On hearing the verdict, Herman O. Darr whirls around, mutters loudly and storms out of Courtroom 4.
It's a little after 2:30 P.M. on March 1, 2013. Judge Jennifer Etheridge dispatches a bailiff, who hustles to the door and raises his radio, which beeps like an alarm. "You are wanted in the court," the bailiff tells Darr, a 6-foot-1 -inch 35-year-old who is just outside, in the lobby of the District Court on Fayette Street. Darr returns, still agitated. The radio crackles and the bailiff tells his fellows down the hall to stand down as Darr approaches the judge, head bowed.
"Do you think that was appropriate behavior?" Etheridge asks.
"Sorry," Darr says quietly. Then, louder: "I'm being robbed right here!"
Quieter again: "I'm sorry."
The verdict, in favor of Big Boyz Bail Bonds, was $7,000. With court costs and lawyers' fees added, it's close to $10,000.
The bail in question was written in March of 2001, two months after George W. Bush's first presidential inauguration.
Darr and his family are among thousands whom Big Boyz has sued in recent years-about 19,000 since 2003, according to counts available through the online case search system. On paper, they owe the 10-percent fee the state says bail bondsmen must charge all who get bail. They signed promissory notes attesting to the debt, and those promissory notes are legal gold-the bottom line in just about any dispute over money.
But in the bail bonds business, few things are straightforward.
Here's how it's supposed to work: If you are arrested and the crime is serious-or if, say, you don't live in the county where you got busted, or the judge or magistrate thinks you might not show up to court-a bail is set. You can post it by putting up your property or cash and if you come to court as scheduled, you will get every penny of that back. But if you don't have enough money to post your bail, you can either sit in jail or contact a bail bondsman who, for a fee, will post the bond with the court. You pay the bondsman his 10 percent, and you never see that money again, guilty or innocent.
But does it have to be 10 percent?
Darr says, in his case, it wasn't.
Many bondsmen-and some who have studied the industry-say the 10-percent fee is not always paid in a business where speed and bargaining power rule. "If you charge 10 percent for every bail, you will get no bails," says a local bondsman who did not want to be quoted in this story, because he feared sanction by the Maryland Insurance Administration. "The people who pay 10 percent are the folks from Perry Hall who work for the phone company. Their kid gets jammed up, they're scared to death. Everyone else is looking for a deal."
This bondsman-and several other people in a position to know-says Big Boyz, like other bondsmen, sometimes verbally agrees to a smaller fee but then, if circumstances change, files suit to collect the full 10 percent.
Whether this is true is hard to know. Bail bondsmen have for decades done some bails with a small down payment and an installment plan that-wink, wink-would be forgotten by both parties. Insurance Administration investigators could examine bondsmen's records, but there were not many government inspectors and, anyway, state law did not require relevant records be kept, says Vivian Laxton, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Administration.
But last fall things got tougher for bail discounters. On Oct. 1, 2012, the law was changed to require installment plans be disclosed in detail when the bond is posted. And new language was added requiring the bondsman to "take all necessary steps to collect the total amount owed [by the insured]."
Paul Nochumowitz, Big Boyz manager and the family patriarch, says the new rules have divided the bail industry into "two categories," those who discount illegally and those-like Big Boyz-who follow the law and finance the premium at zero interest. "This creates an interesting dichotomy in the marketplace and can lead to confusion for some customers," he writes (through his lawyer, Andrew Jay Graham) in a letter answering City Paper's questions about the business. "However, the process is clear according to the rules and we are careful to explain the entire process and a client's responsibilities[,] including obtaining their signature on paperwork that explains their responsibilities."
Some former customers-and rival bondsmen-dispute that assertion. They say Big Boyz exploits its customers while "ratting out" bondsmen who would give those same customers a better deal. But Big Boyz's critics mostly cast their stones from the shadows. They don't want trouble, they say, with Big Boyz or the Insurance Administration, which can fine a bondsman up to $5,000 for every break he cuts his customer-or they can revoke his license outright.
Paul Nochumowitz says the tighter laws are causing Big Boyz's competitors to "bad-mouth" his company. "We find this disappointing," he writes, "but it's the nature of the business."
City Paper began to hear bad things about Big Boyz last fall, as the new installment contract rules were implemented.
