ST. PETERSBURG — The bail bondsmen had been tailing the man all day. Their quarry had failed to appear for a September court hearing on a cocaine possession charge. Now Kyle's Kwik Bail Bonds would be on the hook for his five-figure bond.
They decided the takedown would happen at McDonald's.
A white sedan turned into the drive-through. The man, Deveon Stokes, 26, was in the back seat. A team of bondsmen decided to box in the sedan.
That's how St. Petersburg police Chief Tony Holloway described the start of the confrontation that unfolded in broad daylight Wednesday afternoon. The result: A woman inside the sedan — who was not wanted — was shot in the head by a bail bondsman and left in critical condition.
Police released few details about the incident. But Holloway criticized the bondsmen's decision to try to capture their subject in such a public place.
"We're going to be talking to them to figure out why they picked this location," he said.
Court records show Stokes failed to appear in Pinellas court for a September pretrial hearing on his felony drug charge, so a warrant was issued. His bond was in the amount of $21,000, the chief said.
So around 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, a team of three or four bail bondsmen attempted the takedown at the restaurant at 4585 34th St. S. Here's how Holloway described the confrontation:
The sedan Stokes was in waited in the drive-through. A blue sports car pulled up nose to nose with the sedan. A gray sport utility vehicle pulled up alongside the white sedan, trapping it. A bail bondsman got out of the SUV, walked to the white sedan, introduced himself, police said, and stuck a gun through the cracked passenger window.
The driver of the sedan stepped on the gas. Police said a gunshot was fired. A woman in the passenger seat of the sedan was shot in the head. Hours later, her blood could be seen inside the car, its door flung open.
Stokes was the only one involved in the incident who was identified by police. The bondsman who held the gun was not named. Nor was the wounded woman. Nor the driver of the white sedan.
The armed bondsman told police the firing was accidental.
Stokes was taken into custody, police said, and the woman taken to a local hospital for surgery.
The owner of the McDonald's declined to comment, as did someone who answered the phone at Kyle's Kwik Bail Bonds.
This was not the first time Kyle's Kwik Bail Bonds was involved in a violent confrontation. In January 2014, one of its bond agents shot a 24-year-old who hadn't appeared in court on a marijuana charge. The fugitive drove at the bondsmen, and one fired at the car several times, hitting the fugitive in the shoulder. The bondsman was not charged.
In this case, however, Holloway said charges are possible. State statutes govern the actions of bond agents. One forbids any "attempt to collect, through threat or coercion, amounts due for the payment of any indebtedness related to the issuance of a bail bond."
Holloway said agents don't get more leeway to use weapons.
"They're going to go through the same procedure as you would if you shot off your weapon," the chief told reporters. "We're interviewing them to figure out exactly what happened."
He said police generally have a "very good working relationship" with bail bondsmen.
"They normally contact us, let us know when they're looking for someone," he said. "So again, we're going to look at this to see exactly what happened.
"Did they let us know they were in the city, and did they let us know they were getting ready to do this takedown in the city?"
It's not always possible for bondsmen to let police know what they're planning, said Armando Roche, past president of the Professional Bail Agents of the United States.
"The arrest by bail bondsmen of people that fail to go to court occurs every single day across this country," he said. "Not to the extent of what happened in St. Pete today, but these arrests are effectuated every day."
In a typical scenario, a judge issues a warrant for a fugitive's arrest. A bail agent goes looking for them, makes an arrest and brings them back to custody. Roche said in Florida, bail agents are given 60 days to return the fugitive before they have to pay the bond. After that, for the first year, they can recover as much as 85 percent of the bond amount, and 50 percent in the second year. In Stokes' case, Wednesday was the 61st day since he missed his hearing.
Roche said agents may act "within reason" to recover clients, but that that's a gray area.
"As for a determination of what's reasonable . . . ," he said. "That's a question for the state attorney's office and the sheriff and whoever's investigating this incident."
The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office will likely evaluate the incident, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett.
"It sounded to me like it went a little bit over the top, particularly with something that involved other citizens and the use of deadly force," Bartlett said. "That's something that kind of changes the game."
Times staff researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected]