The Redneck Riviera

From the boardwalk at Gulf Shores, the water welcomes visitors to take a dip.

After getting my feet solidly under me in Louisiana, I was ready to take my reality television adventure east, across the Redneck Riviera, consisting of Mississippi, Alabama and the panhandle of Florida.

While I was continuing to contact mainline law enforcement about participating in the “I Am The Law”reality show, I felt going to quasi-law enforcements entities was the better path to follow and would prove more fruitful. I pursued both options, but I had no hint as to the treasure trove of excitement I was about to unearth.

The Katrina Memorial in Biloxi.

Mississippi is a little over an hour from New Orleans, add another 30 minutes and you reach the heart of the Gulf Coast – Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss. If you drop south a few miles from U.S. 10, to Hwy. 90, the road hugs the coastline and places the ocean a football throw away. This is why Hurricane Katrina was so devastating to this region.

The massive wave essentially reached out and grabbed everything on the shore and pulled it back into the ocean. It’s readily evident by the amount of construction that the entire coastline is being rebuilt. This includes the casinos.

The Hard Rock casino was originally scheduled to open on the day Katrina hit. It was instead destroyed. Eleven casinos are currently open in the Gulfport/Biloxi region, with more on the way, including the Jimmy Buffet owned Margaritaville. The two most prestigious are the Beau Rivage, which is like the Bellagio in Las Vegas (not particularly kid oriented), and the rebuilt Hard Rock.

Sundown brings the lights up at the Hard Rock Casino.

Unless people live in this area, most are unfamiliar with the beaches and casinos that exist. They’re tier three casinos at best, nothing like Vegas or Atlantic City, but they are packed year around, and offer a level of entertainment this area wouldn’t enjoy otherwise.

Several have major concert spaces inside, it’s not uncommon to run into B list celebrities, like David Hasselhoff, and they bring in a ton of money. These casinos are essentially responsible for all of Mississippi’s tax revenue.

There definitely is a party scene here that shouldn’t exist, and wouldn’t exist if not for the casinos. This got me thinking about finding some angle involving them in the reality show. It seemed like good TV – taking what people perceive is found in Mississippi, then turning it on its head and showing all these folks partying like rock stars out by the pool overlooking the ocean.

To get a better feel for how the casinos operate, and what level of debauchery is out there, I went and spoke with a couple of the casino security chiefs. Derick Bonnet is a security supervisor at the Hard Rock, and he echoed that there is a healthy party scene, very upscale, but overall uneventful. With rooms hovering around $200 a night, plus what the average guest will drop on food, drinks, entertainment and gambling, the last thing security wants to do is throw them out. While the pool scene Sunday at the Hard Rock, known as “Detox,” would make a grown man blush according to Bonnet, the drama is low at the casino.

In recognition of George Ohr (the Mad Potter of Biloxi), the five-building Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art campus has been commissioned. Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, these structures were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, but three of the buildings were opened in 2010, and the remaining two are scheduled for completion in 2012.

I had heard the IP casino took a different tact to handling their security. Several of its security personnel, including the chief, are former police officers and jail employees. They have a reputation for a much more “hands on” approach to how they handle difficult guests.

While Alfred Sexton, the director of security at the IP took a meeting with me. He had no interest in discussing his philosophy or reputation for handling casino security, nor did he want to discuss the types of incidences often encountered.

It became clear this wasn’t going to work for the show. Between not enough action or cooperation, and the gaming commission insisting that they be present at all times made me quickly move off this idea. I got the feeling that the folks here have a dirty little secret they want to keep quiet. Attention on what goes down here is the last thing anyone seems to want.

What I did learn was that instead of long-time locals serving in these casino jobs, many were transplants. A good number of locals had left after Katrina, having lost everything. When the recovery money started flowing, and the casinos were rebuilt, people from outside Mississippi started relocating to Biloxi and Gulfport for the jobs. There also was a significant number of locals who decided to get themselves lost in the chaos after the storm. This made me think of private investigators.

Rebel flags fly outside Beauvoir, the final resting place of Jefferson Davis, located across from the ocean on Hwy. 90, in Biloxi.

Sure enough PI’s are a booming business in this part of the country. Folks who either had huge debts, pending court dates, were on probation, parole, were facing paternity or child support suits, took the opportunity that the hurricane presented and ditched their identities. This is known as “Katrina amnesty,” and it has created a cottage industry for private investigators.

