Dogging the Bounty Hunter

"Freeze!" I scream at the punk sprinting away from us.

I'm not sure which is racing faster, my feet or my heart. The only bounty hunting I've done is in the paper towel aisle at Albertsons. Yet tonight, two bail-enforcement agents and I are giving chase to a potentially dangerous criminal through the darkest crannies of Las Vegas' underbelly.

What happens next, I have no idea. Maybe the fugitive will escape. Maybe he'll give up. Maybe he'll shoot.

To be a bounty hunter in Nevada, you have to take an 80-hour course on investigating, firearms and handcuffing. Then you have to pass a background check, written test and psychological evaluation.

Or you have to be an insane reporter. Joe Intiso told me I had "no idea" the trouble I was asking for when I wanted to sign on for a day.

"Being a bounty hunter is 10 times more dangerous than being a police officer," the 43-year-old former Army Airborne Ranger told me on the phone. "When law enforcement goes to take somebody down, they've got 20 guys, helicopters and dogs. We've got three guys."

The United States has about 400 bounty hunters, 38 in Nevada. Citizens' arrests are all they can make.

"And because you're not a police officer, people are more apt to resist," Intiso says.

Intiso is asking for his own trouble. I report for duty looking like Duane "Dog" Chapman, star of A&E's "Dog the Bounty Hunter" reality show.

For one mullet haircut to stand out as more ridiculous than another is an achievement, and Dog has no shame walking around beneath the world title-holder. Serge's Showgirl Wigs mangled a beautiful women's hairpiece into a fitting tribute. Vegas Costume Works owner Tracy Bohl went equally overboard, using me as a living mannequin for every stitch of unused "We Will Rock You" costuming. (Bohl said she purchased clothes for the late Queen musical in all sizes. Apparently, none of the actors were XXS.)

Intiso easily could have been offended. Instead, laughter overtakes him.

"That's cool, man," he says. (He speaks not entirely unlike Tommy Chong in "Up in Smoke.")

Intiso hands me my bulletproof vest as we hop into his Ford F-150 truck, where fugitives whimper in the back seat after they're caught. (An average day sees two or three.)

"Grown men crying, big guys," Intiso says.

I ask if I can pack a gun. More laughter ensues.

Fine, I don't need one of his weapons anyway. I'm wielding a secret one. In case criminals attack, I will, I will, rock them.

Our first suspect is a six-time bail-skipper whose bond is $2,115. (Bounty hunters typically live off 10 percent of the bonds of captured fugitives.) His original charges were traffic-related.

"It's the little ones that are the biggest problems," Intiso says. "They're the ones who really don't want to go to jail."

Intiso makes a U-turn over a Sahara Avenue traffic island. Intiso's two partners in crime-fighting -- Russell Stoll, 31, and Jason Pollock, 28 -- do the same in the truck behind us.

We're rushing after our suspect before he leaves work for lunch.

"Sometimes you have to do things in our work that don't, um, comply with the rules," Intiso says.

We pull up to the locksmith where the bond's co-signer said the suspect works.

"Let's go make some people cry," Intiso says as though starring in a '70s crime drama produced by Stephen J. Cannell. He tells me to cover the back of the building with him. Stoll takes the front and Pollock, as usual, enters the premises asking for the fugitive.

"He looks more like a delivery guy than a bounty hunter," Intiso says, dropping his first of many hints that perhaps my outfit is making this job harder.

"A lee-tlebit," Intiso says.

Not only is Dog the world's most famous bounty hunter -- he found Max Factor heir/fugitive rapist Andrew Luster in 2003 -- he's also the world's most noticeable person from five blocks away. Dog wants entire towns knowing he's on the prowl. That way, more informants come forward.

The overwhelming majority of bounty hunters, including my new partners, do not agree with this logic.

"The element of surprise is very useful," Intiso says.

Maybe this is why Dog collars about 385 fugitives a year, while Intiso's Gator Bail Enforcement captured more than 600 in 2005.

Maybe this is why Brigitte Welles, owner of Las Vegas' Locked Up Bail Bonds, says Intiso delivers 100 percent of her suspects, while Dog failed the one time she hired him (to nab a $10,000 skip in Dog's hometown of Honolulu.)

Maybe this is why Intiso motions for me to duck whenever he rolls down the windows to speak to someone.

Our fugitive doesn't work at this locksmith anymore, Pollock emerges to tell us.

Intiso flips open his laptop and starts tapping, accessing LocatePLUS. Open-source Web sites are the bounty hunter's best supplier of info besides informants (who get paid $50 if their tips pay off).

Strike two is the apparently empty Henderson apartment of our next fugitive. Wanted for battery and domestic violence, she skipped out on a $5,500 bond.

"Girls are the worst because they hide better," Intiso says. "And guys never tell you about the chicks, especially if they're happy with them."

Our next target, a catering employee fleeing DUI charges, isn't where his bond paperwork claims, either. Strike three.

"You watch that Dog show, you see this guy apprehend two or three guys in an hour," Intiso says. "But you don't see the five or six days of legwork it took to find them."

He doesn't like "Dog the Bounty Hunter" much -- mostly because it divulges trade secrets. One is the lies bounty hunters tell.

"Most of (the suspects) lie to us first!" Pollock snaps. "They have no intention of going to court before they bail out. So the lies start when they're in jail making a call for bail."

"You've got to catch a liar with a lie," Stoll agrees.

At the Henderson apartment of a battery suspect who skipped out on his $3,120 bond, Intiso asks the suspect's girlfriend to assure him he's not going to jail.

"He just needs to fill out his paperwork at the bond office," Intiso insists.

As she makes the call, Intiso turns and whispers to me: "If he's a smart dude, he won't come here."

"We tell everyone the same thing," Pollock says later. "Come with us and you'll get a new court date.

"We just leave out the part about going to jail first."

Intiso lets me handcuff the suspect when he arrives, as his girlfriend shouts obscenities at us. It's more action than my Tuesday afternoons usually pack, but not enough for an adventure article.

That order gets filled at 6 p.m., when Stoll, Pollock and I spot a truck pulling up to the Maryland Parkway house of our next fugitive. (Intiso is off doing paperwork.) Stoll pulls his Ford F-150 up behind the suspect. He runs. We chase.

This is the part where I yelled "freeze" before. What I didn't say was that I'm a quarter-block behind both the suspect and my colleagues when I yell it. I don't know how Dog catches anyone dressed like this. Cowboy boots have to be second to stilts as the all-time slowest footwear.

The suspect scales an 8-foot fence, with Stoll and Pollock in hot pursuit. I catch up, and we wrestle the suspect into submission.

And when I say we, I of course mean they.

"Put your palms together like you're praying, (expletive)!" Stoll yells as he handcuffs our suspect. Pollock stands nearby, gun drawn.

One problem about our suspect: He's not our suspect. He's just some dude who ran. Stoll and Pollock are sure he has secrets, but they won't discover what they are. Bounty hunters have no right to hold someone they're not hired to find, and no way of checking for outstanding warrants.

Before our nonsuspect is released, he makes an observation.

"Are you that guy from TV?" he asks, looking at me. I don't respond, curious about where he's headed.

"You look taller on TV."

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