Among those bad things was the strange case of Herman Darr.
As Darr, his mother, Barbara Lamp, and his longtime girlfriend, Melissa Bohager, leave the courthouse, a Big Boyz's collection lawyer says Darr's contract was "under seal," meaning the debt can still be pursued for up to 12 years rather than seven, which is generally the case. About the huge numbers of lawsuits the company files-sometimes several hundred in a single day-Robert Eric Robinson says this: "Big Boyz writes a lot of bails. A lot of people don't pay the bill."
Ross Nochumowitz, Big Boyz office manager, is one of Paul Nochumowitz's two sons who have been managing Big Boyz's day-to-day business for several years (the other son, Ethan, was temporarily banned from Central Booking last year after getting into an altercation in which he allegedly mentioned the Trayvon Martin incident in a way a guard perceived as threatening ["Big Boyz Bail Bonds Banned from Central Booking," Mobtown Beat, Oct. 24, 2012]). Ross looks up from his cellphone at the mention of how old the Darr case is.
"This is a very, very rare situation," he says. "Most cases are like a year old."
True. Records indicate that most of the 2,000 or so suits Big Boyz files annually are to collect more recent bails.
But in another way, the Darr's battle with Big Boyz helps illustrate the recent history of the business in Baltimore: how practices evolved, alliances shift, and how hard it can be to track a debt as records get lost or shuffled and alliances and business names change.
Standing in the doorway of the Joppa ranch house she shares with Darr, Bohager, who co-signed on Darr's bond back in 2001, says the original $100,000 bail was written by a friend of the family named Ralph Fisher. "He died a few years later," Bohager says on the night before their court date. The family paid $3,000, 3 percent of the total, with the understanding that it would be the full payment.
"The new guys asked for a signature, just for the insurance," she says, meaning the Insurance Administration that everyone understood would never find time to police the deal.
In court the next morning, Darr says he "beat the charge." Court records show a drug-trafficking case that was dropped in February of 2002. Bohager says her mother once had a receipt for the bail marked "paid-in-full," but which was lost with their house in a foreclosure years ago. Bohager filed bankruptcy in 2002 and so no longer owes the debt, though she says she's still on the hook because it's her immediate family.
"It was eight years before they finally came after us," Darr says. "A friend of mine who worked for the bail company says, 'I'll get it taken care of.'"
The friend, he says, was Vincent Magliano.
Magliano was the founder of Big Boyz Bail Bonds in 1997, but, facing federal cocaine charges himself, he sold the company in September of 2000 to Big Girlz Bail Bonds, controlled by Paul Nochumowitz.
Magliano ended up with a 30-month prison sentence followed by three years of supervised release. He was out by late 2007 and, according to Darr, interceded on Darr's behalf with Nochumowitz either then or a couple years later.
"We went to court, and it wasn't even on the docket anymore," Darr says. "No one showed up."
And the court record does indicate that a collections suit against Darr and his family was filed in 2009 and then dropped. But Magliano says he had no hand in that.
"I've known Melissa and Herman since back in the day," he says from his office at East Coast Bail Bonds, which is diagonally across the street from Big Boyz's office on Highland Avenue. "I don't get into-this is a very competitive business, you now what I mean? So I don't get into the he-said, she-said stuff."
Once out of prison, Magliano co-founded Got Bail?, a new bail bonds company to compete with Big Boyz. While Big Boyz marketed with its now ubiquitous yellow-and-pink pens ("My idea," Magliano told City Paper in 2010), Got Bail? used T-shirts, distributed at construction sites, hip-hop concerts, homeless shelters, and the like. If Magliano had any juice left with Paul Nochumowitz in 2009, neither man is about to admit it now.
"I never did call Paul on that-it didn't go down like that," Magliano says. "I think Herman and them are good people. I don't know how they do business at Big Boyz, compared to how I do it. I just try to stay out of it and stay neutral.
"I do it the right way," he adds. "The law is 10 percent."
If you are wondering why a guy who spent thousands on T-shirts promoting his Got Bail? brand would do business from an office under a sign that says "East Coast Bail Bonds" directly across the street from the office of Big Boyz Bail Bonds-the other bail bonds company he founded-you are beginning to comprehend the business as it is practiced in Baltimore City. As another bondsman explains, "there are so many names and phone numbers out there, so the first thing you learn is to always answer the phone 'bail bonds,' not with the company name or your own name, because they might be trying to call someone else and you might be able to steal that business."
