By the time Phillip Armachain was arrested last year, the 50-year old man from Cherokee had for years built a reputation for being “creepy” and “a pervert” who made women in the town uncomfortable and afraid.
As Cherokee’s only bail bond agent, most of those women were the community’s most vulnerable. Many were Native American women living in poverty. They say he bailed them out of jail for sex, got them into loan payment schemes to extort sex from them, loaned them money at a 100 percent interest rate. He is even charged with sexually abusing a young woman under the age of 16.
Armachain is just one of more than 80 licensed North Carolina bail agents charged in the last few years with using their positions to commit sexual, financial and drug crimes, often by exploiting poor people trying to navigate the criminal justice system.
Between 2009 and 2016, criminal investigators with the North Carolina Department of Insurance have made more than 1,500 arrests related to insurance and bail bonding fraud alone. There have been more than 750 criminal convictions with more than 250 cases currently pending in court.
While a department spokesperson could not say precisely what percentage of those cases involved bail bonding, he confirmed that many do. Moreover, fraud is often just one element of cases that involve violence, kidnapping, sexual abuse, gun and drug offenses.
This year Anthony Newkirk, a bail bond agent in the Wilmington area, is set to go before a court for his 2016 arrest on charges of rape and felony sexual activity with a woman in his custody as a bond agent.
Also arrested in 2016 was Kevin Daniel Woodard, Jr. of Tarboro. He faced three counts of trafficking heroin, possession with intent to sell and deliver and maintaining a vehicle to sell heroin. The charges stemmed from he and a friend being caught with 11 grams of raw, unpackaged heroin – enough for about 10 “bricks” with a street value of about $4,000.
Woodard faced a $350,000 bail. His bond was provided by First Community Surety Services, a company for which he worked in addition to maintaining his own independent bail bond business.
Just last year, Miguel Angel Nieto, a Charlotte bail bond agent, was arrested on charges of trafficking more than 100 pounds of marijuana with a street value of about $300,000. After setting a $100,000 bond, a judge allowed Nieto to continue working as a bond agent in three North Carolina counties despite his needing to wear an ankle monitor while doing so.
“Not everyone who gets into this business does it for the right reasons,” said Tony Williams, a bail bond agent with Piedmont Bonding Services in Mocksville. “Just like every police officer doesn’t do it to serve his community, some of them want authority and they want that identity. Some people are attracted to a badge and a position of authority. They take their self worth from the position and they do some bad things with it.”
It’s important to wait until all the facts come out in individual cases, Williams said in an interview this week. But he’s known for years that a “bad element” within his industry has given the business a bad reputation.
That’s why he founded the nonprofit Surety Agents for North Carolina earlier this year. The group, which Williams says has about 120 members, promotes ethical bail bonding, proper training and oversight in the industry and reform of the problems that have come to define the industry in the public mind.
Williams said he’s encouraged by the Department of Insurance’s moves to provide more training – both to those seeking to become bail bond agents and those already licensed.
“Some people don’t like the idea of expanded training,” Williams said. “But we support it and think it’s essential so that people aren’t out there making bad judgment calls. Judgment without instruction, without a basis to know what’s right, leads to flawed decisions.”
Part of that expanded training should be on dealing with conflict in a dangerous business and the proper use of firearms, Williams said.
Licensed bail agents do enjoy some police-like powers in North Carolina. They can use reasonable force to apprehend a person for whom they have provided bail, even if they have not yet forfeited their bond. They can use force to “overcome resistance of a third party who impedes their efforts to apprehend a person on bond.” A U.S. Supreme Court case from 1866 even allows them to break and enter a home to recover a suspect without a warrant.
But bail agents aren’t granted any special powers with regard to carrying or using guns. Bail agents who choose to do so must be licensed in the same manner as any typical civilian. They can, and often are, charged with discharging their weapons in public, even when they do so in commission of their duties.
In February, Dawn Holden-Daniels, a bail agent working for DNA Bail Bonds of Smithfield, faced a criminal summons after breaking into a Johnson County home looking for a former tenant who had not lived there in seven months. Teresa Horne, the Johnson County woman who lived in the home at the time, said Holden-Daniels kicked in her back door while the house was empty, shattering the glass of the door and ransacking the house. Two 9mm shell casings were found on the porch, where Holden-Daniels is accused of firing two shots into the air to scare the absent Horne family’s dog.
Before that most recent incident, 12 other complaints had been filed against Holden-Daniels and Niki DeShawn Daniels in connection with their bail work, according to the the Department of Insurance, which regulates the industry.
“Every situation is different and you shouldn’t judge anyone without having all the facts,” Williams said. “But I do think that we do sometimes have a responsibility to pull out, to back away from a bad situation that can be made worse. Often times police don’t have that luxury; they can’t back away from some situations. But we do.”
Money can be a motivator for agents who decide to press beyond their legal authority or make potentially dangerous situations worse, Williams said. But honest bail bond agents aren’t simply motivated by their financial interest, he said.
“There is also a principle involved – our obligation to the court,” Williams said. “If you talk to people who have been in the industry a long time and are doing it the right way, they will tell you that motivates them and also make sure that they don’t do some of these things, as well.”
“Unfortunately, I do think we have some people who are inspired by what they see on TV – bounty hunter shows, things that give you the wrong idea about what we do and how we do it,” Williams said. “Part of the reform has got to be that training, and also making sure the right people are doing it for the right reasons.”
[In the coming weeks and months, Policy Watch will continue its series of stories exploring the bail industry in North Carolina – its influence, impact and costs to the state and its people. We’ll talk with bail bond agents, attorneys and law enforcement officials as well as those who have dealt with the industry at some of the most vulnerable moments in their lives.
If you would like to share your experiences with the bail bond industry with Policy Watch as these stories unfold, please contact investigative reporter Joe Killian at [email protected].]