Bounty hunter killings echo the Wild West

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The killings in Arizona last weekend of a couple in their bed by a posse of bounty hunters has thrown the spotlight on a violent arm of the American justice system that recalls the "Dead or Alive" posters of the old Wild West.

Arizona police confirmed that five men, who described themselves as "fugitive recovery agents", broke into a Phoenix home at 4am on Sunday morning apparently in pursuit of a California man who had jumped bail.

What happened inside has outraged America and prompted politicians in Arizona to call for laws curbing bounty hunters, whose lucrative trade is to track down runaways on behalf of bail bond agencies.

Armed with long-barrel handguns and clad in black ski-masks, the men burst into the house, held a couple and three children at gunpoint and then sledge-hammered their way into the bedroom of Chris Foote, 23, and his girlfriend, 20-year-old Spring Wright.

A gunfight ensued after Mr Foote fired a hundgun beside his bed. In a hail of bullets, two of the bounty hunters were wounded. Mr Foote and Ms Wright were killed outright.

Police believe that the raid was a blundersince there is nothing to connect the residents with the man being sought by the bounty hunters. "It's a mystery to us," said police spokesman, Mike Torres.

Leading a campaign to change the Arizona law is Chris Foote's father, Tom. "I used to think I was safe in my house," he said. "Now I don't. This could happen to any family".

In all but three US states, bounty hunters can operate without a licence and with fewer controls than legitimate police officers. The legality of the industry is based on a Supreme Court ruling of 1873 - in an era when the western frontier was still being established.

Experts believe that there are as many as 2,000 bounty hunters in the US, benefiting from the pressures of overflowing courtrooms and prisons. It is thought that of the roughly 35,000 people who jump bail annually, as many as 87 per cent are brought to justice by bounty hunters.

The lack of controls is highlighted by so-called bounty-hunting schools offering "full" training courses in three days. Alternatively, aspiring bounty hunters can simply buy starter kits which include a black kit bag, leg irons, handcuffs, pepper spray and an all-black outfit of T-shirt, jacket and cap.

"There's been little change in the law since the territorial days when bounty hunters were used by sheriffs to look for people who had robbed stagecoaches," said Arizona State Senator, John Kaites. "In 1997 we need other means to keep innocent people from getting hurt."

Three of the men involved in Sunday's incident are now in policy custody in Phoenix and face charges of second degree murder. Yesterday, however, a full-scale manhunt was under way for the other two members of the posse who were described by police as dangerous.