The Bail Bond Queen And A Controversial US Industry

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The Bail Bond Queen And A Controversial US Industry

Michelle Esquenazi (C), known as The Bail Bond Queen, poses with her agents and bodyguards in front of the Nassau County courthouse in Hempstead, New York. (AFP Photo)

Hempstead, United States:  Michelle Esquenazi tosses her mane of flaming red curls, kicks her feet clad in five-inch stilettos onto her desk and hollers for her assistant.

Meet the Bail Bond Queen, a New York mother of four with a "Master's degree from the streets of Brooklyn" who worked her way up from being a paralegal student on welfare to company's CEO.

She is the woman who can get you out of jail and calm your tearful mother -- for a price -- and she's the one who is going to put you back behind bars if you do a runner.

"I always say I'm a b*****, but I'm not a stupid b*****," Esquenazi tells AFP in Hempstead, a town on Long Island about an hour's train ride east of New York.

Her company, Empire Bail Bonds, is the largest in New York state that helps thousands of clients navigate the US legal system when they get arrested.

The Justice Policy Institute estimates there are 15,000 bail bond agents in the United States, writing bonds for about $14 billion a year in a private industry unmatched anywhere but the Philippines.

Critics complain they take billions from low-income people, with no return on investment in terms of public safety.

Esquenazi says she's doing society a favour.

"We do what governments don't have the resources to do. We do everything at no taxpayers' expense," she explains, sipping milky coffee.

Bone Harvester

Anyone arrested in New York state must appear in court within 24 hours when the judge sets bail. Defendants can either pay cash or purchase a bond to secure their release.

Those who can afford to pay bail get all their money back if they keep all their court dates, even if they are eventually found guilty.

But for those of limited means, bonds are the only option. They pay Esquenazi a non-refundable fee to cover bail for them.

So if they do a runner, she sends her bounty hunters -- Hollywood, Mr T and Jizo -- to haul them back into jail.

She loves recounting the tales of her most famous clients: Michael Mastromarino, the dentist who illegally harvested bones from people's bodies, sold them on the black market and replaced them with PVC piping.

When he was arrested in 2006, his bail was set at $1.5 million, which at the time was the biggest bond she had ever written.

She sent him fresh bagels -- a reminder of the comforts of freedom -- and then a bologna sandwich and a carton of milk, a reminder of lunches behind bars on Rikers Island.

"I had eyes on his a**. I didn't trust him, and I knew he had the ability to run and I wasn't letting my family go out of business," she said.

Mastromarino became so unnerved, she says, that he bought her out for $90,000 and transferred his bond elsewhere. He eventually pleaded guilty in the case and died while serving a prison term.

Honey Trap

Another was Jonathan Roth, arrested for helping his father fake death in an insurance scam, who jumped bail and ran off to Ohio in 2013.

He had no collateral, so Esquenazi turned his manhunt into a business opportunity.

The hunts are the headline-grabbers, but Michelle Esquenazi says her skip rate is less than two percent and she claims to rehabilitate a number of clients, some of whom end up joining her staff. (AFP Photo)


The bounty hunters used a honey trap to flush Roth out. When they brought him back, she dressed him in an Empire shirt and put him in a company vehicle to escort him into custody.

"I made sure that he went in with a bang, that he walked in like a billboard," she said.

"He cost me a lot of money, I had to get my money back somehow."

Hollywood and Mr T -- whose real names are James Carrion and Thomas Avila -- say they keep communities safe by tracking down individuals police don't always have the time to find.

Hollywood, 46, often enlists his wife to reel in suspects, "making love" to them over the telephone, sometimes for weeks.

"I used to sit in bed and say, 'Hey, my wife was never that sweet to me,'" he says. She bought an airline ticket for one man who flew to New York thinking he was in for a dirty weekend -- only to walk into Hollywood's arms.

They case dangerous neighbourhoods, and choose their time carefully to avoid risks. Dogs can be a problem, as can relatives and gangs.

"You never know what to expect," says Avila, 43. "People pop out of everywhere -- closets, attics, basements."

Esquenazi goes nowhere without bodyguards, though she boasts of being able to take out a knee cap or an eyeball in a second.

"I'm a mother first," she says. "I'd be a moron if I were not more careful."

Poorest Fund System

The hunts are the headline-grabbers, but Esquenazi says her skip rate is less than two percent and she claims to rehabilitate a number of clients, some of whom end up joining her staff.

"There's a lot to be said for what we do and the circle of love," she said. "That's why I think we've got it right."

Michelle Esquenazi says she's doing society a favour. (AFP Photo)


But critics believe the industry, which dates back to medieval England, is the ultimate abdication of government responsibility.

"The practice of essentially setting a price on people's heads for their liberty is at odds with our fundamental legal system (and) the presumption of innocence," says Jon Wool of the Vera Institute of Justice.

"It's just shifting the burden from government funding the system to requiring that the poorest communities fund the system," he told AFP.

Wool says pre-trial detention should be the exception, not a standard threat for everyone arrested.

America has the highest incarceration rate in the developed world, around 20 percent of whom are awaiting trial.

Esquenazi says it's not fair to blackball the entire industry.

"There are always going to be bad apples," she said. "There are bad operators in every facet of every industry there is."

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