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State still pursuing $250,000 in bail-jumping case

When Asa Bell fled the country in 2008 while free on $250,000 bail on gun and drug charges in Baltimore, the bail bond company appeared to be stuck with the tab from the state.

Four years later, interest has increased the amount to $360,000 and counting. But Texas-based Financial Casualty Surety Co. and its local agent, 4 Aces Bail Bonds Inc., continue to fight the judgment with no apparent end in sight, as the companies exhaust their legal options.

They have twice taken the case to the Court of Special Appeals, which has sent it back down on each occasion with the instruction that they pay up. A hearing Thursday in Baltimore Circuit Court ended with the same finding, but attorneys again vowed to appeal.

The case highlights the largely unregulated state of the bail bond industry in Maryland. Bondsmen increasingly require upfront payments that are only a fraction of the typical 10 percent premium amount, and the state does not regulate how much bondsmen hold as collateral, the incentive for defendants to show up in court.

And, as the 4 Aces case shows, it can be difficult for the state to collect from the agents when the defendant jumps bail. The companies in Bell's case, meanwhile, contend that each appeal has raised legitimate issues.

"This company [Financial Casualty] has a billion dollars in assets. This issue is not about not paying," attorney Neal M. Janey said in an interview.

Janey, who is representing Financial Casualty, and Warren Brown, working with 4 Aces, said they believe that Bell is incarcerated in Jamaica. They say city prosecutors must obtain a federal fugitive warrant for Bell to be extradited, though prosecutors say they have no such burden.

Judge Pamela J. White, noticeably annoyed by the arguments, said in court Thursday that it was "eerily obvious" that the companies were filing motions and appeals to "avoid their obvious and fundamental responsibility" to forfeit the bond. She called their continued protests "scary" and "unnerving."

While bond forfeitures are not unusual, the amount in the Bell case registers on the higher end. To put it in perspective, The New York Times reported last year that New York City was owed more than $2 million in unpaid bail forfeitures, spread over 150 cases dating back a decade.

Financial Casualty was among the chief debtors there, with a tab exceeding $300,000. More than that is owed in Bell's case alone.

Bell, who at the time lived in New York, was arrested in October 2007 after being pulled over by Maryland Transportation Authority Police for speeding on Interstate 95 near downtown. According to charging documents, officers searched his car and found hidden panels concealing a loaded Highpoint 9 mm handgun and marijuana and the drug Ecstasy with an estimated street value of more than $10,000.

"Good job. You worked hard to find it," Bell told the officers, according to charging documents.

Bell's bail was set at $250,000, and he was released after his mother in Brooklyn agreed to pay a $25,000 premium. It is unclear how much was actually collected. By February 2008, Bell was gone, and a city judge ruled that the bond be forfeited.

Bond companies have 90 days to pay the bond and can request a 90-day extension. They can also appeal. Their first appeal — on the grounds that they had worked diligently yet unsuccessfully to find Bell — was denied by the Court of Special Appeals in September 2009.

The case was sent back to Circuit Court, and a judge again denied their motion to vacate the judgment. The companies went to the Court of Special Appeals a second time, arguing in part that the order wrongly listed the city as the creditor instead of the state.

While the appeals court agreed last October that the creditor had been listed in error, judges upheld the forfeiture amount against the bond and insurance companies.

"The judgment has not been satisfied and the state, at significant time and expense, has had to litigate and relitigate the relatively routine matter of a bail bond forfeiture," the opinion said.

Amid all this, 4 Aces was having larger troubles as owner Milton Tillman Jr. and his son Milton Tillman III were indicted on charges of defrauding the Internal Revenue Service. Tillman Jr. — who previously served time in federal prison before building 4 Aces into one of the largest bond companies in the city — was sentenced last summer to serve 51 months in a deal that allowed his son to continue running 4 Aces.

In January, White received the case and granted Brown's motion to strike the judgment, but later said Brown had left out key details of the timeline of the case and reversed the decision.

When Brown and Janey said at Thursday's hearing that they could retrieve Bell with a fugitive warrant from prosecutors, prosecutors countered that the companies had no proof or documentation that Bell was incarcerated. Assistant State's Attorney Tracy Varda called the fugitive warrant a "red herring."

"It is the defendant's voluntary act [of fleeing the country] that has put the bondsmen in this position," Varda said. "The surety took a gamble and lost."

Brown said it was disingenuous for city prosecutors to push for forfeiture while not assisting the bond companies by applying for a warrant that they believe would result in Bell's capture.

"Legalese aside, it doesn't smell right," Brown said.

"There's a lot about this that doesn't smell right," White replied.

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