Metropolis: Wednesday, November 5, 2003
Sauce for the Goose

A bail bondswoman needed some of her own product when charged with operating illegally.


David Sloan’s luck couldn’t have gotten much worse back in the spring of 2002.

First, according to the story he told in court documents, a joking remark that he made to a person he met on the street in Fort Worth was reported to police as a bomb threat, and Sloan got arrested. Then a minister friend hooked him up with what turned out to be an unlicensed bondswoman. She in turn handed his case over to an attorney whom, Sloan said, he saw for the first time on the day of trial and who told him his options were to plead guilty and get probation or go to jail that day.

His only piece of luck also happened on the street. Outside the courthouse, he ran into attorney Mike Sadler. When he told Sadler what had happened, a red flag went up in Sadler’s head. He knew that Bail Bonds by Patsy wasn’t licensed here.

With Sadler’s help, Sloan fought to clear his name and record. He lost, but his case helped to alert authorities that Patsy Burge, owner of Bail Bonds by Patsy, has been operating what appears to be an illegal bail bond business in Tarrant County. After an investigation by the district attorney’s office, Burge was charged in April with advertising as a bail bond surety without a license, a Class B misdemeanor. That seems not to have stopped her business, however. It has continued to operate, even while her case nears its Thursday trial date.

The Tarrant County Bail Bond Board has acknowledged that there are too many bail bond companies that play fast and loose with the law that governs their business. Although the board has taken action against some of the transgressors, others continue to write bonds, and Tarrant County remains one of the widest open counties in Texas for bail bond operators. Assistant District Attorney David Hudson said the situation dates back to the ’60s, when Sheriff Lon Evans controlled the bail bond business with an iron hand. Even though the laws that govern bail bonds in Texas changed in the ’70s, Hudson said some of that legacy remains. “There are a handful of [unlicensed bail bond operators],” he said, “but Patsy Burge has been doing business more openly and notoriously than the rest. She bought an ad.”

Sloan’s troubles started when he was arrested on April 21, 2002, and charged with “false alarm/report.” While walking through a street festival to the train station in downtown Fort Worth, carrying a suitcase, Sloan had made what he called a joking statement that “these bombs are heavy,” which an event staffer overheard and interpreted as a bomb threat. Sloan, a hard-living 66-year-old, had been staying at the home of a Dallas minister, the Rev. Jorge Gonzalez, so he called Gonzalez from jail in Mansfield. The minister contacted a Dallas County bondsman and was referred to Bail Bonds by Patsy. After calling the number he was given, Gonzalez visited the Mansfield bond office to fill out paperwork.

Sloan’s sister Helen, who lives in Michigan, told Sadler that she agreed to pay for her brother’s bond, by charging $250 each to two of her credit cards. When she received her credit card bills for the month, she was puzzled to see that the payments were made to B&H Wrecker in Mansfield rather than to a bondsman. The owner of B&H Wrecker: Patsy Burge.

Five days later, Sloan’s bond was finally posted — not by Burge but by attorney Don Bodenhamer, although Sloan said in an affidavit that neither he nor his sister had retained the lawyer’s services. Bodenhamer swore in the bond document that he was the attorney of record in the case. When Sloan received notice of his court date, it came from Bodenhamer’s office. The letter included an offer by Bodenhamer to represent Sloan in court — if Sloan came to the attorney’s office to pay his retainer before the court date. Sloan said he tried unsuccessfully to contact Bodenhamer, so when he arrived in County Criminal Court No. 7 on June 5, he was unsure whether he was represented.

Finally, Bodenhamer arrived and asked Sloan for payment. Sloan paid him $80 of the $100 in cash he had. According to Sloan, Bodenhamer asked what he had been arrested for, then said he was going inside to talk to a prosecutor. He returned with paperwork by which Sloan could plead guilty to the false alarm/report charge. According to the affidavit, when Sloan protested that he didn’t feel he was guilty, his attorney told him that he could either sign the papers or go to jail that day.

“I did not want to go to jail,” said Sloan in his request for a new trial. “I was confused, but given the choices, I accepted the plea offer.” Before Judge Cheril Hardy, Sloan expressed his discomfort at entering a guilty plea when he felt he was not guilty because he was “just kidding.” After the judge told Sloan that was not a legal defense, he pled guilty.

