The thing about the Ford Explorer with the caged back seat is that the cupholders are lousy. That matters more than you'd think when you're parked behind a suburban Perkins next to a cheap motel with no place to put your coffee.
That's why the gas station brews of Stew Peters and his partner, Richard Leonard, are both crammed into the center console. And why, when Peters goes inside to coax information out of the hotel staff, Leonard considers tossing Peters' coffee and commandeering the cupholder.
The dispute renders moot when the two decide to move into the motel's dingy lobby, where they take up residence next to the empty chafing trays and cold waffle maker to wait for the fugitive they've been contracted to find.
Bounty hunting is a job as real as the weapons and handcuffs that Peters and Leonard carry. But it rarely involves the door-kicking and gun-slinging that movies and television portray, said Peters, who runs the Minn
eapolis-based Twin Cities Apprehension Team. He's been bounty hunting for more than a decade and has gained national notoriety for his high-profile apprehensions and his penchant to telegraph his success through Facebook and YouTube, which he's using to bring his controversial, largely unregulated profession into the social media age.
But for now, the aspiring reality TV star and his partner are just a couple of guys nursing cooling coffees, making fantasy football picks on their phones as the Weather Channel cycles through updates on the 8s. Half the afternoon passes about as quickly as the mint leaves in the water dispenser on the front desk decay.
Finally, a black Jeep pulls into the parking lot.
"There she is," Leonard says. The two spring from their seats.
It's the moment they've been waiting for in a job Peters describes as "99 percent boredom, 1 percent holy [crap]."
Bounty hunting basics
Bounty hunters can be easily mistaken for law enforcement when driving SUVs with tinted windows and back-seat cages, wearing bullet-resistant vests, carrying guns and speaking cop vernacular. And when armed guys with badges jump out of a vehicle or knock on a door, people tend to make assumptions before asking questions.
But the arrests that bounty hunters make are technically citizen's arrests. They work for commercial bail-bond companies as a for-profit adjunct to the judicial system, to ensure that defendants face justice.
In Minnesota, after a person is arrested and charged with a crime, a judge usually determines the amount of bail, if any, that the defendant must post to be released before a hearing. (The state constitution guarantees the right to bail.)
Those unable to pay may contract with a private bail bond company to put up the money on their behalf — for a nonrefundable fee of no more than 10 percent. If the defendant fails to appear in court, the bond is forfeited unless the defendant comes into custody within the reinstatement period, which is typically 90 days. (Read about the industry's pressure to change here.)
That's when a bounty hunter (also called a bail enforcement agent or fugitive recovery agent) may be put on the case. Some bail bond companies have their own in-house agents, while others hire contractors such as Peters, who are paid for each fugitive apprehended, around 10 percent of the bail amount. Most of Peters' clients have bonds ranging from $10,000 to $75,000, although some crack six figures; his largest was $1 million.
Just shy of 6 feet tall and 200 pounds, Peters, 38, doesn't appear as intimidating as his profession's rough-and-tumble reputation. Often dressed in sneakers and jeans, he looks like a coach — with lots of tattoos.
Peters employs about half a dozen agents, most of whom have been with him for years and have backgrounds ranging from military to security to martial arts. The team works several hundred cases annually, mostly in the metro area, but sometimes around the country. Its apprehension rate is nearly 100 percent.
Defendants' offenses run the gamut: Robbery. Narcotics. Assault. Weapons. Occasionally murder. Most fugitives' warrants are felony-level for violent crimes. Many have multi-page rap sheets and several active warrants. A handful are repeat customers.
Peters begins each case by reviewing the bail bond company's file, which typically includes the last known addresses of the client and co-signer (who can be on the hook for the bail money).
Peters checks databases and social media accounts for tips; if appropriate, he'll tap a network of informants. If they come up empty, Peters and his crew drop in on people who know the fugitive and ask for help. Although the agents sometimes pay for information, many people cooperate regardless. Whether motivated by disgust or concern, there's usually someone — a disgruntled ex, a worried parent — who wants to see the fugitive in custody.
