Welcome to Oregon: Haven for bail jumpers

Oregon's restrictions keep bounty hunters from stalking bonded prey
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Lew Ervin, a contract bail agent, hops a fence to gain entry to a Vancouver home where he suspects a bail fugitive is hiding out. Ervin can legally enter a residence and apprehend bail skippers without a warrant.

The way David Regan remembers the day - and he remembers it well even 10 years later - it was finally time for him to capture Kurzell Wilson.

Regan is a Vancouver, Wash., bail bondsmen and he had bailed Wilson out of Clark County Jail.

The deal was straightforward. Wilson's bail on a charge of violating a domestic violence protection order was $2,000. Wilson gave Regan 10 percent - $200 - and Regan would guarantee the rest. When Wilson didn't show up for trial, Reagan had a month to bring him in to court or be out the $1,800. That's bad business, and that's why Reagan was tracking Wilson in his car all afternoon.

Regan had information from Wilson's family and friends that Wilson was spending most of his time in Portland, across the state border, and for good reason.

Oregon is one of four states in the U.S. that don't allow bail bondsmen and bounty hunters. All the states surrounding Oregon allow bondsmen. The contracts that clients sign in order to get bailed out of jail allow bondsmen incredible latitude in trying to capture and return clients who fail to appear. Basically, bondsmen can break down doors, physically assault and kidnap clients who have skipped. But not in Oregon - which made Portland the ideal place for Wilson to take refuge.

According to Regan, he was following Wilson by car, waiting for the moment that Wilson crossed the state line to visit family back in Vancouver.

Close to sunset, Wilson's car began heading north on the Interstate 205 bridge. But as it did so, Regan noticed Wilson in the back seat pointing back at the bondsman's car. He'd been made.

Once across the bridge Wilson's car pulled to the shoulder. Wilson jumped out, Reagan says, and began running back toward the Oregon side of the bridge. Regan took up the chase. They had a short fist fight and Regan Tasered Wilson. But the Taser didn't work and Wilson continued running toward the Oregon border.

He ran across I-205 traffic and Regan wasn't willing to do that. The two ran side by side until Wilson reached the sign that said, 'Welcome To Oregon.' And that, according to Regan, was the last time he saw Kurzell Wilson.

But it wasn't the last time Regan talked with Wilson. Later, he called Wilson in Oregon.

'Kurzell said over the phone, 'I know you can't come and get me.' ' Regan says.

Regan paid the court the outstanding $1,800 bail. According to Clark County court officials, Wilson never stood trial on his charge.

Wilson has been involved with criminal justice since then, however. After that incident 10 years ago, Wilson has been the subject of police inquiries 16 times - all in Oregon.

In theory, those inquiries by Portland police should have turned up Wilson's outstanding Clark County warrants, and led to his being shuttled over there for trial. But that hasn't happened. In fact, court officials in Vancouver say Wilson's arrest warrant, though still outstanding, has been destroyed. So no matter what Wilson does in the future, his name won't show up as being wanted in Vancouver on his old charge.


Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Vancouver, Wash., bail bondsman David Regan talks to neighbors in search of a defendent who has skipped out on bail. Regan says many Vancouver bail skippers go to Oregon, where he cannot apprehend them.

Few consequences

For years, bondsmen such as Regan have been saying that many of their bail skippers move to Oregon to avoid being brought back to trial. But Portland criminal justice officials - from district attorneys through judges - deny it.

Don Duvall, a bail bondsmen for 31 years who owns agencies in six Western states including Washington, says about half of the defendants he bonds out in Boise, Idaho, who fail to appear, end up in Oregon, where he can't get them.

'Oregon is the safe haven,' Duvall says.

But it works in the opposite direction, too. Defendants from Oregon can avoid detection by moving out of state - or even just to another county.

Generally, when defendants fail to appear for trial, notice is given only to law enforcement in the county in which the trial is supposed to occur, or sometimes, to neighboring counties. Sometimes the warrants state that it should apply throughout Oregon. But rarely will police in jurisdictions outside Oregon know that someone they come across is wanted for failing to appear here. And federal officials say that the reverse is true - Oregon's practice of not sending warrants out of state is common in many cash-strapped states.

Even when police in other counties see arrest warrants on their computers, that doesn't mean the defendants will be brought back here to trial. Tillamook County Sheriff Todd Anderson says that his deputies will often pick up someone in their jurisdiction and find that he or she has an outstanding warrant for failing to appear in one of the metropolitan counties.

Anderson says when he contacts Portland-area authorities offering to return the bail skippers, he often is told not to bother. Instead, he is asked to release the offenders and tell them they have a new court date. The reason: a shortage of jail space.

Defendants who fail to appear for the most violent crimes will usually get their names and information posted on databases nationwide, but even that doesn't guarantee that they will be sent back to trial if they are discovered.

Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis says he fields telephone calls from out of state when a felony defendant has been picked up and local police discovered he or she had an outstanding warrant for failure to appear in Clatsop County court. Marquis says he tells those out-of-state officers to let the defendant go. There isn't enough money in the state budget to send someone to bring the offender back. The same is true for most other states, according to federal officials.

That may not be all bad for many drug and property crime offenders, Marquis says.

'If I get somebody (on an outstanding warrant) who is a low-level drug dealer or user, who doesn't have many ties to Oregon, and I look at the record and the arrests are all in Florida or Alabama, I don't want him back,' he says. 'I'm not going to be able to do anything to him under Oregon sentencing laws. He's just going to come back and be a giant pain in the butt for the community.'

Steve Todd, a Multnomah County circuit judge pro tem, says that usually people accused of crimes such as serious assault and sex offenses are extradited to the county. Misdemeanors and lower-classification felonies, such as burglary, don't warrant extradition. Todd recognizes that places a burden on victims, who sometimes lose interest in a case that has been set over repeatedly because the defendant failed to appear.

Marquis says the message to criminal offenders is all wrong when consequences don't follow actions.

'You take the swiftness and certainty away and everything else sort of falls to pieces,' he says.