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The Price of Freedom: Former lawman finds success in bail bond business

Lifelong Bartow County resident Don Weathers runs the kind of business customers don't ever want to have to use — but if they do, they thank their lucky stars he decided to change careers.
 
Weathers, 60, opened 24 Bail Bonding Inc. at 85 Zena Drive in Cartersville about six years ago. Before he got into the business, he was a local law enforcement officer. He became a member of the Cartersville Police Department right after he finished up two tours in the Navy and he later served about a dozen years in the Bartow County Sheriff's Office, primarily working as a narcotics investigator.
 
"It's kind of like riding a bike," he said. "You're just riding it in a different direction in this business."
 
There was no sudden epiphany that motivated Weathers to switch career trajectories. Rather, one day he had lunch with a friend who operated several bail bonding companies throughout metro Atlanta, they decided Bartow County was a good market and that was pretty much the end (or, depending on one's perspective, beginning) of it.
 
Not that it wasn't a risky investment. Unlike other businesses, Weathers doesn't rely on financial lenders or backing from a bank — his company is 100 percent self-funded.
 
"In this business, you have to be a little bit of a gambler," he said. "There is a vast majority of people that we bond out that we just don't know. So we gather as much information as we can on them ... when I sign your bond and I don't know you, I'm gambling my money that you're going to do what you say you're going to do."
 
Weathers touts a fairly impressive "success" rate, though, with 95 percent of his clients holding up their end of the deal and answering their charges in the local courts after he signs over their bonds.
 
"A majority of the people we deal with really don't know anything about the bonding industry," he said. "There are several ways people can bond out of jail. Some charge what is called a 'cash bond,' but the only bonds that we fool with are property bonds that are set by the Sheriff's Office and the Magistrate office."
 
Bond fees are set by state law. "I can charge you anywhere from 0 percent up to 15 percent," Weathers said. "The standard, pretty much statewide, is 10 percent of the bond amount."
 
It's a pretty straightforward formula. Let's say an individual gets arrested for something — perhaps illegally tampering with one of of those bright-blue Daily Tribune News boxes. If that hypothetical person has his or her bond set at $3,000, that would mean Weathers could co-sign on a bond to get them out of jail for $300.
 
But that comes with an important caveat — by purchasing the bond, the customer also makes a legally-binding promise to show up in court whenever he or she is ordered.
 
"In essence, we help obtain your freedom while you're awaiting your court appearance," he said. "And we ensure the courts that you're going to be in court when you're supposed to."  
 
However, Weathers also reserves the right to collect collateral if he thinks a customer might be a flight risk. In those scenarios, he would request clients pay a percentage of the bond plus the full bond amount in cash or a credit card payment until they have their date in court. After they see a judge, then he would give them a full refund. 
 
That fiscal safeguard is in place for a very important reason. If one of Weathers' customers doesn't appear in court, that means his company would be held liable for paying off the entirety of his client's bond amount.
 
"If they don't show up for court, we immediately get busy hunting them down and bringing them back so that they can appear in court like they were ordered to," he said. "And I'd much rather hunt you down and bring you back than pay the money."
 
Weathers said he winds up having to call in bounty hunters to retrieve about 5 percent of his clientele. Sometimes it's as easy as making a crosstown trip in Cartersville, and other times he has to send people as far away as California and South Dakota to track them down.
 
"The good thing is, in today's society, the computer allows us to find a lot of people and you can obtain a lot of information on someone," he said. "It's not that hard to find them anymore like it used to be before social media."
 
He recalled having to track down one fugitive — a 63-year-old, disabled woman whose husband was allegedly an evangelist preacher.
 
"She just looked like somebody's grandmother," he said. "To make a long story short, she went on the run and this was on a traffic charge ... it wasn't even something serious."
 
After spending several months trying to locate her, Weathers ultimately sent some personnel up to her daughter's house at the Georgia/Tennessee state line. 
 