Bounty hunters can't force people to talk, but they do have some leverage. Peters doesn't hesitate to remind the evasive that they could face charges for aiding or abetting a fugitive.
Once the team locates the defendant — in a boarded-up house, in Mom's condo, in a car with his girlfriend and toddler — the person surrenders about half the time. The rest try to run or hide.
If Peters and his team haven't seen it all, they've seen a lot. Fugitives have stuffed themselves into clothes dryers and refrigerators. One took off running through a market. Another jumped from a third-story window and fractured an ankle. Peters and his crew sometimes deploy Tasers or tackle fugitives into fences. Only twice, Peters said, has someone fired at him.
'World Famous Manhunter'
Most of the 3,000-some subscribers to the Twin Cities Apprehension Team's YouTube channel want to see door kicking, so the videos show all kinds of it, from flimsy doors that flick open with one thrust, to the deadbolted that withstand half a dozen.
The videos show bodycam footage of the agents conducting searches or approaching fugitives with weapons drawn, as well as cracking the occasional joke.
Peters insists that they aren't overdramatized: "This is how real wanted people actually get caught," he said. But they do seem to have a bit of the Hollywood treatment. Take the title, for example. "Murderapolis Manhunters," a nod to Minneapolis' notorious 1990s nickname, when the crime rate was higher than in New York City.
When Peters is on camera, he's sometimes captioned with the title: "World Famous Manhunter." He projects the friendly assurance of a guy striking up a conversation in a bar (which is how he met his wife a decade ago, when she was celebrating her 21st birthday).
Fugitives, Peters explains in one video, need "assistance" getting back to court. "And I'm the guy for the job," he adds, with more than a little swagger.
The videos have afforded Peters a certain amount of recognition, which cuts both ways. One small-town police officer told Peters he wouldn't assist with an apprehension because of the videos. But at a drug house the team searched recently, a woman pointed Peters out to her friends, saying: "Stew's a celebrity. He's the cute one."
Peters initially thought he'd become a police officer — or an entertainer. During high school, he started taking classes toward a law enforcement degree while interning at KDWB Radio. He bounced from Minnesota to Los Angeles, Florida and New York while pursuing a career as a rapper named Fokiss who wore a blond-tipped mohawk and rhymed in a flat, gravelly growl. He started moonlighting as a bounty hunter after he met someone in the business.
Peters admits that his wife was a bit overwhelmed by his multi-hyphenate career.
"When I told her, 'I'm a radio personality, I'm a rapper, I'm a bounty hunter and a bail bondsman,' she looked at me like: 'What?' " he said. "In my lifetime, I feel like I've lived what most people would live in three or four lifetimes."
Peters also was something of an actor. In 2000, he auditioned for a film directed by Tyrel Ventura, son of then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura. After landing one of the lead roles, Peters wanted to impress Ventura with his Hollywood connections. So he told a lie: His brother was a teen heartthrob who starred in a popular 1990s sitcom.
Believing that Peters had flown in from Los Angeles, Tyrel invited him to stay at the governor's residence in St. Paul during filming, so Peters went home to Apple Valley, packed a bag and moved into the guest room of the residence for several weeks, until the state troopers who provided security for the governor evicted him.
"It was a mistake because I lied and that's not the person I am," said Peters, "but it was a great experience — it was a lot of fun."
It wasn't the first time Peters had run afoul of the law. As a teenager, he was convicted of underage drinking and driving. Nor was it the first time he'd tricked high-profile people into believing he was someone else. On a dare from a friend, he convinced WCCO-TV and KMSP-TV to pick up his "story" of being signed by the NHL as a free agent.
There are no training requirements for bounty hunters in Minnesota, no prerequisite of a clean criminal record.
"Literally, you can wake up after a marathon of 'Dog and Beth' and become a bounty hunter without realizing there's actual danger out there," Peters said.
