Bail bondsman Jon Foster is a nice guy — until you skip court
It’s 11 a.m. on a recent Wednesday, and Jon Foster is sitting at his desk, waiting for the next call. A loaded .38 special rests on a cabinet next to his leg.
A Cirque du Soleil performer walks into the bail bonds office holding a crisp $100 bill.
Wearing a backward hat, baggy pants and high-end sneakers, the performer blends well with the clientele at Bail Bonds Specialists on Casino Center Boulevard. Most of the people who use the get-out-of-jail service are normal folks, first-time offenders.
The performer, a musician, wants to make a payment on a $15,000 bond for a domestic battery charge. He pays about $300 every month. He is working to buy back family jewelry he put up as collateral.
Foster, a hulking New Jersey native, asks the man to take a seat. Foster is happy to see he has come with money. That means Foster can remain the nice guy he usually is.
“Hey, man, what’s going on?” Foster says. “It’s always nice to see you.”
Slouching toward the desk, the performer doesn't seem to notice Foster's loaded five-shot handgun. It’s hammerless, not likely to jam in a gunfight. Foster keeps it close in case a client gets rowdy.
But the 47-year-old bail bondsman isn’t worried about the performer.
“You always smell so nice,” Foster says, looking him up and down.
The performer smiles, pays Foster and quickly leaves.
“That's probably the most famous client I have," Foster says.
In a sticky situation, a bail bondsman can be your best friend. He’s the guy who can get you out of jail when you’re broke and no one else wants to help.
Using their own money as a guarantee that defendants will show up for court, bondsmen bail people out of jail, usually within a couple hours of their arrest.
But the service comes at a cost.
In Nevada, standard payment is 15 percent of the bail. So if you were to hire a bondsman to cover a $20,000 bond, you’d owe him about $3,000. The bondsman puts up the rest of the money, which typically gets reimbursed when a case is resolved and the judge dissolves the bond.
Most defendants show up for their bond hearings. But some don't.
That’s when bail agents get angry.
If someone fails to show up to court, the bondsman has 180 days to take the person into custody. If he fails to do so, he must pay the full bail amount. On average, bondsmen lose between $30,000 and $50,000 a year on bad bails they have to pay back.
Foster and his partner, Andy Renshaw, guarantee about $6 million in bail a year. Each bond averages about $5,000, mostly for first-time crimes. Their shop writes the equivalent of about 1,200 bails a year.
The largest amount Foster and his team have ever had to pay on a bad bond was $27,000, he said. He has had to pay that amount three times, on three separate cases.
"It’s just a part of the job," Foster said.
It’s a sunny Thursday afternoon, but Foster is annoyed.
William, the guy he has been hounding on the phone all day, promised he would pay every week for the past six weeks on the $2,000 he owes. He has failed to show every time.
Now, he’s unreachable.
Foster turns up the pressure. He calls the woman William had been living with, who signed for his bail.
Straight to voicemail.
Foster speaks into the phone, his voice unsympathetic but calm.
“Jon from the bail office, calling back yet again, trying to get a hold of the elusive William," he says in a message. "Please give me a call. I am going to have to escalate this soon. People are going to start going back to jail, and it’s not going to be fun. Please give us a call and get us some money. … Thank you.”
Foster doesn’t hear back that afternoon. He realizes he may have to arrest the guy.
That would cost Foster extra. He’d have to shell out about $200 to hire a bounty hunter. Foster doesn’t chase people down anymore.
The image of the bail bonds business is a tarnished one, often lumped together with pawnshops and strip clubs. Many people, incorrectly, think agents work in cahoots with cops and judges.
But bail bondsman are licensed and regulated by the Nevada Division of Insurance, forced to take classes and put in hours of training.
It’s an industry that’s growing, too.
Twenty years ago, there were eight bail bonds offices in Las Vegas, Foster recalled. Today, the Yellow Pages lists phone numbers for more than 60.
Throughout Southern Nevada, there are more than 100 bail bondsmen.
There’s Kiss Bail Bonds and Super Bail, All Star Bail Bonds and Godfather’s, Goodfella’s and Aardvark Bail Bonds.
