Eugene Caruso cracks open a 16-ounce Rockstar Energy Drink before we even reach Primm. “This is the first time I’ve ever had one of these,” Caruso says. Ten-thirty on a Tuesday night in a van speeding from Las Vegas to San Diego is as good a time and place as any to start. We’re hunting fugitives, so staying awake is a good idea.
Caruso’s beverage is the only thing unfamiliar to him on this trip. For nearly 11 years, the lifelong Las Vegan has owned and operated Goodfellas Bail Bonds, one of more than 130 bail bond companies doing business in Southern Nevada. For him, hitting the highway in search of a “skip” is just an occasional inconvenience in a strange and unique profession.
He has just two weeks left to track down 61-year-old Rodolfo Quinones, who missed his July 28 court date on a DUI charge, putting Caruso on the hook for a $2,200 bond. It’s a relatively paltry sum—the highest bond Caruso ever signed off on was $650,000 on a capital murder charge—but he’s not in the habit of letting people take advantage of him. Caruso doesn’t expect trouble on this trip, but he’s brought along bounty hunter Alex Mazzola just in case. Bounty hunters work for bondsmen in apprehending fugitives, and generally get paid 10 percent of the total bond, but only if the skip is caught. A licensed bondsman can also act as a bounty hunter, but only for his own cases.
Mazzola has set up his laptop in the back of Caruso’s van, poring over all the information he has on Quinones. By leaving for San Diego at such an odd hour, Caruso hopes to na b Quinones in the early morning at his home, then head north to Sherman Oaks to round up another fugitive and be back in Las Vegas by the afternoon.
“It’s hide-and-seek for adults,” he says. “That’s all it is. And jail is like timeout for adults. You lose at hide-and-seek, you’ve got to go to timeout.”
• • •
Most people will never come in contact with a bondsman. But to those who need them, they provide a quick return to freedom following an arrest. The industry has a bad reputation, with bondsmen often accused of colluding with lawyers, police or judges for monetary gain. But it is a legitimate, private branch of the American justice system.
In Nevada, where the industry is highly regulated, bail agencies charge 15 percent of the total bond for their services. For example, if someone is arrested and bail is set at $10,000, the defendant pays the bondsman a nonrefundable $1,500 fee to put up the entire amount. The bondsman acts as insurance that the defendant will appear in court. Usually the person shows up, and the bond is exonerated. But if a defendant misses court, the bondsman has 180 days to bring them into custody or they forfeit the bond. Judges can grant the bondsman an extension, however, if he’s making an effort to track down the skip.
Caruso wrote about 2,100 bonds last year, with 10 percent of those missing court but showing up eventually. He writes some $10 million a year in bonds, and loses about $20,000 on skips. He makes an effort to catch all who run, handling about 80 percent of the cases himself. It’s rare that he comes up empty.
• • •
Around 2:30 a.m. I wake up in the passenger seat as Caruso stops at an intersection near San Diego State University. We make a right turn and pull into an apartment complex around the corner from campus. Things couldn’t be more tranquil. The apartments show no sign of life, not a single light peeking through a window.
The report on Quinones from Caruso’s files says he has a brown Ford Ranger. Bingo. There’s a Ranger parked across the street from the address we have for Quinones. Although it’s difficult to determine the truck’s color at night, Caruso is convinced it’s the one and grows excited. He’s within sight of the second-floor apartment and discusses strategy with Mazzola. Since they’re going after a 61-year-old man, they emphasize their desire to not cause him any needless harm. “The only thing I want to hurt is somebody’s feelings when I put them back in jail,” Caruso says.
It is nearly 3 a.m. when Mazzola climbs the stairs toward the door, with Caruso standing below. They are both carrying guns. Neither is wearing any type of body armor. Caruso looks like he could be heading to the gym, wearing running shoes, Adidas sweatpants, a Goodfellas hoodie and a baseball cap.
The light in the apartment comes on quickly after Mazzola knocks. The front door opens, and after a brief exchange with someone he walks inside. Hardly a minute goes by before he exits—alone—and walks back to the van with Caruso.