Unlike security officers, private investigators or bail bond agents, bounty hunters don't need to be licensed. Still, there are just a handful of independent teams working in the state.
While some states subject bounty hunters to modest regulation, Minnesota only prevents them from wearing uniforms or driving vehicles similar to those of peace officers — legislation that was spurred by Peters being mistaken for a police officer.
That may change, however. Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, said he plans to introduce a bill that would require bounty hunters to pass a criminal-background check and be licensed.
Bounty hunters also have greater latitude in pursuing fugitives than law enforcement officers do.
Defendants who sign a bail bond contract often waive many rights to constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. If they miss court, a typical contract gives the bail bond company the right to enter the defendant's residence at any time and, theoretically, review phone, bank and medical records — all things that would require police to procure a search warrant or subpoena first.
"They pretty much signed away everything to us," Peters said. "In essence, they are in our custody when they're out on bail."
Darcy Horn, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis Police Department, said that because officers have so little contact with bounty hunters, she wasn't able to answer questions about them. But local members of both professions echo academic research that suggests that bounty hunters and law enforcement generally see their roles as mutually beneficial.
Risks and rewards
Peters said he chose bounty hunting so he can be his own boss and avoid bureaucracy and politics.
"I don't have to deal with any of that, and I just get to chase bad guys," he said. "This satisfies my call to serve."
His fans, including several bail bond agents and police officers, say he stands out among his peers for his professionalism: His law-enforcement training (including crisis intervention and K-9), investigative savvy and street smarts lead to quick, reliable apprehensions. They also acknowledge that his larger-than-life personality isn't for everyone.
"When you first meet him, he can rub you the wrong way — he can make you think he's just this cocky S.O.B.," said retired St. Paul police officer Pat Scott. But Scott said it's just confidence and that he admires Peters' work and his dedication to family.
While Peters says he makes good money, the hours can be long and erratic. He estimates he put nearly 70,000 miles on his car last year and goes for long stretches of time fueled only by coffee and chew.
Now that Peters has two young sons and a baby daughter, he tries not to work too many late nights or weekends. He coaches his sons' hockey teams and bowls on Thursday nights.
He acknowledges the dangers of his job every time he leaves home, telling his family "goodbye" instead of "see you later." His approach to driving — police scanner squawking and CB radio beeping while texting a mug shot — arguably poses as much risk as engaging fugitives. "Much like police, I'm probably one of the more distracted drivers on the road," he admitted.
He also said he prefers the investigation process to the actual apprehension.
"The adrenaline rush to me is the thinking and the chess game," he said. "It isn't the gun slinging and the door kicking and the wrestling and the chasing. … The thrill is the feeling that I outsmarted you and I outwaited you."
Peters readily expresses disgust for hardened criminals — they're "bad guys," "dirtballs" and "hood rats" — and has been known to go on rap-like rants against repeat offenders and the revolving door of the judicial system. Yet he and his agents have an almost cordial relationship with offenders who are arrested without incident.
Peters said he's called concerned parents to let them know that their child was safely in custody and that people he's apprehended frequently thank the team for treating them respectfully.
To wrap up a case, Peters files his report and often posts the defendant's capture shot on Facebook, where 30,000 followers alternately praise the team and mock the fugitive.
A day's work
Back at the motel, the fugitive, her young son and her girlfriend climb out of the Jeep and head toward their room. Peters and Leonard approach them from opposite ends of the hallway as Leonard calmly but firmly addresses the fugitive by name and issues the standard law enforcement command: "Show me your hands."
The woman complies as the bounty hunters cuff her, pat her down, escort her out of the motel and slide her into the Explorer's caged back seat. The bail bond company won't be forfeiting her $10,500 bond on felony theft, trespassing and drug charges.
It's a long, somber ride across town to jail. No one talks much.
With her hands cuffed uncomfortably behind her back, the woman leans forward and bows her head. Her eyes are wet. She trains them on the floor and sniffles.