A DEADLY GAME OF CAT AND MOUSE

Meet Stan Rivkin, a man who really has seen it all. One of America's most experienced bounty hunters, he has been chasing crooks for nearly 50 years. But bounty hunting has changed, and Stan isn't as young as he used to be.
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The Independent Culture
PARKED IN a station wagon down a gravel road from a pink-painted whorehouse, on the eastern outskirts of New York City, the old man chewing on a ragged cigar stump turns to his young Haitian colleague: "You see that guy over there, by the Do Not Enter sign? That's him." He points to a young man in a blue Nike jacket and a woollen hat, and 22-year-old Jean directs his binoculars at the spot. A beeper goes off and Stan Rivkin, the older man, makes a short phone call. But a minute later, he again cranes his neck in the direction of the tall, soulless, brick housing projects, in front of which the man he is spying on is selling crack cocaine. "Where the fuck did he go?" Stan shouts tensely. "He's still there," Jean replies calmly, peering through the field glasses. "We've got to get this motherfucker now " the first man mutters. "Is that Fatboy?" he continues angrily, pointing to a large man standing near their target. "We've got to get him before Fatboy comes around." Stan and Jean had arrested Fatboy in a previous sweep.

Jean decides to do a "walk-by". Wearing jeans, a canvas jacket and a brown hat - generic street uniform in these parts - he picks up a walkie- talkie, stuffs it into his jacket, and leaves the car. He walks off in the direction of the drug dealers, who still seem to be everywhere in the run-down public housing of Mayor Giuliani's supposedly "low crime" New York, to see if he can glimpse their quarry up close, to make absolutely sure his appearance matches the two photos they have of their suspect, Mark M.

Stan Rivkin, no longer young, his body not as resilient as it once was, groans theatrically. "Shit, I gotta take a leak." And he too steps out of the car. He wanders over to the bull-rushes and, standing amid the detritus of a neglected neighbourhood - the plastic containers, broken bottles and crack vials - he unzips his flies and pees. Visibly relieved, he returns to the car.

Soon afterwards Jean radios in. "Stan, looks like our guy." "What percentage?" Stan wants to know. "Ninety." A few minutes later, Jean returns. They're going to wait until Mark is momentarily isolated, when he isn't surrounded by his friends - several of whom, including Fatboy, have had run-ins with Jean and Stan before and would, therefore, recognise them - and then they're going to try to nab the dealer. Jean is contemptuous of the people he is spying on: "They make so much money. And they don't even buy cars or nothing. They just use it to buy clothes "

The two men sit in the car and watch, biding their time. "I have a feeling this motherfucker will rabbit," Stan says, thinking aloud in a deep stentorian voice. "He won't get away from me " Jean says confidently. Now that Stan is old, has had a triple-bypass operation, and can no longer chase people on foot, helpers like Jean act as the big guy's legs.

It turns out, however, that Mark won't have to do a runner. At 12.30 the two men decide to pay a quick visit to McDonald's. Knowing the dealers' pattern of behaviour, Stan and Jean are confident they'll be outside all day. After all, it's Saturday: their hooked clients are carrying Friday's pay-cheques and everybody wants to buy their highs before the weekend parties. Unfortunately, when the two men return, they can't see Mark. They assume he must have taken his business indoors. And they settle down to wait for his return. But an hour and a half later, the gang starts sending scouts to the gravel road to check out the car that's been sitting there, on and off, all day. Since Stan's 1980s station wagon is sporting plates that read "Hunter 4", it's a fair bet that they've been rumbled. Cursing his luck, Stan drives off, pledging to return the next day, in a van with tinted windows. He wishes he'd had the foresight to bring along one of his street-aides, who could have impersonated a buyer and actually gone into the hallways of the projects, where Mark seems to have been doing most of his dealing, and brought the fugitive out. "I should have had Q with us or some other jerkoff. You know who'd be good?" he asks the air aggressively. "Trouble But I can't find him. His phone's been disconnected. Fuckin' Trouble'd probably pull him out of there by himself."

It's the kind of oversight of which Stan Rivkin is increasingly becoming guilty these days. He just doesn't seem to be as hot as he once was. He's slowing down, sabotaging himself through carelessness. It's probably time to retire, but his ego won't allow it.

Rivkin isn't your average, run-of-the-mill 65-year-old. For a start, the cigar-addicted, big-paunched man is still working, still fleeing the very idea of retirement. For another thing, while pursuing his work, Stan occasionally has to lock people up in the basement of his suburban Long Island home. In the old days, at the height of his career, when he had his German shepherds and his rottweilers, and when glossy magazines in America were writing glowing profiles of him and network television was broadcasting a film about him, he brought prisoners home more often. Nowadays, his wife isn't so keen on looking after them (and anyway, his capture rate has gone down). And so these days, Stan's more inclined to lodge people in a local gaol.

