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For the week of Dec. 15, 1999 through Dec. 21, 1999

Down and out in Blaine County

More than a century after the West was won, bounty hunters still chase fugitives


By TRAVIS PURSER
Express Staff Writer

Bill Butler and Shauna Wilson

 

It was Sunday morning, about the time people are leaving for church, when a reporter rode down to Gannett with Bill Butler, a partner in Ketchum-based Northwest Bail Bonds, Inc. Butler was looking for one of his clients, a man named Robert Naber, who had missed a date with the Blaine County Courthouse the week before and then had disappeared—a "skip," in his profession’s lingo. Nobody knew where Naber was, not even his parents, it seemed, though Butler thought it would be good idea to drive down and knock on their door personally. Butler’s day-to-day job activities, it’s hard to deny, place him squarely in the category of Old West bounty hunter. If he didn’t find Naber and bring him back to jail within 90 days, Butler said, he and his partner stood to lose $2,500.

Butler, 49, is soft-spoken, yet has the barrel-chested physique of a pit bull. He doesn’t drink and says his 10 p.m. bedtime makes it easier for him to wake up for the late-night calls he often gets from people wanting bail. He’s never worked in law enforcement, he says, but he was a bouncer at Whisky’s and the Roosevelt for awhile.

The day before, his partner had said Butler sometimes carries a sledgehammer, a concealed pistol and handcuffs on this kind of job. Butler and his partner considered the fugitive, Naber, a bad egg in the otherwise relatively tame world of Blaine County bail bond agents. Surely, there would be some kind of struggle getting Naber back to jail.

Twenty years old, Naber (not his real name) had already spent one year in the Blaine County jail. He had been arrested for trespassing, petit theft, possession of drug paraphernalia, etc. Among other things, Butler said, Naber had robbed the till of a local donut shop and broken into people’s houses.

In fact, Naber had become such a thorough pain in so many ways, Butler added, that the local judge had threatened to sentence him to three consecutive one-year terms in the county jail the next time he broke the law.

Compared to the state penitentiary, which features a library, gym and other amenities, the Blaine County Jail is a "rat hole," Butler explained. Being denied the "privilege" of serving a term in the pen instead of the jail is considered an especially severe punishment.

During telephone conversations, Naber’s mother had said that her son had been "abused," even poisoned, by local sheriff’s deputies during his one-year incarceration, which of course, the sheriff’s department denied. She said that he threatened to commit suicide before he would go back. Otherwise, she didn’t know where he was, she insisted.

Through a dozen or more additional phone conversations, Butler had learned that Naber had infuriated so many people that he didn’t have any friends left.

"The kid’s a low life," Butler said, "everybody hates him."

To make matters worse, Butler’s partner had not collected any collateral on Naber when she had paid his way out of jail because he was a "local kid," born and raised in the Wood River Valley. Naber had such strong ties in Hailey and Ketchum, the reasoning went, it was unlikely he would skip and force Butler and Wilson to forfeit the money they had paid the county.

Butler called this a "learning experience." It was the first time in their four years of doing business together, Butler said, that they had failed to get collateral on a person and that person had skipped.

Butler and his partner had recently learned that another bond agent in Hailey was looking for Naber. Apparently, he had recently skipped bail on that agent for a different case.

So Naber had caused a lot of trouble, for a lot of people, it seemed.

"I talked to the sheriff yesterday," Butler said, "and he hopes I don’t find him—they don’t want him back." Again, a statement the sheriff’s department denied making.

#

Butler cruised the Gannett’s unmarked streets, avoiding barking dogs, stopping to knock on doors for directions. Eventually, he pulled into the gravel parking area in front of an ancient trailer home. Somewhere far out in the fields, duck hunters’ shotguns were booming.

The woman who answered the door identified herself as Megan Naber (not her real name), Robert’s mother. She said she wasn’t surprised to see Butler and that she had no idea where her son was. She invited him inside to talk to Robert’s father, John Naber (not his real name). She was recovering from brain surgery for cancer and was on her way to church, she said.

John Naber is a fine-boned man who appears shorter than his wife. He stood warming his back at a gas-fired stove, wearing a green baseball cap. Skunk and fox pelts and antlers adorned the walls, while bundles of Christmas lights littered the brown carpet.

John Naber said he hadn’t seen his son for over a month, since the night before he was supposed to check into a drug rehab clinic. It was important that his son turn himself in soon, Naber said; otherwise, he stood to lose the $500 he had paid to help get Robert out of jail.

