When I first meet Frank Abramovitz, he’s wearing a leather Harley Davidson hat and jeans that are a little too short. He has bright blue eyes and a gold hoop in his ear. He’s 75 years old, and he’s the first bounty hunter I’ve ever met. “They call me the Bear,” Frank tells me.“Cuz I put a couple guys through a door one night and after that everybody called me the Bear.”
Before Frank, the only bounty hunter I’d ever heard of was that guy Dog, with his own TV show. But Frank says Dog’s a jackass and a phony. Frank has a lot of strong opinions. So first, a little background on bounty hunting: bounty hunters like Frank get cases from a bondsman.
“I put a couple guys through a door one night and after that everybody called me the Bear.”
— Frank Abramovitz
They try to find fugitives who have jumped bail. They often work with the police. But once he’s on a case, Frank can actually do a lot of stuff the police can’t do. “We don’t have to read you your rights,” says Frank. “I can go into church and take you out, if you’re in the synagogue I can take you out. I can kick your doors in at 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning.”
I’m supposed to be here for a sit down interview with Frank. But instead, I end up following Frank and four other agents around until 5 in the morning. We’re looking for some guy named Neil. Neil’s wanted for criminal threatening and disorderly conduct.
A lot of fugitives list false addresses on their paperwork, which means bounty hunters do a lot of snooping around. They talk to prostitutes, hit up corner stores, question barbers. They look for the fugitive’s friends and family. But Frank says they often find more information online. I watch Frank click through every thing Neil’s ever posted on Facebook.
“I don’t care if you hide in the ceiling, we’re gonna find you.”
— Frank Abramovitz
Once they have a good idea of where someone might be, the agents stakeout the house. We spend a lot of time watching curtains twitch and wondering if it might mean anything. After a while, we raid the building. That often means searching the place. According to Frank, “I don’t care if you hide in the ceiling, we’re gonna find you. We’ve pulled them out of washing machines. We’ve pulled them out from underneath closets. We pulled a guy out of Hudson, NH out of a chimney.” He says they don’t mind showing up on holidays, even arresting people during Christmas dinner. Frank once arrested a fugitive during the guy’s own wedding.
But despite all this effort, the business isn’t that profitable. Frank tells me that bounty hunters only make 10% of the fugitive’s bail. On Neil’s case, for example, their cut is $80. For five agents, that’s about $16 apiece. And I watch them track this guy for over 15 hours. Per person, it pans out to about a dollar an hour. And that’s not even counting all the money we spend on coffee.
So if it’s not the money, why are the agents putting all this time into searching criminal’s bedrooms? Over and over again, I get the same answer: to keep people safe. “You’re off the road, you’re going to jail, see you later,” explains Jeff Dumensil. He’s at work even though he has some broken ribs right now. “I want to scare the shit out of you because I don’t want you doing it again.”
I keep asking the agents if they ever feel bad for the people they’re hunting. Because you end up learning all sorts of intimate details about these people in bad situations. I know that Neil loves rap music. I know his mom rolls her own cigarettes and watches “Cops.” I know that his girlfriend has struggled with drug addiction, that she worked as a prostitute. And the agents agree that not all the fugitives are bad people.
“I actually kind of felt bad because when we went in, there was little kids there.”
— Robert Laflamme
Some of them even send Frank Christmas cards after they’ve been arrested. But none of the agents feel guilty. Frank says that after a while, you just hear the same stories over and over again. “We don’t believe them anymore. We know the routine.”
Robert Laflamme is the newest member of the team. He’s the only one who says he hasn’t hit that point yet. “The adrenaline was nice and everything,” says Rob about his first arrest, “and I actually kind of felt bad because when we went in, there was little kids there. And I was like apologetic about how we came in, how we were walking in front of the little kid, and she wasn’t understanding. So it’s hard. For me.”
