A bail jumper's unlikely tale


Why do some men become bounty hunters? For the glamour? The danger? The chase? Are they stout-hearted adventurers who cry, "Into the breach again," as they prepare to bust down the desperado's door?

Actually, most of the men who become bounty hunters do so because either they haven't got anything else to do, or because repossessing cars has lost its charm.

"It's an ego trip," says Marvin Harris, who should know. He's hired a few bounty hunters over the years for his employer, London Bonding Agency.

If one is in the business of posting bail for alleged criminals, one runs a risk that the criminal is going to prepare to leave town instead of preparing for trial. Bounty hunters are hired to find bail jumpers and return them for trial, and to recover the bonding agency's money. Most get a 10 percent commission.

"A lot of these guys saw 'Midnight Run,' and they like to say they're bounty hunters when they really don't have any experience," says Harris. "A lot of them have been guys I've met on the street, mostly unemployed guys."

A few months ago, Harris met a young guy named John Priet, from Fleet Street.

Priet from Fleet said he was looking for work as a bounty hunter. Harris gave him a few cases to work, but Priet didn't deliver.

The London agency had no further dealings with young Priet until young Priet himself required London's services. That was in January. Priet was booked on a felony theft charge. London posted the $3,500 bail. Priet's trial was set for Tuesday, March 19, in Baltimore Circuit Court.

That was the last Marvin Harris heard of him.

Until last Monday evening.

Something on the television caused Marvin Harris a moment of perplexity. He heard a name: Priet. And address: Fleet Street. Bounty hunter, said the TV anchorwoman. Missing and presumed drowned. Potomac River.

Marvin Harris was confused.

Priet was supposed to be in court the next day, March 19, yet here was this strange news out of Hagerstown: A guy named Priet had fallen 40 feet into the swirling waters beneath a dam on the Potomac River. It happened Sunday night. Priet's blue softball jacket, with wallet and Maryland driver's license in the pocket, had been found at the water's edge, along with a hat and a pair of sneakers. Divers with the Washington County Sheriff's Department conducted a search. At the end of it, Maryland Department of Natural Resources police classified Priet as a missing person.

Reports of the drowning were carried in Hagerstown newspapers, then on a wire service. That's how Marvin Harris heard it on a Baltimore TV station. A story on Priet's drowning appeared in The Evening Sun. It said Priet was presumed drowned, which, to most minds, means dead.

Marvin Harris contacted Circuit Court. "I warned them that [Priet] was dead and that he probably wouldn't be in court."

Still, Harris smelled something fishy. Tuesday morning, he called the two people listed on Priet's bail papers as indemnitors. He warned them that, if Priet didn't post, they would be liable for the $3,500.

That night, Harris received a call at his office.

It was John Priet.

"I said, 'John, where're y'at? We thought you were dead,' " Harris recalls. "He said he couldn't tell me where he was, but that he never intended to leave me hanging for the bail money. He said, 'Marvin, I'd never do that to you. You're my man.' He said he had gone up to Hagerstown to meet a bad biker. And this bad biker was supposed to give John some information about another [bail jumper] he was looking for. So it's 10:30 at night and he meets this bad biker on the dam, and the bad biker yells, 'Snake!' which John thought was a signal. He thought he'd been set up. So he starts running. He said he took his jacket off because it was too hot -- 10:30 at night in Hagerstown and it's too hot? -- and he said he tripped on a wooden bridge and his shoes came off. He lost his shoes. He just kept running. He said the biker fired shots at him."

The story sounded mythical. Marvin Harris suspected that John Priet might have tried to fake his own death to avoid trial in Baltimore -- and bungled the attempt.

"But, anyway, he promised me on the phone he'd do the right thing, come back to Baltimore and go to Circuit Court," Harris said.

Which is exactly what Priet did last Wednesday morning. And he wore a new pair of shoes to court, and then to jail.

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