Butler explained that he and his partner were trying to help Robert. In the past, they had provided temporary housing for their clients and had helped them to get jobs. His partner, in particular, Butler said, was interested in helping people and was good at it. In fact, she had maintained close personal friendships with some of her previous clients.

Robert wasn’t helping anybody with his hiding, Butler said. "The longer he runs, the worse life will get for him."

To illustrate this point, Butler told the story of an Idaho man who broke probation to visit his dying father in North Dakota. Several years later, the man was pulled over for a dragging muffler, his identification was checked, and before long, he was back in Idaho finishing the remainder of his sentence in jail.

"Eventually, that’s going to happen to Robert," Butler said.

Naber said his son doesn’t trust anyone in the law enforcement system, and that he doesn’t blame him. Naber was particularly wary of Blaine County Sheriff Walt Femling, he said.

Robert is a drug addict, Naber said, but the court system is only interested in incarcerating people, not helping them. As far as Naber was concerned, the court system was to blame for his son’s problems. Robert had only gotten worse, he said, since first being arrested at age 16 for "sleeping in a laundromat and stealing a corn dog."

In a final effort to get something useful out of the trip, Butler suggested Naber allow his phone to be tapped by the sheriff so that Robert’s location could be traced if he called.

"That’s not something I would ever allow the police to do," Naber said.

On the way home, Butler cruised past a house inside of which, he said, cops had found Robert Naber trespassing a couple of weeks earlier. Then, a few days after he had been caught trespassing there, the owner had let Naber back inside to make a phone call. It didn’t make sense, and Butler expressed his frustration this way: "Some people, you’d like to be able to knock the s… out of, but of course you can’t do that."

#

Even though she has the same birthday as her partner, Shauna Wilson could not be more different from Butler. Tan and blonde, she moved to Ketchum from Southern California five years ago, when she was 24, but still looks like she has been hitting the beach every day.

"The guys down at the Sheriff’s office call me ‘Barbie with a badge,’" she said jokingly.

Wilson shares an office in Ketchum with her husband, Roger, an investment manager with a close eye on Wilson’s bail bond agency. The two of them, together with Butler, explained the ins and outs of their business.

The heart of today’s bail bond system is an 1878 supreme court ruling that allows a prisoner to be "delivered into the custody of his sureties (bail bondsman)" as a continuance of his original imprisonment until trial. The ruling gives the bondsman the right to pursue the prisoner into another state and to break and enter his house for the purpose of recovering him. "You’re not out of jail," Roger Wilson said. "You’re in our custody."

For the duration of that custody, a prisoner has even fewer rights than he did in the clink. The prisoner must sign documents that remove nearly every conceivable right he has to privacy. Most astonishingly, the prisoner must consent to the application of physical restraint and the use of deadly force against himself to effect his own recovery.

The prisoner trades his rights for the freedom to await trial somewhere other than behind bars. For assuming the risk of losing the bond, the agent charges a 10-percent commission and a $35 fee. So for Naber’s $2,500 bail, Wilson and Butler stood to make $285 if he appeared in court, or to lose $2,500 if he didn’t.

Additionally, since the prisoner is in jail, the bond agent must do all the legwork, including phone calls and finding collateral and indemnitors. After all that, Butler said, "sometimes you make a profit."

Today, Wilson said, "the whole industry is kind of misinterpreted, because it used to be run by ex-cons." Wilson thinks that image is changing, and that the services a bail bond agent can provide are extending into rehabilitation, especially in small towns and rural areas where there aren’t many hard-core murderers and rapists.

In the Wood River Valley, for example, Wilson bails out a lot of "couch jumpers," or homeless young people, like Naber, who often have substance-abuse problems and frequent run-ins with the law, and who sleep wherever they can find a willing friend with a spare bed. For those people, Wilson has made it her duty to provide a place to stay and to help find a job.

A "best-case scenario," Wilson said, was a 30-year-old local man who was being held in Twin Falls last February for drug possession on a $15,000 bond. Wilson said she spent five days contacting 23 of the man’s friends and relatives, all of whom warned her not to bail him out. Finally, she convinced the man’s parents in Massachusetts to put up their recreational vehicle as collateral. She let the man sleep in her office for six months and found him a job waiting tables, at which he is still working. Now, the man’s parents call Wilson on a weekly basis to see how he’s doing.

For Naber, Wilson imagined a similar outcome. By the time Butler made the trip down to Gannett, however, she said she had made a mistake.

Would she help Naber again? "No way," she said.

"There are some people you can’t help," Butler added.