I spoke with a couple of the more reputable PI’s in the area, and they do have a lot of business. The problem with this story line is that successful private investigators need to remain anonymous and tend to be boring. When trailing a person the last thing a PI wants is a face that’s been splashed all over television – it’s a career ender. The job sounds sexy, but makes for lousy television.

The ocean vista in Biloxi as seen from Highway 90.

This was another example of one door closing and another opening. I considered who else was involved in the process of apprehending fugitives. The police have their hands full with day to day incidents. That’s when the idea of bail bondsmen came to me.

I looked up a few in the phone book, called a couple, and then went out to knock on some doors.

Located amongst a grouping of shabby, prefab strip mall office complexes, the majority of which had something to do with doctors offices or medical supplies, was D & D Bail Bonds.

There was no proper sign outside, only small cardboard ones suited for stapling to phone polls were scattered in a curtained window. I made sure I had everything necessary to do an interview – but would there be an interview? What kind of discussion do you have with a bounty hunter?

I walked up to the door with some trepidation. Anything could be on the other side. I needed to steel myself for whatever I might encounter.

I reached my hand out to grasp the door knob and paused, taking a deep breath and stepped strongly into the dingy lit world of bail bonding.

The office was one big room, with three smaller offices branching off to the left. File cabinets of all sizes, a safe and bulletin boards ringed the room. Towards the back was a primary business desk, at which sat the owner, Wayne Dowdle. Stationed around his desk, slumped in varying-types of chairs were the three other mates that make up D & D, Wayne’s wiry son Justin, a mountain of a man in Ben “Ray” Williams and the reserved Tim Odom.

Clearly I had interrupted a conversation, as laughing and boisterous crosstalk came to an immediate silence as all four men turned their focus upon me.

I didn’t want to give them any room so I rolled right into my spiel on the reality show. Wayne never looked up, keeping his head down and attending to his work.

There was brief pause when I finished, as all three thought I was full of shit, and had been put up to this as a prank by another bounty hunter.

Ben, or Ray as he prefers to be called, is the enforcer in this group. He’s also a character. At 6’4″, and weighing 250 pounds, he cuts an imposing figure. Tattoos spill out of both shirt sleeves, he’s thick like a refrigerator, and has a grizzled exterior that would indicate he might stomp you into bug goo if you don’t choose your words carefully. But beyond the rough exterior Ray is actually a big teddy bear. He’s light-hearted, smart, with a quick wit and self-deprecating sense of humor. It’s just most people don’t see past his size and tattoos.

Now don’t get me wrong, Ray will hurt you. He’s been a bouncer and served as an enforcer for a biker gang, but he prefers to utilize his intelligence and rapport to get the job done peacefully.

I could tell Justin was a character as well. He had a spidery type body; thin arms and long fingers that were always moving, a manic sense in his eyes, he smoked like a chimney, had a wicked Mississippi accent and wore a black Monster energy drink hat, with the big green neon “M” spun to about two o’clock on his nugget.

He reminded me a lot of the character Morgan O’Mally in “Good Will Hunting,” played by Casey Affleck. Both these guys can get some shit stirred up, but they have big boys behind them that are not afraid to fight their way out.

Justin also has a thing about using Tasers on people. He’s always got one with him. He’s not a big guy, but is very animated. The Taser just adds to his character.

He and his father have this system down, where Wayne, who looks like a middle-aged accountant, non-threatening in appearance or demeanor, will ring a fugitive’s door bell. When he answers the door, Wayne introduces himself like some door-to-door salesman and reaches out to shake hands, only he doesn’t let go of the fugitive’s hand. Wayne pulls him out of the doorway, where Justin is waiting to slap the handcuffs on them or will happily Taser them if they so much as flinch.

It’s worked amazingly well over the years.

Tim Odom falls more into Wayne’s mold. He’s got a few pounds on him, has that business casual look down with a southern twist, and a Bluetooth device on his ear. He’s the quiet guy in this group, but will get jiggy when required.

Together this is a rather unlikely batch of bounty hunters, but they get the job done and come home in one piece. Wayne serves as the father figure to this bunch. He’s the most cerebral and is focuses on the bottom line. It’s business after all and making money is what it’s all about. He prefers to use a laptop and cell phone to accomplish his objectives, but has no problem going hands on when necessary. He sets the tone and has the boys to back it up.