Rivkin is a "skip-tracer" - or, to put it in Hollywood English, a bounty hunter (remember Midnight Run?). It's a uniquely American form of employment. His job is to go after people who borrow money for their bail from private loan sharks - known, in America, as bondsmen - and who then fail to turn up in court for their hearing. For if a person fails to meet the terms of their bail, whoever puts up the money stands to forfeit it. And whereas in England - and indeed in all other countries in which bail is granted to defendants - it is the role of the police to haul in skippers, in America, if the fugitive borrowed their bail money from a private source, the private sector rules the roost. (Of course, many people put up their own bail, and in that case it is the job of the notoriously ineffective police Warrant Squads to track them down).

Stan Rivkin's role as a freelance employee for various bondsmen, is to bring the fugitives back in and "exonerate" the bond for these bondsmen. His cut: 10 per cent of the value of the bail bond. His motivation: getting the "scumbags" off the streets. Or, as another hunter - a younger, African- American man from Newark, who dresses in Swat-styled black uniforms and looks much like the Black Panthers who patrolled the streets of Newark a generation ago - puts it, explaining the rush that propels the hunters on, "There's nothing like hunting a man Nothing like it It's your job to catch him and his job to run." Not to put too fine a point on it, done well, this is the ultimate game of cat and mouse.

And so, for those 10 per cents - the few hundred dollars here, the thousand dollars there, the occasional even larger fee somewhere else - and that unbeatable adrenaline rush, Stan continues to hustle the streets of New York not far off a half-century after he caught his first runaway.

Unfortunately his tactics and his persona are not as effective these days as they used to be. Once upon a time, when Stan was one of only a handful of practitioners across the 50 states, and when trash TV hadn't yet turned this profession into the glamourous draw it is today, it didn't really matter what you looked like or how visible you were, the bad guys still weren't expecting you to show up on their doorsteps or in their "hoods". And so Stan would mop up. But these days, bounty hunting is a hot topic.

For at the end of August last year, five men burst into a house in Phoenix, Arizona, and in the resultant shoot-out, two occupants of the house were killed. The men claimed to be bounty hunters who had tragically mistaken the identity of those inside the house; but after a couple of weeks, prosecutors dismissed this story. Apparently, the gunmen were burglars, whose expedition that day had gone awry. Their story, the prosecutors decided, was a ghoulish fantasy invented after the event in a clever attempt to avoid murder charges. But this discovery came too late to prevent an avalanche of publi- city. Bounty hunting suddenly was big-time. Overnight, the hunters went from being the heroes of a gung-ho subculture to being mainstream American villains.

Since then, state politicians from New York to Arizona have advocated regulating the profession: there has been talk of restricting eligible hunters to those with approximately two years of college experience or time served in the military, of making them register with local police forces before embarking on an action, even of creating state-run training schools and licensing structures.

But licensing or no licensing, with close to 2,000 people claiming to be hunters roaming America - many of them trained by another old-timer, Bob Burton (an Arizonan who has almost as many war stories under his belt as Rivkin), and his self-promoting National Association of Bail Enforcement Agents (NABEA) - and with sensationalist television shows turning many of them into subculture celebrities, you need a bit more subtlety. A low- key presence, for a start.

Yet Stan still turns up to stakeouts wearing a khaki uniform and a hat that asserts, "Sure you can have my gun ... bullets first." And he still drives the car with those giveaway license plates. So, despite his flippant, defiant assertion that his quarries "can't read in the daytime, because they learned to read in nightschool," Stan keeps being rumbled.

Meanwhile, former proteges, such as the glamorous hunter who sometimes goes by the alias of John de Norfolk, are making big bucks chasing down everyone from runaway drug dealers to "non-citizen felons" (illegal immigrants who have deportation proceedings launched against them immediately upon their release from prison), all of whom have run out on bail loans put up by bondsmen.

In fact, the business of people-hunting, like so much of the private security and prison apparatus, is booming in the US. Perversely, these professions count among the weirdest symptoms of America's industrial decline. Without the jobs previously generated by factories, mines, steel mills and the like, economically depressed villages bid instead for the right to build job- generating prisons to accommodate the increasing numbers of city kids who are being arrested and sentenced as a result of the so-called Wars on Drugs and Crime (currently there are more than 1.5 million people in prison in America).

