The Bounty Hunters

A look at a seedy business

The hunters find their prey one clue at a time, fishing addresses from an ocean of data, plotting social networks like the spokes of a wheel, gauging the speed of an electrical meter, reading cigarette burns on the venetian blinds. Betrayal is their friend. In every case, there is something they call the Judas Factor.

Neal McWhorter and Raymond Matthews are bail recovery agents, which is to say they hunt people for money.

“Think that’s her?” says McWhorter, white, thickset, thirty-four, diamond wedding band catching the sun. He eyes a woman with platinum braids outside a cosmetics shop in South Atlanta.

“Nah,” says Matthews, black, forty-eight, church deacon, flecks of gray in his beard, wearing a T-shirt that shows a father and son going fishing. “I don’t think that’s her. Nose looks a little pointy.”

McWhorter yanks the wheel and chugs north on Metropolitan Parkway in his Crown Victoria. This is a popular conveyance for authority figures in the neighborhood, including police officers and drug dealers alike. They all play a part in the justice system. When someone is arrested and gets out on bail and fails to appear for court, the bail agents are the ones most likely to bring them in. Unlike police officers, they have money riding on the hunt. If they catch the fugitive, they get paid 10 percent of the value of the bond, or $200, whichever is greater. If the fugitive gets away, the bail agent goes home with nothing.

Matthews leans over and taps the horn with the fleshy part of his hand. A woman in a short purple dress turns her head. McWhorter looks at her face, then looks down at a mug shot in his lap. No match. Matthews and McWhorter have Tasers and .40-caliber pistols. They have caught killers and child molesters. They have four half-liter bottles of water on the left rear floorboard in case they need to flush the eyes of a suspect they have just pepper-sprayed. Today they are hunting prostitutes. One is called Lil’ Mama, but this is not much help. Any number of Lil’ Mamas walk the streets of South Atlanta.

“All four of these prostitutes,” says McWhorter, “they had the same pimp.” His name was Dollar. They could count on him to hand over his girls when they skipped court. Now Dollar is in jail. Matthews and McWhorter need a new Judas. Once, when a dangerous felon disappeared in an apartment complex, a woman made a sign that showed the unit number where he was hiding. At a drug house, a bunch of addicts shoved the fugitive out the window because they didn’t want the door kicked in. The agents have another source who turns in her fellow prostitutes even though McWhorter has personally arrested her three times; she has a certain loyalty, because he always bails her out.

The men spot a woman on the sidewalk in Daisy Dukes and an orange cap-sleeve T-shirt. They question her but let her go.

“That girl’s got a lot of tats in the right places,” says McWhorter, “but they don’t say the right things.”

Around the corner, they see a woman in a short yellow dress. McWhorter hits the brake.

“You ain’t in no trouble,” he says.

“Who y’all looking for?” she says. “Maybe I can help you.”

“I’ll pay you if you can,” McWhorter says. “But you know, you’ll see us out here again, so you don’t wanna do me wrong.”

“I’m hungry,” she says. “I’m thirsty.”

Every Judas has a price. McWhorter reaches to the floorboard and grabs a bottle of water. He hands it to the woman in yellow, along with a ten-dollar bill.

Photograph by Caroline Kilgore