“Oh we can stir up some shit – I got a big ‘ole shit stirring stick,” said Ben “Ray” Williams.

After checking out my drivers license, they were all psyched about the idea of the reality show. They started calling other bounty hunters to see if they might be interested.

The mural outside the Just Us Lounge in Biloxi, where owners Lynn Koval and Tammy LaFontaine run A-AAROW Bail Bonds.

I had a chance to run around with these guys while they were attempting to apprehend a fugitive woman. We even used my truck as a surveillance vehicle.

Success in tracking down a fugitive has everything to do with getting out where the person lives and hangs out, and talking to them about who is being sought. Spread the word and get their face out there.

Our three car caravan made a stop at the apartment complex where her supposed boyfriend lived, and where she often stayed. I ended up getting a tip from a rather emaciated and damaged young blonde woman who was clutching a Bible – that our fugitive had swapped out her car for a truck owned by her family. Evidently I was less threatening looking than my counterparts.

Ray ended up convincing the fugitive’s boyfriend to meet us at the lighthouse parking lot in Biloxi. Conveniently D & D held a current bond on the boyfriend, which was just the kind of leverage that Ray likes to use in such situations.

“Watch me turn this guy on his girl,” said Ben “Ray” Williams. “It doesn’t matter how much you love someone, when you threaten to take away their freedom they will turn love in every time.”

It was sunset out on the beach when the boyfriend drove up. He and Ray had a quick chit chat. This guy looked strung out on crack, which was very probable.

Ray outstretched his arms to either side, like the scales of justice, and said, “In one hand I have your freedom, in the other I need your girl.”

He instructed the boyfriend that he will find his girlfriend and convince her to come back over to his apartment. Then to call Ray so they could get in place. He told the boyfriend that when they come busting in he could curse them and holler, so it didn’t appear he had rolled over on his girl. And Ray would throw him some money after to make it right.

The hand painted mural outside the Just Us is dedicated to the city of Biloxi, in remembrance of the damage caused by Katrina, and depicts several famous historical properties that were damaged.

Sure enough, when Ray threatened to revoke the boyfriend’s bond, you could visibly see this guy’s shoulders sink with the weight of the world on them and he sulked off thinking about how to meet both the demands of the law and his girlfriend’s trust.

All was quiet for several hours, but this fugitive woman had pissed Justin off. She had gotten under his skin and he can’t go home when that happens – he can’t relax, so he stays out till he catches them. He hit every flea bag hotel along the strip between Gulfport and Biloxi showing her picture around.

Finally it was learned that the woman was out turning tricks, in an effort to get enough money to be able to pay cash for a hotel room and crack cocaine. Justin got her mobile number from her boyfriend, then had a friend call her and pretend that he was a guy who met her last week in a club, but reminded the fugitive that they had been pretty high (which happened fairly often), so she might not remember him.

Justin’s friend told her, “he had a big rock of crack, a big dick and wanted to party.” Bizarrely this worked. Justin called Ray around 2:30 a.m., who was neck deep in the back bay fishing with some buddies. He dragged himself over to where the meet was supposed to down, and at around 3:45 a.m., the woman came rolling up in the parking lot and Ray snatched her out of the car as she was spitting and cussing.

Ray kept hold of her for a moment so he could express the amount of trouble she had put them all through over the last 36 hours.

There are two levels of bounty hunters. One is a less ambitious set, that only want to issue secured, local bonds, that likely will not require them to do anything. The other is like the crew at D & D. These guys will take most anything, and if you jump bond they will come find you – doesn’t matter where you go.

Within this second group there are two ways of doing business. One runs bail bonding like an office job, whereby a telephone and computer settle most issues. The second believes they are more like some sort of special operations tactical unit and rolls heavy handed.

The business types generally try to stay in touch with their clients, reassure them, and make sure they make their court dates, that way the bonding agents get their money. At D & D they could be seen as a counselor, or even secondary parent. Many of their clients are repeat customers. They’re in trouble and often don’t have a solid family unit to fall back on, so they end up knowing their bonding agents better than their family. It’s in D & D’s best interest to shepherd their clients through this difficult time.