And it’s even harder because Rob grew up here, in Manchester. “I do know a lot of people,” he says, “and when I walk in, I know the people that live in the apartment that know the kid we’re going after.” Because of the crowd he used to hang out with, Rob has no doubt that before long he’ll have to arrest a friend.
But even though some parts are hard, when we’re on the stakeout, Rob says he already thinks of the other agents like a family. At the end of the day, Rob goes back home to his kids. But Frank often stays at the office, and just sleeps on the couch by his desk. His family is mostly gone now.
Before he took on fugitive recovery, Frank was a cop. So he has a history with, as he puts it, “taking the scum off the streets.” But Frank’s commitment to the business is about more than catching criminals.
For 22 years, Frank was married to a woman named Athena. Here are some things that happened in that time: they threw huge parties, ate a lot of Greek food, rode around on Frank’s motorcycle. Athena regularly called Frank on his bullshit. Frank decided Athena was the love of his life.
For a long time, Athena owned a beauty shop. And then she just got sick of it. She got a bad infection on her hands from some toxic hair dye. She was tired of doing dead people’s hair for funerals. So she decided to get into the bounty hunting business.
“The day I quit is the day I’m gonna die.”
— Frank Abramovitz
Athena owned the agency from 1970 until 1984. But one day, Athena’s doctor called Frank into his office and offered him a drink. He said he didn’t want a drink. He said what’s wrong with my wife? The doctor told him Athena had ovarian cancer. She died a year later. Frank couldn’t let Athena’s business die too, and that’s why he became a bounty hunter.
After his wife, Frank lost a daughter as well. He has two other kids, but he doesn’t really talk to them. He says they don’t need him anymore, now that they have money. Most of what’s important to Frank comes back to the office. He still thinks of it as his wife’s business. He calls Jeff his adopted son. And Frank doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon: “The day I quit,” he says, “is the day I’m gonna die.”
The agents do eventually catch Neil, the guy we’ve been looking for—but not till a couple days later, after I’m gone. The day I visit, the team goes home sleepy and empty-handed. I drive home at sunrise. It’s all very poetic.
I’m tempted to make some grand statement here, something about a man who lost everyone important to him and now spends all his time looking for strangers. But maybe that’s not it at all. Maybe it is just about making the streets safer. Or hanging out with people you think are fun. Maybe the only lesson here is that you shouldn’t jump bail in the state of New Hampshire.
“We don’t stop, that’s the problem,” says Jeff. “We’re going after you. We’re looking for you. We’re going to your parents’ house, we’re going to your girlfriend’s house, we’re looking for you everywhere.
You don’t want to be messing with us. Cuz we’ll getcha. We always do.”
Part Two: The Question of Lethal Injection
by Nancy Mullane
One day in 2012, I was given exclusive press access to California’s Death Row where more than 700 men live inside three separate cell blocks. I was allowed to speak with and interview any inmate who wanted to talk. For six hours, more than two dozen men described their lives on death row.
“Hello. You have nice pictures. I like the color. It’s kind of a soft teal,” I asked.
“I call it blue,” Dennis answered.
“And your name again?” I asked. “William Dennis.”
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“Almost 17 years on North Seg,” Dennis answered.
“What don’t people know about living on death row that you could tell them?” I asked.
“It’s more boring than anything else cause you really can’t do a whole lot and it’s very isolated and that’s pretty much it,” Dennis said.
After I left Death Row that day, William Dennis and I kept in touch. In fact, he wrote letters and called several times to share updates on his appeals and on the conditions on the row.
On a recent call I asked Dennis about the Supreme Court’s decision to hear oral arguments on whether or not executing people through lethal injection was a violation of the 8th Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“Well, I can tell you that before, when I was thinking that I might go to the gas chamber, lethal injection sounded like a more humane method of execution. But I never thought there would be as much problem for the states to get the drugs that they need. I didn’t think they would botch it up like they have,” Dennis said. “One of the few things I do remember, and it seemed like it was right around 1992 when we were given a choice, as I recall everyone was given a paper to sign which method they would prefer. Either using the gas chamber or lethal injection. But other than that I can’t really think of anybody really explaining anything.”
