Bounty hunters find cash and fulfillment


NEWARK, N.J. -- They were on "the hunt" in the Prince Street projects in Newark on an 8-degree night. The black four-wheel-drive vehicle stripped of identifying symbols prowled, lights off, over a thick sheet of ice, past snow-covered garbage piles. It rolled into a parking lot between grim high-rises.

Joshua Armstrong and his partner, Max, scanned the lot for a blue BMW. Mr. Armstrong wore camouflage pants, boots, leather jacket and gold wire-rim glasses. Max wore a black mask across his nose and mouth, sunglasses and a large pistol in a holster strapped to his thigh.

They had shotguns in the rear of the vehicle, just in case.

The car wasn't in the lot, and they checked with contacts via cellular phone. As they waited to learn whether the bail jumper would show up here, Mr. Armstrong and Max chatted about bounty hunting.

"We are each other's guiding force," Mr. Armstrong said. "The work inspires us."

"You become conscious, undeceived," said Max, who wanted his surname protected. "You wake up."

They are the "Seekers," or bail enforcement agents who get 20 percent of the bond -- plus expenses -- for each absconder they haul in. Don't call them bounty hunters. They see their job in metaphysical terms.

"We prefer to be called Seekers," said Mr. Armstrong, 36, the founder of a seven-man group.

Seven years ago, when he started full-time bounty hunting, he applied his mystical interests to the art of capturing a person for a price.

"It seemed a natural mix," Mr. Armstrong said. "The harshness of this kind of work, with this way of thinking -- it brings it to a new height. We train physically, mentally and spiritually."

He renamed himself Joshua, after the biblical warrior who fought the battle of Jericho. "I appreciated the way he got things done, through training."

Other members also have biblical code names: Jedidiah, Luke and Job. Some have monikers more fitting to their trade: Rock, Max and the Ram.

To become a Seeker, one has to read seven books, including "The Kybalion, Hermetic Philosophy"; "The Seat of the Soul"; "The Art of War" and "The Tactical Edge," complete a 13-page, 77-question test on the readings, learn martial arts and boxing, run six miles and hold a gun permit.

Once in, members must read at least one book a month, Mr. Armstrong said.

"You have to sense a man out before you give him the power of a gun," Mr. Armstrong said. "People who say they want to join us want to use excessive force, excessive language -- they're too tied into TV. They don't get past the reading."

It's a weeding out of the gung-ho from the serious, Max said. "A lot of bounty hunters have a crude approach," he sniffed.

Not that the penchant for the spiritual has kept the Seekers from making money. They claim earnings of about $70,000 a year each.

They say they have had 1,270 captures in the past five or six years. Most of their business is in New Jersey; one-third of their cases are out of state, with frequent stops in New York, Florida, North Carolina and Puerto Rico.

"They have locked up some of the guys we're looking for," said Detective Kenny Parnes of the Union County (N.J.) Sheriff's Office warrant division. "Bounty hunters help out, they serve a purpose. They're doing the same thing we are, but they probably get paid more."

Mr. Armstrong said one bail bondsman wanted his services in Iraq, but the job seemed too dangerous so he declined.

"Then again," Mr. Armstrong said while parked outside the Newark project, "you can get just as much adrenalin here as in another country."

The Seekers said they often find guns on the bail jumpers they catch. This night, they were packing 9mm guns, .45-caliber guns with laser scopes and shotguns.

Mr. Armstrong said he had used a gun only once; he fired back at a man who shot at him. "I was firing Blammo Ammo -- rubber bullets that don't penetrate the skin," Mr. Armstrong said. "We use that first, and carry real stuff for backup."

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