The two college girls in the apartment say they have lived there since October. They occasionally get mail addressed to Quinones, but don’t know him. Mazzola doesn’t think they’re lying; the apartment looks too neat for a man to be living there. “What the hell are those girls thinking opening their door to a stranger at 3 a.m.?” Mazzola asks.
Caruso turns his attention back to the Ranger, still convinced it belongs to Quinones. He shines a flashlight on the truck. It’s gray, not brown. Discouraged, Caruso jumps into the driver’s seat. Any hope for a successful trip lies 135 miles north in Sherman Oaks. He turns his focus toward 51-year-old Joe Santos Hernandez, who, like Quinones, jumped bail on a DUI charge. We stop at a gas station, and Caruso climbs in the back of the van for an hour or two of sleep while Mazzola takes over the driving. Caruso yawns. “Sometimes you catch them sooner than later,” he says. “Sometimes you catch them later than sooner.”
• • •
Caruso, 41, grew up near Tropicana Avenue and Nellis Boulevard with three brothers and six sisters as part of a close-knit Catholic family, with his father a bartender at the Stardust. He had a natural ability in athletics and a proclivity for making people laugh, which didn’t often go over well in school. After a run-in with a nun got him expelled from Bishop Gorman High School during his junior year, Caruso graduated from Basic High in 1987, starring both as a football receiver and as an outfielder on the Wolves’ state championship baseball team. After signing a football scholarship with the University of San Diego, Caruso instead decided to try out for the baseball team as a walk-on. He was kicked off the team early in the season for his involvement at a party, but not before the coach made Caruso into a pitcher. He had little experience on the mound, and wasn’t exactly intimidating at 5 feet 11 inches and 175 pounds, but the move transformed his career.
The left-hander pitched 10 seasons (1992-2001) in the minors, making it as high as Triple A with the Pittsburgh Pirates while compiling a 53-39 record with a 4.05 earned-run average in 209 games. It was a career filled with priceless moments, such as tossing a no-hitter for the Schaumburg (Ill.) Flyers of the Independent League in 1999, and pitching for Team USA in 1999 and 2000.
But there was never much money playing at that level. “I was done being broke,” Caruso says. “It was tough going away and not making enough to make ends meet. When I got released from the Cubs [during spring training in 2000], and [general manager] Jim Hendry told me I did everything possible to make the team but that he never had a spot for me, I just found something else to compete at.”
It was toward the end of his pitching career that he found his new calling, and it happened rather organically. Leaving to play baseball in Taiwan one season, Caruso let a longtime friend, Vince Ebarb, crash on his couch in Las Vegas. When Caruso returned nine months later, he found Ebarb’s lifestyle had improved significantly thanks to his new career as a bondsman.
“Here I was working my butt off trying to be one in a million playing baseball and really not making that great of a living,” Caruso says. “I was intrigued. So I went and started hanging out at his office and listening to him answer phones and asking him questions. And then we would just be hanging out as friends and all of a sudden—boom—he had to go pick somebody up, so I would do ride-alongs with him. And then I asked him if I could help him do it, and one thing led to another.
“I was not getting any type of compensation. I was pretty much just hanging out with my friend and watching him become a bail bondsman. And I’m the type who just learns from watching things.”
Caruso went into business with his brother Paul in 1999, creating Goodfellas and Express Bail Bonds. He now has four locations, including one in Henderson, and 14 employees. And he’s one of the few Southern Nevada business owners who can say that business has grown in recent years.
“It takes about a year before you know if you’re doing everything right,” he says. “There’s a couple of companies that just opened this year, and they’re coming to my guys who work for me and they’re bragging about their big months, like it’s the easiest thing in the world.
“Look at me, I’m running around California right now. Is this the best thing I can be doing with my time? Probably not. But I kinda took these two a little personal.”