#

Three days after the Gannett trip, Wilson called the Idaho Mountain Express. A friend of hers who knew Naber had seen him at the Racquet Club Apartments in west Ketchum the day before. The friend invited Naber to her condominium, then called the police.

"Oh, s…," he reportedly said when they arrived. Naber was back in jail.

Naber’s case history shows arrests for no less than a dozen offenses since 1995, including possession of drug paraphernalia, resisting arrest, theft, battery, driving under the influence, reckless driving and other violations. Considering Naber had been in jail for one year out of the previous four, he must have been arrested every several months.

Going to jail, it seemed, didn’t have an impact on Naber.

The visiting room at Blaine County Jail is about the size of a closet. Visitors sit on a bench and talk to the prisoner through a telephone, while trying to catch a glimpse of him through wire-reinforced glass and steel grating.

Naber wore a shocking-orange suit. The silhouette of his wild hair was visible, and one of his eyes peered through one of the grating’s diamond-shaped spaces.

Naber’s attorney had told him not to discuss his present case with anyone, but he did talk about the last time he was arrested. He said he had done one year for petit theft and trespassing after stealing a badge and handcuffs from an officer.

His brother was living with a sheriff’s deputy, Naber said, and he and a friend stole the badge and handcuffs out of the deputy’s bedroom. Also, he said, when he was arrested for stealing the corn dog and sleeping in a laundromat, he was homeless and it was winter.

Naber said he has a drug problem and that he does "pot, coke, crank, acid, whatever’s available."

His father, he said, had enrolled him in the Walker Treatment Center in Gooding, but one week before he was supposed to go, he started doing coke and crank again and decided to skip the center. Now, he said, he lives at friends’ houses and "around."

He said he didn’t want to discuss any abuse he had experienced in jail because sheriff’s deputies would retaliate if they found out. But, he alleged, a deputy had once punched him in the stomach while holding handcuffs like brass knuckles, an allegation Sheriff Femling said is "absolutely false."

Like his father, Naber said the system was to blame for his ongoing problems. He has been singled-out, he claimed, for unusually severe punishment, while drug dealers and other felons go free.

Asked how he would change the system to make it better, he declared, "They keep throwing me in here. It’s a waste of their money."

Counseling might help, he said, but the only counseling he’s ever received was when he was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Boise for a week after he said he "flipped-out" and threw a TV set during his one-year sentence.

Naber said he was kicked out of Wood River High School and, then, Silver Creek Alternative School "for being a troublemaker."

When asked why he was a troublemaker, he said, "I don’t think I’m a troublemaker."

#

If Naber goes to jail for the current charges against him, chances are he won’t do much while he’s there besides sit and wait.

As far as seeing a social worker or counselor is concerned, "We just aren’t set up for anything along those lines," Femling said. The 30-year-old county jail is short on space and funds, Femling added, "and a lot of the time, that’s where the system fails."

Femling also believes that with the average length of stay at only 14 days, the county jail is not the place for rehabilitation, though, by law, the sheriff’s department is required to provide medical care, including psychological services, for prisoners.

With counselors charging an average of $125 an hour, that can be a real drain on the jail’s budget. What’s worse, in Femling’s view, is that some prisoners take advantage of counseling when they don’t really require it.

"If they need some help, they should be working on that," Femling said, "not just taking advantage of the system every time they’re in jail. We’ve had to take people down to Twin Falls for counseling, and then sit there all day waiting for them—it’s a lot of fun."

Femling agrees, however, that sitting in jail doing nothing isn’t very good for most prisoners, either; yet, mandatory minimum sentencing laws have increased jail time in Blaine County in recent years. One example is the minimum one-year sentence for a third-time DUI offender.

"A DUI would be better off with 180 days in a treatment program," Femling said.

#

The Express did find one friend of Naber. She lived in the house he had made the phone call from after being arrested there. She said Naberwas a friend of her 17-year-old daughter.

Naber had never broken into her house, as far as she knew; rather, she said she sometimes gave them food and clothing. "Kids are hungry, you feed them," she said of her open-refrigerator policy.

She was surprised to hear Naber was 20 years old—she thought he was younger.

As for the drugs and other problems he was having, "part of it is where we live," she said. "There’s no place for kid’s to go. He’s bored. He needs to break the chain."

As for Wilson, she’s currently excited about a new bail bond agency she’s opening in Jackson Hole. Asked if she had any more work to do as far as Naber was concerned, she replied, "Nothing. Our job is done."

 

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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.