Manufacturers of security equipment, no longer fattened on the military expenditures of the Cold War, instead invest millions of dollars developing gadgets such as electronic stun guns that can temporarily knock out all voluntary muscle control in a victim. Multinational corporations routinely hire cheap "prisoner labour" to staff their phones (such as the airline TWA), to sew their clothes, to put together their products. California now spends more money on its prison system than on its famous public universities.

As more people face stiffer sentences, so more jump bail, preferring to flee into what they hope will be the security of anonymity rather than appear in court to face their charges. And as the numbers skipping out on their court dates grow, so the numbers of freelance hunters hired by the bailbond agents to bring them back also rises.

Ten years ago, only a handful of people would define themselves as bounty hunters. Now, as the century draws to a close, NABEA has close to 2,000 members nationwide. And there are also dozens of loners, including many of the best, or best-known, hunters (such as Stan), who choose to operate outside of NABEA's orbit. Some states, such as New York, have well over 100 hunters roaming their streets and cities. Last year, all told, hunters caught more than 23,000 people. To put it in perspective, that's getting on for half the total number of people in prison in Britain.

Often hunters are forced to catch their men (or women) by breaking down their doors and dragging them out of their abode. But they prefer to kidnap them from the street, shackling them (leg irons, stomach chains, handcuffs), shoving them into the car and speeding away again before a crowd can gather to interfere with their business. Generally the catch is almost an afterthought - for, contrary to most images of hunting, the real work is in the stakeout, the sleuthing. The catches are often anti-climactic affairs: men with scared eyes and frozen bodies taken on their way to catch the subway to work; fugitives arrested late at night in their underclothes; drug dealers flushed out of their apartments early in the morning while they're sleeping off a night of hard work. As hunter "Robert R" says, "90 per cent of it is investigative. The arrest is really no problem if you use your head, because the element of surprise is in your favour." Bob Burton asserts that 98 per cent of hunting arrests are peaceable affairs. For by the time the bust goes down, the hunters know their quarrey's routine so well they can often simply nab 'em and run. The real show is in the lead-up.

Stan's antics may no longer bag so many captives, but his techniques, and those perfected by men like Burton, are now being taught at NABEA seminars across the country. At these seminars, held every few months and attended by dozens of wannabes at a time (cost $427, chance of being able to make a viable income as a full-time hunter, at most one in six), lectures are given on everything from the tricks needed to gain access to a fugitive's credit-card records (impersonation of a fugitive over the telephone isn't legal but it is commonplace) through to sending phony letters to gullible skippers informing them that they have won the Lottery and that they have to pick up their cheque at a given building on a given day. Burton and some of his henchmen even lecture students on how to place fake food-delivery orders. The idea is that you follow the deliveryman and then charge through your quarry's open front door as he stands there wondering why a meal has been delivered that he doesn't remember ordering.

THE AURA surrounding the American bounty hunter has been a potent one for at least 150 years, ever since the legendary Edward Bonney made his name and his fortune tracking down gangsters in the lawless states of the American Mid-west. These days, the profession is one of the last refuges for the macho fantasy of the gun-toting citizen-hero.

Today, the swaggering braggadocio of the hunters is clearly apparent in Stan Rivkin, who claims to have been "shot, slashed and stabbed" while plying his trade. The walls of his house are covered with photos: Stan with a large gun; Stan with a bloodhound that looks like it could take down a buffalo without too much trouble; Stan on a motorbike; Stan standing beside an enormous old car.

The carefully presented message is clear: Stan Rivkin, bounty hunter, gun-owning free man, is not a person to be fucked with. And it is this possibility, the chance of converting oneself from just another nine- to-fiver into a potent American legend, that continues to draw people to this lonely way of life.

Sitting in his house on Long Island - in the last mass of New York satellite towns before the continent dribbles out into the Atlantic Ocean - Stan Rivkin gets a call from one of his regular employers, Brooklyn bondsman Irving Newman. Newman wants to give his hunter the paperwork for several cases.

Rivkin, always the performer, a man who appears to have merged his real and his theatrical persona into one outlandish whole, dons his khakis, grabs a stack of cigars and puts on his eponymous baseball cap. And then he gets into his huge station wagon, its back crammed with more khakis, binoculars, animal-hunting gear and other paraphernalia from weekend excursions upstate with his teenage son, and heads west into Brooklyn. He is still chomping on his trademark cigar - since his triple bypass rendered smoking a no-no, Rivkin now only chews the cigars; he quite literally gnaws the brown stick down to a stub, like a dog attacking a familiar old bone, or a child with its dummy.

