A Row on the Row

Money runs thicker than blood in the bail-bond business.

In the spring of 1998, bail agent Jolene Martinez and her brother, bounty hunter Duane "Dog" Chapman, were allies in a cantankerous price war on Denver's Bail Bond Row. Siblings united to protect the family business.

What a difference a year makes.
This past April, Chapman and his common-law wife, Beth Barmore, were leaving a restaurant in the Golden Triangle neighborhood when they were confronted by Martinez and her husband, Jerry. Relations between the two couples, who were friends last year, had frayed.

"What the fuck are you looking at?" Barmore demanded.
"You, fat face," Jerry replied.
Then, she claims, he spit on her.

She called Jerry a "fucking spic punkass motherfucker" and spit back at him, even though it was one of those spits, she says, that was more air than spit. Martinez pulled out a tape recorder to catch the divisive comments for posterity. (If carrying a tape recorder around sounds like paranoia, you haven't spent much time on the Row. "You know how the bondsmen are--they're saying things, they're growling," Martinez explains. "It's called preventive medicine. It's like if you get arrested, you call a lawyer.")

Barmore looked to Chapman to step in. But Chapman saw visions of his father then, urging him to keep a level head. Plus, the charismatic bounty hunter was trying to ink a Hollywood deal to film a pilot for a reality-based TV show; in it, Dog would chase down fugitives from justice. He was not about to screw that up. Jerry showed restraint, too, Martinez says, in not trying to punch Barmore's lights out.

The parties split up; the police were called. Jerry and Barmore were both ticketed, though Jerry claimed he never spit on anyone. He and Martinez then filed a restraining order against Chapman and Barmore.

Welcome back to Bail Bond Row, the block of multi-colored Victorian houses along West 13th Avenue, where the slightest offense is blown out of proportion and people habitually accuse each other of lies and corruptions. The rules are different here. Someone is always threatening to harm or kill someone else, and while no bodies have turned up yet, such words are taken seriously. Cameras and tape recorders--the tools of the spy-on-your-neighbor trade--are common. A competitor's simple stroll across the street generally means trouble.

But first, the recap. Troubles began about two years ago, when Martinez began charging a 10 percent commission on the bonds she wrote ("Bondage and Domination," April 2, 1998). Her competitors, who charged 15 percent, felt she was deliberately undercutting them, and they tried to force her to raise her commission to 15 percent. Then, as now, bitter words, hidden tape recorders and arrests ensued.

To the main group, charging 15 percent was an inalienable right. "You can't take it away from them," one bondsman claimed in a meeting that was, of course, recorded. "Just like our forefathers fought a war for freedom." During that same meeting, on January 15, 1998, Martinez's competitors contemplated collectively dropping their commission to 10 percent (or lower) to force Martinez out, a move Martinez felt was evidence of price-fixing.

Barmore, a bail agent herself, started out as a 15-percenter, but after she started dating Dog, she wound up on Martinez's side. Eventually, the Professional Bail Agents of Colorado, to which everyone belonged, splintered into two rival clans. The months-long feud reached a peak at a February 1998 meeting, during which the 10-percenters claim they were physically pushed out of the room and then maced. When all the smoke had cleared, Martinez kept her 10 percent rate and most of her competitors stayed at 15 percent, although some advertised 10 percent down with approved credit--meaning they could charge the extra 5 percent later.

But Barmore and Martinez never much cared for one another. Barmore says Martinez is a bad bail agent; Martinez doesn't like the way the busty Barmore used to come into her office "half-dressed."

With the bail war over, the two began their own battle. The real break came last November, when Barmore and then Chapman began to gravitate toward the 15 percent side. Whereas the year before Chapman believed that bail agent Mary Ellen Pollack had engineered his ouster from that February meeting, he now pleaded with Pollack to bury the hatchet. "Mary Ellen, may I tell you that I love you?" he asked her at a meeting late last year. He says she responded thusly: "And I love you, too, Doggie."

What a difference a year makes.
Martinez says her brother "demanded" that she raise her commission to 15 percent. "I realized then he was already over on their side. I was kind of shocked," she says.

"She felt we had flipped sides," Barmore says. "But you know what? We're Christians. The Bible says you are to forgive thy neighbor."

But the catalyst for the Martinezes' complete isolation from the Row came earlier this year, when a bill worked its way through the legislature that would force bail agents who are insured to pay their own forfeiture judgments when a client skips bail.

Bail agents felt that was the job of insurance companies. So they began backing a separate bill that would reinstate cash bonding in Colorado. What that means, essentially, is that bond agents with enough money and enough years in the business would no longer have to be insured and pay premiums to insurance companies. Both bills eventually passed.

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