to the client about court dates with reminders,” says Haughwout. “You have to get them to show up. And they work with the clients about releases — some bonds people will look for every opportunity to revoke a bond rather than work with the client. A lot of times the defendants have a difficult time making arrangements for the collateral.
“Some are more understanding. That’s Mike. He’s been at it, he knows the ins and outs. Some take more interest than others, and those are the ones that get better show-up rates.”
Obviously, the business is not easy; in 2010 a bondsman was killed in Glades County. “It’s always there in the back of your mind. I’ve had a guy pull a knife on me; another time a guy was pulling a gun. I’m a big guy, but I can move when I’m scared. There are lots of wrestling matches.”
Right now, Nefzger is prepared for the holiday rush. Yes, there is such a thing. “In late November and early December you get lots of calls at four in the morning.
“I got to get him out right now!”
“How long has he been in jail?”
“I have to have him home for the holidays.”
Inevitably, after about two weeks, they remember why they left him in jail for six months.
Just in case you think being a bondsman would be raffishly entertaining, something drawn from the pages of writer Damon Runyon, you should know that Nefzger hasn’t had a vacation in five years; before that, it was 12 years.
“It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle. Once in a while, I believe I’ve helped someone who really needs help. People come in and they can’t believe they got arrested. They’re just overwhelmed. I tell them to take a deep breath, I ask them if they’ve eaten today.
“The system works. Does it work to the degree you envision when you’re younger? No. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that human beings are human beings, and you never really know what another human being is going to do.”
OUR PERSONAL JOURNEYS TEAM
Scott Eyman is a former reporter at The Palm Beach Post. He is also a respected film historian and the author of numerous, best-selling books. He has written biographies of Mary Pickford, Ernst Lubitsch, John Ford, Cecil B. DeMille and Louis B. Mayer, as well as a history of the transition from silent film to sound. He is also the co-author of Robert Wagner’s memoir, a New York Times bestseller. He has another book with Wagner coming out next year, and a biography of John Wayne.
Madeline Gray received her BFA in photography from the Maryland Institute College of Art before moving to New York to work with Magnum photographer Steve McCurry. She completed her MA in photojournalism at Ohio University in the spring of 2012. Whether traveling for work or on her own, she has documented daily life from Burma to Burkina Faso to the back woods of Southeast Ohio.
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