Many share a neighborhood on the north end of town, with storefronts on Las Vegas Boulevard or Casino Center Boulevard.
Foster knows they’re there, but he keeps to himself.
“I try not to know any of them,” he says.
Foster grew up outside Atlantic City. He wanted to go to school for commercial art and dreamed of creating greeting cards for Hallmark.
But he made it through only one semester before money ran out.
He moved back and forth between restaurant and casino jobs in Atlantic City.
Then he got a brochure from the Mirage. Flipping through its pages, he became enamored with Las Vegas.
Foster packed some clothes and headed for Southern Nevada, where he landed a job as a waiter at a steakhouse.
One night, he waited on Andy Renshaw, now his partner, and learned about the bail bonds industry. Renshaw talked him into getting his license.
Foster, who has more than 50 jobs under his belt, couldn't refuse. That was in 1992.
"I've been here ever since," he said.
When he started in the business, before he got married, Foster was all about bounty hunting. He liked the thrill of tracking down skips and making arrests.
And he has seen his share of adventure. Foster has been in foot chases and drawn his gun twice: first on a squirrelly client who wouldn’t show his hands and again on a dog in a bail jumper's backyard.
But he quit bounty hunting after getting hurt a couple of times. The last time, he injured his knees chasing a man over the fence of a house that later burned down after a meth lab exploded in the kitchen.
It is just after noon on a Wednesday at a popular north side sushi buffet. Foster is sitting over a plate of discarded rice rolls — he eats only the fish, because he’s diabetic — when his phone rings.
“Bail bonds, Jon,” he says. “How can I help you?”
That’s how it always starts: nice, welcoming.
Foster's favorite part of his job is that first minute on the phone. That’s usually how long it takes him to nail down a deal.
During dessert, he gets another call and it's a woman hoping to get her husband out of jail.
“Oh, no,” he says. “Where’s he at? … County? Do you know how much his bail is, and when he was arrested?”
Her husband landed in jail on a domestic battery charge. Foster is immediately sympathetic.
“That’s a very common offense,” he says. “I’m sorry you have to go through all this.”
The average bond on a domestic battery charge is $3,000. It will cost the woman 15 percent, $450, plus $50 at the jail.
If she has a credit card, Foster offers, he can finish the transaction with his smartphone right there at the sushi buffet.
The woman admits she has only half the money.
“If you put a decent amount down, we can float you some of it,” Foster says.
Foster also will forgo a down payment if the woman gives him a piece of jewelry, like the Cirque performer did, or something else of value. He accepts personal belongings as collateral as long as they are worth more than $500.
The woman says she is unemployed and has only $250.
Foster rarely accepts clients without jobs. But he runs through a list of questions, which if answered right, could justify a deal:
“Do you work?”
“How long have you guys been in town?”
“Has he ever been arrested before?”
“Does he work?”
Since the woman has lived in Nevada for more than five years, Foster agrees to do business with her. She promises to pay the remaining $250 in two weeks.
“Come down with your Nevada ID, your utility bill and the $250,” he instructs.
Foster tells her to look for "the little tan house with a white picket fence.”
"I got a bail," he says, digging into a blueberry mousse.
Filling out paperwork for a bail rarely takes longer than 15 minutes.
The biggest time buster is waiting for jail officials to process a defendant. The larger the facility, the longer the wait.
Before they release an inmate, officers run a background check on him or her and search for outstanding warrants. Then it's time for a mug shot and fingerprints.
Once Foster posts bail, it could take another six hours for a person to be released.
The biggest mistake a defendant can make is underestimating the determination of a bail bondsman.
Foster offers clients a few house rules to keep things running smoothly.
1.) Make your payments. 2.) Show up to court. 3.) Don't skip town.
Foster said he never does business with prostitutes. They rarely show up to court, he said.
Back at his office, Foster waits for a phone call. It comes eventually.
It’s William, the elusive one.
He has credit card information and wants to make a $750 payment.
Now he’s only $1,200 behind.
Though he’s happy to get the cash, Foster knows he has to keep the pressure on.
In the meantime, he waits for another call, another person looking for help.