Burge’s and Bodenhamer’s actions raise questions under the state’s bail bond laws, which make it illegal for unlicensed bondsmen to work in a county like Tarrant, which has a bail bond board, or to advertise their services in those counties. To circumvent the law, unlicensed bondsmen will often “split a bond” — take calls from people needing bonds, then pass the information on to a licensed bondsman or an attorney, who then posts the bond. State law also prohibits that dodge, making it illegal for bail bondsmen to recommend an attorney or law firm to a client. Part of the rationale is that when an attorney posts the bond, the accused person then feels pressured to hire that attorney.

Neither Burge nor Bodenhamer returned calls from Fort Worth Weekly asking for comment for this story.

After agreeing to represent Sloan, attorney Sadler passed on the information about Burge and Bodenhamer to county officials. It took several months, but the district attorney’s office eventually opened an investigation. According to an affidavit filed in court, D.A. investigator Michael DeLaFlor checked with the Tarrant bail bond board and found that Burge has never been licensed here. Nonetheless, Burge had a display ad for Bail Bonds by Patsy in the phone book, advertising her services covering “all counties, all jails.”

DeLaFlor also found other people unhappy with Burge. When Steve Eaton of Fort Worth was arrested on drug charges in June 2002, he told his wife Andrea to call Bail Bonds by Patsy. According to DeLaFlor’s affidavit, Andrea didn’t have the cash on hand needed to make the bond, but said a Burge employee told her the bond office would accept the Eatons’ 1999 Chevrolet Malibu as collateral. A truck from B&H Wrecker came to collect the money and the vehicle with title. DeLaFlor said that the driver gave Andrea a B&H Wrecker receipt with the company name crossed out and “Bail Bonds by Patsy” written in.

When Steve Eaton went to the bond office to sign his paperwork, the office was closed. He called the next day and was told that the paperwork would be mailed. He never received it. The name of attorney Keith McKay appeared on the bond, but when Andrea called McKay, DeLaFlor wrote, the attorney admitted been retained by her husband, but had been sent the case by Burge.

Having heard that Burge was not licensed in Tarrant County, and worried about what was going on, Andrea Eaton filed a complaint with the bail bond board. Although she and her husband owed the bond company more money for the bond, Andrea wrote Burge to say she would not make the payment until she heard back from the bail bond board. Eventually, the Eatons paid Bail Bonds by Patsy $450 for Steve’s bond.

Burge was arrested on Apr. 30 — and, not surprisingly, bonded out. On Sept. 25, Bodenhamer filed a request for release from surety, surrendering Burge into the sheriff’s custody, because his client had failed to contact his office and follow the conditions of her bond. Burge was re-arrested on Oct. 3. Bondsman Ron Wright posted her new bond. But when the Weekly called her office this week, employees said Bail Bonds by Patsy was still in business.

Her case is set to be heard on Thursday, but prosecutor Hudson said it probably will be delayed. He was interested to hear that her business seemed to be still in operation. “If we can verify that, we’ll probably ask the court to make that [ceasing operation] a condition” of her remaining free on bond, he said.

Bodenhamer and McKay are in good standing with the State Bar of Texas with “no disciplinary history,” bar officials said. However, officials said they were not allowed to release information on any ethics complaints filed against lawyers.

While DeLaFlor was investigating Burge, Sadler was trying to win a new trial for Sloan, on the grounds that his guilty plea was not freely made and that Bodenhamer hadn’t represented him well due to a conflict of interest. Bodenhamer, however, failed to show up in court, and another bondsman who’d promised Sloan he’d testify about the business relationship between Burge and Bodenhamer also failed to appear. Attempts to subpoena Burge and her employees were similarly unsuccessful. Judge Hardy initially found two of them — Brenda Trammell and Charlotte Murphy — in contempt of court but later deleted the contempt citations from the record. When they appeared in court, Trammell and Murphy were represented by Bodenhamer.

In the end, Hardy denied Sloan’s request for a new trial. He’d already paid his fine and served his time, and he chose not to file an appeal. “David’s a very solid guy who felt he was done wrong,” said Sadler. “At the end of the process, he felt the same way he did that day out in the street: like he’d been screwed.”

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