"Our bounty hunter found her inside a normal, standard clothes dryer," he recollected. "She was probably 200 pounds and crippled — she walked with a cane."
 
He doesn't just handle bail bonds, though. Weathers also issues probate bonds, traffic bonds and immigration bonds, among several others.
 
"You see a lot of situations that come through that basically, for lack of a better word, are pitiful," he said. "And it breaks your heart sometimes to see some of the stories." 
 
During the winter he said there's an uptick in the number of homeless individuals who shoplift. They break the law, he said, because that guarantees them a warm cell and at least a few meals at the local jail.
 
"The amount of meth bonds is actually scary," Weathers said. "The majority of those people that are on meth don't care who they hurt or what they do to get their next fix ... these folks who are fooling with this, and I've actually seen it, they will rob their own grandmother or granddaddy and just put them in the poorhouse because of this drug."
 
Another growing concern, he said, is the increase in coordinated group crimes.
 
"There are bands of people that come into Cartersville and Bartow County, for instance, to steal and shoplift and they do it by droves. They just hit [Interstate] 75 and go back south to Atlanta or they go up north to Chattanooga," he said. "We see it all the time and law enforcement sees it all the time, but the housewife and soccer mom, they never see that and never recognize it's going on."
 
Weathers said the most frequent arrests he sees are for shoplifting and family violence. The latter tends to spike during the holidays — Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter and, perhaps most surprisingly, Mother's Day. 
 
"Families are away from each other for a whole year and they all get together and somebody starts fussing about the other one," Weathers said, "and somebody winds up going to jail." 
 
As for the most bizarre arrest he's ever encountered, Weathers said the saga of the "turkey lady" immediately springs to mind. 
 
"A middle-aged lady basically tried to shoplift a turkey in her pants," he said. "I'm not talking about a little, small turkey, I'm talking about a big one, like the one you have at Thanksgiving. How'd you expect to get by with that?"
 
Weathers was a little hesitant about giving out the full estimate for the total number of customers he sees each year, but he did say "it's a whole lot more than you'd think."
 
He said his busiest night to date occurred last New Year's Eve, when his company issued bonds to 17 of the individuals arrested during the infamous "Cartersville 70" incident. As for the largest bond he's ever processed, Weathers said in the past he's talked with attorneys about negotiating bonds in excess of $1 million.
 
There's definitely some truth to the old adage that bail bonding is a "recession-proof" job, he said.
 
"A lot more people get locked up when the economy's going south — good people just get desperate," Weathers said. "You see the desperation in these people develop over a bad economic situation, and they will do drastic things that they normally would have never done in their life."
 
Still, Weathers said he tries to remain "lenient in lean times." If he assesses a customer as a good person in dire financial straits, he said he's not opposed to setting up a payment plan if they can't afford the full cost of a bail bond.
 
He also likes to dispense a little bit of life advice to some of his younger customers.
 
"I always tell them that my door is open and my phone is open if they ever want to talk and discuss things," he said. "A lot of times, those kids won't listen to their parents, but they'll listen to an outsider like me and they'll take it to heart."
 
And many of them do, as evident by the letters and phone calls he receives from some of his prior clients, who credit his words of wisdom as catalysts for them getting their lives back on the right track. 
 
Like any business, Weathers says he has a fair number of repeat customers — as a nod to "The Andy Griffith Show," he refers to them as "Otises." 
 
"The majority of it is good people doing something stupid and getting locked up," Weathers said. "Even the bad guys, if you treat them like somebody and you don't try to talk down to them, the majority of them will show that respect back to you and do exactly what they need to do, because they don't want to let you down."
 
And for locals who wish to avoid procuring his services anytime soon, Weathers lays out a rather concise little checklist. 
 
"Do not drink and drive, stay completely away from narcotics and if you're going to get into a fuss with your husband or wife, for God's sake, do it quietly," he said. "In essence, just don't break the law."

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