Did that come with a piece of paper explaining what those choices would actually mean?
“No. No. It was just a little quarter sheet piece of paper to for you to check off one or the other and your signature.
I remember checking the injection.”
Would you change your decision now or would you keep the same decision?
“I don’t think I would change my decision because it seems to me that the gas is still worse than lethal injection.”
And yet you had that moment when you had surgery recently where they put you on a gurney.
“It was a very telling moment because I was uncontrollably shaking being nervous even though I knew I wasn’t being executed. But being in the same spot I was thinking this is the same environment I would be in and it would be very much like this. And yes, it was very nerve wracking to say the least.”
Would you be surprised then if the U.S. Supreme Court said that using lethal injection as a death execution method was unconstitutional?
The idea that they would say that lethal injection is unconstitutional but we’ll go back to hanging or being shot or something is kind of hard to believe that’s going to happen. But I don’t really know what they’re really going to finally come up with.
I was speaking with William Dennis on the phone from San Quentin State Prison’s Death Row. Dennis was sentenced to death in 1988 for the 1984 murders of his ex-wife and her unborn child. For the past 16 years, Dennis has been appealing his death sentence in US Federal District Court.
Part Three: SCOTUS Rules – An Interview with Rory Little, Professor of Law, UC Hastings College of Law
Produced by Nancy Mullane
On Monday, June 29, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a deeply divided 5-4 ruling that execution by lethal injection is constitutional and does not violate the 8th Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. Rory Little is a professor of Law at UC Hastings. I spoke with him just hours after the ruling was released by the Court.
RORY LITTLE: Well I think the skirmishing about how we execute, really, is skirmishing because if they were to strike down all chemicals, the states could then go to firing squads or hanging or gas chamber or electrocution, all of which have been upheld in the past by the Supreme Court as not cruel and unusual and some of the states already had in place legislation that said if lethal injection is struck down we’re going to go to firing squad or we’re going to go to firing squad or some other method. So the real deep question is, are we going to have it or not. Are we going to have capital punishment.
There’s a second part of today’s decision which is quite interesting. Apparently, Justice (Samuel) Alito said or an inmate to have standing to challenge a method of executive they have to propose a constitutional way of being executed. In other words, they can’t just attack the way they were going to be executed, they have to propose something that would work.
That’s crazy. It’s never been said before. I just think that’s wrong. I mean if some state said we’re going to execute by drawing and quartering or dragging them behind a ship in a keelhaul, I think the court would say that’s unconstitutional, and it wouldn’t matter if the prisoner volunteered something else. And even Justice Scalia once wrote he was a weak-kneed texturalist because he didn’t think he could approve keelhauling.
MULLANE: What is keelhauling?
LITTLE: It’s dragging somebody behind your boat until they drown. The framers used to use it. Not the framers but the people at that time. And then Justice Breyer and Justice Ginsburg today quite surprisingly announced that they are now persuaded that the death penalty is unconstitutional in all contexts. That is they are stating the same position that Justices (William) Brennan and (Justice Thurgood) Marshall took some thirty years ago. And there are four death penalty cases on the docket of the Supreme Court for the fall.
So the pressure now on Justice (Anthony) Kennedy, who’s the fifth vote on this we think, is pretty huge. We haven’t seen many executions this year, across the country, compared to prior years. Of course we’ve seen none in California for many years. I think many people believe it is on the wane. Will it be abolished judicially? Will it be abolished legislatively because we can’t afford it? Open question.
Our story, The Bear, was reported by Kalila Holt and edited by Annie Murphy of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and Life of the Law’s Michael May and Ashley Cleek. Kaitlin Prest worked with Kalila Holt to produce the sound design. Life of the Law’s Jonathan Hirsch and Simone Seiver handled post-production. Our intern, Kirsten Jusewicz-Haidle, produced the additional segments.
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