At 10.30 in the morning, hunter leaves bondsman's office in a hurry. For as chance would have it, while he was there, an informant had phoned in to say that one of the fugitives he was searching for was hanging out on a street corner in Queens selling drugs with his "home-boys". Stan runs back to his car and speeds off to South Ozone Park, Queens, looking over his notes, including a description of his prey, as he drives.

Like so many cases, this one is a sordid web of family feuds and broken promises: Rene is a drug dealer who has run out on his $4,000 bail. The collateral for this bail was put up by his ex-wife's grandmother, who now stands to lose her house unless she can come up with the cash to pay off the aggrieved bondsman. Which she doesn't seem able to do. And so, to protect the grandmother, Rene's sister-in-law has decided to snitch on Rene. As it happens, so has the sister. Although neither woman is willing to turn publicly on Rene, in secret both are feeding titbits of information to the bounty hunter. Now Rivkin is off to haul him in. As he is fond of pointing out, "Chercher la femme Find the woman and you'll usually find the guy." It's a surprising linguistic flourish from someone who claims never to have read a book from cover to cover in his life.

Rivkin makes a concession to sleuthing's covert protocols. He puts a yellow "Car Service" sign on his dashboard, palms a small pair of binoculars and settles down to watch the street. He spends four hours in South Ozone Park, circling the drab urban landscape around Rockaway Boulevard, periodically peering into the windows of a bodega and a barbershop Rene is known to frequent - the hunters generally find their prey to be remarkably consistent as to their choice of hang-outs. But he fails to find his man. For within minutes of Stan's arrival, the home-boys have clocked his outlandish appearance and the "Hunter 4" license plates and National Rifle Association stickers adorning his 1988 Ford LTD station wagon.

The dealers who've been hanging around outside the local bodegas, graffitied store-fronts and salons gradually abandon their turf, and the silence of the streets begins to open up. The bad guys shift their operations down the block. And the local kids in their baggy jeans and hooded or padded jackets cruise past Rivkin's car shouting out "bounty hunter " in derisive tones as they pass. It's such a sad scene, it's almost comical.

Stan is frustrated now. So he drives around the block a few times and swears a lot. It doesn't help. There's no magic puff of smoke, no criminal materialises to answer his prayers. He rings the sister-in-law on his mobile phone; and she tells him that Rene sometimes turns up at the local public school to pick up his young son. So he drives over to the school and parks ... and is immediately boxed in by a fleet of yellow school buses. "This is gonna be a bitch," he sighs, and drives down the road. He makes a U-turn and heads back along the opposite side. As the children begin leaving the building, Stan turns the engine off and - in full khaki gear, wearing the baseball cap and chomping on his cigar - he gets out of the station wagon and walks across to the entrance. Not smart.

Within two minutes a car full of crime-squad detectives and a second police car screech to a halt next to the station wagon, and approach the hunter. Rivkin is definitely not having a good day at the office.

The police show the hunter their badges; and he shows them his badge, similar to a sheriff's star, and available from several mail-order catalogue outlets these days. IDs sorted out, the cops reluctantly drive off. But Stan knows that what small chance he had of finding Rene in the crowd of parents is now gone. He decides to call it a day and heads back to Long Island. "I forgot to take off my cap," he explains apologetically, as if his disguise would have been perfect but for this one little detail. Once again, Stan has swung his bat and missed the ball.

The next morning, he is back in Queens, still in khakis and cap, but this time in a van with tinted windows; his 15-year-old son is along to help with some of the spywork, and so is Jean.

The old man tries to convince the sister-in-law to sit in the van with them and point Rene out when he hits the street. But, not surprisingly, the woman is scared, and refuses. After all, she has to live in this squalid part of town. So Stan pulls into a garage and the trio watch the street from there. The Haitian leaves the van and walks around the neighbourhood, scouting out Rene's known hangouts, casually talking to other men on the block. He finds Rene's ex-wife and convinces her to lend him her young son for a short stroll down the street, to see if he can see his father and point him out to Jean. The young man and the small boy walk off, chatting to each other. But a few minutes later, Jean brings him back to the nervous- looking mother. Rene isn't on the street.

The old goatee'd people-repossessor sits in the van for over an hour. But Rene never shows. Rivkin makes a few more phone calls to the sister- in-law and, swearing derisively, eventually decides that she is running him around. And so, for the second day in succession, the bounty hunter drives off, this time northwards to the Bronx, to look for informants on another case. Strike three.

And now it becomes clear: the only prisoner on show today is Stan Rivkin, the George Foreman of this young-person's profession, a prisoner of his past glories, unwilling to abandon his place in the spotlight, and not quite sure how to retire with the panache that his status demands.

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