The knock at the door was less a rap than it was an impact, a succession of hinge-rattling concussions.
It was 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 3, 2009, and the home’s occupants — 68-year-old Cleo Keeler, her daughter, grandchildren and foster children, some nine in all — sat in stunned silence on what had been a quiet evening.
A muffled voice answered through the door: “U.S. marshals!” The federal agent was threatening to kick the door down. With choices limited to replacing a splintered door and opening it, someone finally let the man in. But it wasn’t just one man. A handful of armed toughs streamed into the home off of Charles E. Davis Boulevard. One had his pistol drawn and pointed at Keeler’s 16-year-old grandson.
But it was the man at the head of the bunch who cut the most striking figure. He was square-jawed and had a set of gleaming, pearly whites. He wore an expensive-looking jacket — maybe rabbit — which he pulled back at the waist to reveal a holstered pistol. He wore a set of chunky gold chains around his neck and looked sort of like a pimp, Keeler’s daughter Kathy Patterson thought.
But she recognized him from around south Nashville almost instantly. His name was David Fletcher. A nice-looking young man, she remembered, but he ran with a rough crowd, always hanging out on the streets, either consuming or selling drugs.
The man with the pistol pointed at the boy said he had a warrant for his arrest and pinned him to the ground, according to a lawsuit filed by the family in Davidson County Circuit Court on Feb. 3.
Keeler was terrified, and Fletcher, according to Patterson, said, “Calm your mama down! Calm your mama down!” Patterson thought they were all going to be shot. After all, how could a man with Fletcher’s background be on the right side of the law?
The family repeatedly asked the men for identification, the filing says, but none was shown. Finally, Fletcher produced a photocopied image of a 26-year-old named Cody Bryant, who was accused of aggravated assault. Apparently, Bryant missed a court date. The boy whom the man with the gun had pinned down was definitely not the convicted felon they were after. Patterson said they didn’t look remotely similar. Lawmen had been by the rental home before looking for Bryant, a previous tenant. The felon, as it turned out, had a $10,000 bond.
These men weren’t federal agents there to protect and serve. They were bounty hunters after a bail-jumper with a price tag on his head, hoping to cash in on a juicy reward. And so they beat a hasty retreat, declining to show identification, court documents say.
Bounty hunter a convicted felon
It’s no secret that bounty hunters — or fugitive recovery agents, as they refer to themselves — operate in that murky hinterland between civilians who are necessary tools of the law and mercenaries whose methods are questionable, sometimes illegal.
According to Tennessee law, fugitive recovery agents have every right to do what they do. But other than the police, there is no governmental regulatory body to keep them in check. There is no definitive number for how many fugitive recovery agents there are in Tennessee for a few reasons: One, to be a fugitive recovery agent, a person needs only the credentials that come with an eight-hour training course through the Tennessee Association of Professional Bonding Agents. Two, bounty hunters in the field say many earn the credentials, but few actually become active recovery agents.
On that March evening, though, there was nothing gray about the area of law Fletcher is accused of operating in. The young man Fletcher was after had a rap sheet pretty similar to his own. In fact, if one were inclined to compare resumes, Fletcher’s blew the kid’s out of the water. Try felony theft, felony sale of cocaine, fraud, criminal impersonation, aggravated assault, unlawful possession of a weapon, aggravated burglary and resisting an officer. Fletcher did not return messages for comment left by The City Paper with friends and his current employer.
Of course, that’s all ancient history. His friends say Fletcher came up on the street and carries some of the attendant baggage associated with a rough start in life. Bill Tomlinson of T Bonding Co., a bondsman and former employer of Fletcher, said he’s a decent guy trying to make good.
“He went to jail and he done some time,” Tomlinson said. “I know in the last 10 years he’s tried to flip himself around.” When speaking of job performance, though, Tomlinson said his past makes him an exceptionally adept “fugitive recoverer.” Tomlinson said he’s got the street smarts to find just about any bail-jumping crook, no matter how elusive.
There’s a problem, though: It’s illegal to have convicted felons out there “recovering” bail-jumping felons. Same for fugitive recovery agents with felonies carrying around pistols. Felons can’t have guns. Ever. So when Fletcher took a posse to Springfield, Tenn., in December 2008 to nab a fugitive, and they kicked down the door to the wrong house, this became a problem for him, a spokesman for Springfield police said. When U.S. marshals came to his home with an arrest warrant and found ammunition in August 2009, it became a huge problem. He’s now awaiting trial in federal court for being a felon in possession of ammunition.
This sent waves through Nashville’s bail bonding community. Complaints found their way to the right people, and Judge Mark Fishburn, the presiding judge over the trial courts of Davidson County, sent out a letter in April 2009 forbidding bail bondsmen from using Fletcher and threatening sanctions against those who do. He mentioned the cocaine conviction against Fletcher, along with the felony theft case.
For Keeler, Patterson and their children, a lawsuit seeking $500,000 in damages against Fletcher and the bonding company they said hired him — Slater Bonding Co., whose owner is on the board of the Tennessee Association of Professional Bail Agents — seems airtight. A man answering the phones at the company declined to identify himself to The City Paper but said they’re guilty of no wrongdoing. Fletcher, the man at Slater insisted, was operating on his own. “This guy doesn’t work for us,” he said. “He’s a pariah.”
Keeler’s attorney, Patrick Thurman, said the company hasn’t provided any evidence to back up the claim.
Hypocrisy on YouTube
For Thurman, it wasn’t difficult to track down Fletcher. Simply Google his name and a series of informational videos on fugitive recovery will emerge on YouTube.
In what are clearly low-budget productions, Fletcher appears on camera near T Bonding Co., off of decaying Gay Street, wearing a slate-colored suede suit and a black turtleneck. His tone is grave as he announces that he is commander of United States Fugitive Apprehension — an organization that doesn’t appear to be registered in Tennessee.
In one video, Fletcher elucidates, hitting a melodramatic and finally hypocritical note, on the qualities one must possess to become a bounty hunter: “In order to be a bounty hunter, you must be able to think and react at a moment’s notice. Not a second, when you are out there, do your adrenaline not rush. The person that you think is least likely to hurt you, or to kill you is the person that’s most likely to take you out. … You cannot be a bounty hunter, once again, if you are or have been convicted of a felony.” [sic]
These days, instead of seizing human beings for bail bondsmen, David Fletcher pursues the only quarry he can, Tomlinson said: He repossesses cars.