Usually their clients want to take care of their business. They need to step up, go to trial and if found guilty, deal with the punishment, so they can get on with their lives. Of course some clients break bad, and that’s when a bonding agent puts down his brief case, puts on the bounty hunting persona and picks up a gun.

The historical Old Brick House overlooks the back bay in Biloxi.

Bonding agents are state sanctioned, and must take qualifying courses to be certified, but there is an extremely fine line between the people they are chasing and themselves. Several of the ones I met had addiction issues, borderline violence tendencies, and I got the feeling, had more likely found bail bonding as a way to make a living in a world where they were already comfortable, could continue with some of their anti-social behavior, but supposedly be on the right side of the law.

Bounty hunters, or fugitive recovery agents, wield considerable power. They carry badges, tactical weapons, can wear uniforms, bullet proof vests, drive unmarked police cruisers, and have the authority to kick in a door at 4:00 a.m. if they suspect a fugitive is hiding there.

They essentially are police officers unburdened by the constraints of probable cause.

In fact sometimes the police will toss the bounty hunters work at say a known house where meth is being manufactured, but that the police don’t have the probably cause to enter. The bounty hunters will take the house down under the auspice of looking for a fugitive and arrest all on the premises.

It’s dangerous work and the bad guys sometimes win. I equate it to the old Road Runner cartoon, where the sheep dog and coyote are sitting around sharing lunch together, but when the whistle blows they are pitted against one another. These bounty hunters are from the area where they work, in some cases they went to high school with the people they are chasing. They drink together in the same bars. But when they break the law, the bounty hunters know their kill, and the hunted know the hunters. And when all the dust settles, they’ll share a drink together again and laugh about it all.

The guys at D & D insisted I should also talk to Crazy Mike. By the way they were looking at each other and laughing I knew this guy had to be a treat.

He is unpredictable to say the least. Mike and his crew have a hard on for physical contact. They roll fully armed, and ready to raise hell. This bunch wears their profession on their sleeves. In fact one guy in Mike’s crew has the word “Bounty” tattooed down one arm, and “Hunter” down the other.

I set the interview with Mike, and as I was leaving D & D, Ray told me to ask Mike about being shot at…

Mike is not small, nor is he the picture of health, but he exudes confidence and has a sharp sense of humor. He does have that hard charging personality and is enthusiastic about his job.

Wearing a wife beater that doesn’t hold his gut back, Mike’s badge dangles from his neck. He’s always armed and drives a tricked out old police cruiser. This all screams cop and he uses that to his advantage.

“There ain’t nothing more challenging than hunting a human being,” said Mike Willis.

Both these groups are effective. It’s just the last time I heard from Crazy Mike, he was seen on the hood of a car, firing his 9mm pistol into the car window of a suspect who was trying to run him down. Mike’s philosophy for getting the job done tends to elicit this type of reaction.

“If you’re making us come after you at 4:00 a.m., we’re going to have some fun at your expense,” said Willis.

Somewhere in between Willis and the guys at D & D, is Lynn Koval. She and her partner, Tammy LaFontaine, run A-AAROW Bail Bonds in Biloxi. Lynn is about 5’4″, medium build, with a no nonsense demeanor. She’s very approachable, but has a tough as nails interior she calls upon to get the job done.

The Just Us Lounge took water up to its roof, but has been rehabbed inside and out. Its the only gay or alternative lifestyles club along the Gulf Coast and is open 24/7. Van service is provided to get intoxicated customers home safely and if you or a loved one needs bail, the owners can help with that.

Lynn and Tammy run their bail bonding business out of their club, the Just Us lounge, the only gay club along the Gulf Coast. The Just Us is open 24/7. The only time its been closed was during Katrina, when they took water up to the roof. They’re always open, and that works well in the bonding business.

Tammy is a willowy brunette, who is related to Brett Favre, and brings a sophistication to this burly profession. She also is a great counter to Lynn’s persona. Tammy can hang out in bars and clubs and get close to male offenders, maybe buy them a drink, give them some hope they have a play with her and then Lynn will come in and hook them up.

Neither carry a weapon generally. Lynn often has an empty holster strapped to her waist, and says it’s all in how you carry yourself.

What all of these people have in common is they’re out doing a difficult job, that is not one many people want, but it makes their cities a safer place. The hours play hell on trying to keep a family together, it’s dangerous and unpredictable, but that works for these folks. They like the action.

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