• • •
At 6:43 a.m., we arrive at the first of two addresses listed for our man, Joe Santos Hernandez, in Sherman Oaks. Mazzola jumps out of the side of the van, startling an old woman who is taking out her trash. He asks if she knows Hernandez, but she says little, certainly nothing helpful, before going inside. The apartment next door is the one Caruso and Mazzola want.
Hernandez’s daughter, whom Caruso recognizes as the co-signer of the bond, answers the knock on the door. She says her father doesn’t live there, but refuses to disclose the correct address. To help bail her father out she put up $1,000 in collateral plus more than $300 for the premium on the $2,000 bond. She rants about being “screwed over” by Caruso, who storms back to the van in a bit of showmanship, leaving Mazzola to work her for info.
But instead of turning up the heat, Mazzolo calms the situation by explaining to her that if her father had made his court date, her $1,000 collateral would have been returned. “Gene’s not the one screwing you,” he says, “Your father is the one who put you in this position.”
She pauses a couple of times, giving the impression that she’s close to giving up the address. This is when Mazzola gives her a mild verbal shove, closing the deal: “Look, I drove all night from Las Vegas to come get your father. I’m not going back without him. … Don’t make me have to come back here.”
• • •
It’s really not in Caruso’s nature to be a hard-ass. And despite his business acumen—he’s got a bachelor’s degree in marketing—he’s more jester than king. But that’s also part of his success. Goodfellas’ television commercials (which can be viewed on YouTube) are ridiculous, featuring Caruso break dancing, hoola-hooping, playing guitar and even rolling his belly. But they get your attention.
“Most people are afraid of bail bondsmen,” he says. “They think they’re dealing with the police or some kind of figure that has the ability to arrest them and put them in jail. There’s a fear factor there, so I tried to make the commercials funny to make us more approachable.”
The ads and their personal touch help separate Caruso from the pack. With Goodfellas’ promise of a free ride home from jail, a free T-shirt and a free hug, the company’s website has long been the top organic site for Internet searches of local bond companies. And now Caruso is even on your radio dial, buying airtime 6-7 p.m. Wednesdays on KBAD 920-AM.
“I’m dishing out laughs, bro,” he says. “I’m going to be on there for an hour just being as funny as I can.”
• • •
People are leaving for work and taking their kids to school as we near Hernandez’s house around 7:30 a.m. His truck is in front, but there are no signs of life in the house. After a brief look around, Caruso and Mazzola—packing guns, a taser and pepper spray—jump the block wall into the yard. They check a shed housing what sounds like a large, aggressive dog. Mazzolo suspects Hernandez may be using the dog as a shield, so he saturates the perimeter of the door with pepper spray before opening it. The spray disarms the dog, but Hernandez isn’t in there.
The two men turn their attention to the house. Mazzola knocks on the door, but nobody answers. Caruso makes a quick phone call, alerting local police that he may be entering the house forcibly. They can’t find an open window, leaving them only one option.
“Here goes,” Mazzola says.
Bam! The door flies open from the force of his right foot, and Caruso and Mazzola quickly make their way through the house, identifying themselves repeatedly as bail enforcement agents. There is someone in the house, but it’s not Hernandez; it’s his wife, who sits with a small dog in the living room, pretty shaken up by having her front door kicked in but seemingly not terribly surprised by the intrusion. She offers no resistance, then puts Hernandez on the phone with Mazzola. The exchange is heated at first, but Hernandez calms down and finally instructs his wife to pay the two men. She goes to another room and comes back with $1,400 cash. Mazzola writes her a receipt for the transaction, which is completed quickly and professionally. Caruso encourages Hernandez to contact a lawyer in Las Vegas to take care of his warrant. Afterward, Caruso admits that he should have demanded more money under the circumstances but will come out fine if Hernandez eventually settles his case.
As we begin the bleary-eyed drive back to Nevada, it seems like a bit of a letdown to have no additional passengers returning with us. Caruso reflects on the bizarre relationship he has with some of his customers. It’s almost like being a jilted lover sometimes.
“Once they’re out of jail, their thoughts of you change,” he says. “They forget about you. You’re the last on their list of bills all of a sudden.”