There are two main groups of bail bondsmen in Baltimore. On one side is 4 Aces Bail Bonds and associated companies that write bonds through Missouri-based Safety National and Houston-based Fairmont Specialty (formerly Ranger Insurance). Operated by Milton Tillman III, 4 Aces grew into a phenomenon in the early part of the last decade, reportedly by operating the business "a little loose," meaning discounts on bail and-allegedly-posting the same houses for multiple bails as property bonds. Milton Tillman III along with his father, Milton Tillman Jr., were charged criminally in state court in 2007 for that and ultimately acquitted. Their partisans claimed the charges were orchestrated by Baltimore's other big company, Fred Frank Bail Bonds, which writes through its Lutherville-based subsidiary, Lexington National-the writer used by Big Boyz. Long the dominant bail provider in Maryland, Fred Frank operates with a tighter structure and requires its bondsmen to work exclusively through it.
Competition between these two main bail providers reportedly keeps insurance regulators busy, as each side complains about the others' practices. Since the Tillmans were charged federally with tax crimes in 2008, their company's fortunes have fallen. Many of the Tillmans' investment properties faced foreclosure amid higher bail forfeitures and other expenses. Big Boyz saw its business surge in the late 2000s as the Tillmans' troubles mounted and laws regarding the bail industry were tightened.
One big concern that emerged was bail discounting. The Sun did a story in 2008 outlining the illegal system and some of its pitfalls-quoting then-Baltimore City State's Attorney Patricia Jessamy complaining that too-low bail deals allowed dangerous people back on the street.
A bill in the state legislature that year that would have made it a misdemeanor to not charge the full 10 percent went nowhere.
Reformers like Doug Colbert, meanwhile, see the bail system as an antiquated private tax on people who have to pay bails. "Freedom should not depend on how much money people have," the University of Maryland Law professor says. "If you're going to keep someone in jail, then there should be a significant risk that they are a danger or a flight risk-but it should be a significant risk."
Rep. Jill Carter has a bill in the legislature this year that would require a risk assessment be done in each case. It's predicated on the idea that most people are paying the stated premium.
As a practical matter, 10 percent is like paying the sticker price on a new car. If paid every time, the statutory fee would guarantee the retail bondsman profits unavailable in almost any other business. Another bail bondsman-no names, please-breaks it down thusly: A judge sets a bail at, say, $20,000. The statutory bail amount is $2,000. But to write the bond, the bondsman has to pay the insurance company-there are only a few of them underwriting all the surety bonds nationwide-1 percent, or $200. On top of that is usually a half-percent "buildup fee"-another $100. That goes into an escrow fund to pay the state in case someone skips bail.
So if the bondsman is lucky enough to get a call from a Perry Hall phone company employee, he might gross $1,700 on that $20,000 bail. That's a pretty good day's pay for a guy working with a cellphone from his car and maybe a ratty office in a fading strip mall.
And if the bondsman has to haggle and is asked to write the bail for $400? There's still $100 in it for him. So if the family makes it easy to get all the paperwork done so he's not running around all day and night, the bondsman might do it.
If the bondsman makes a deal with the customer to do the bond at a discount, that deal would be unrecorded in the official paperwork. But if the customer does not pay the agreed amount, he or she would find herself and her co-signers on the hook for the full 10 percent, with no legal recourse.
And this could happen even if the customer did pay the agreed-upon fee, as Bohager insists happened in her case. "I wish I still had that receipt," she says.
Norrien Dorsey did have her receipt, but she still got dunning letters from Big Boyz, she says.
"My mother was paying, then I got a letter saying I owed more," Dorsey, who co-signed a bail with her mother, says by phone in early February. "I thought it was paid way back last year. They wrote on our payment that it was a final payment."
Dorsey says the family was paying installments on the bond in Glen Burnie. Big Boyz apparently dropped the case when Dorsey complained. "My brother made a phone call and they said it was a mix-up," she says.
Erma Brooks has two bail payments for her son, David Fisher Jr. The first one is $2,700. "I paid about half of that," she says. "Now, with the lawyers' fees, it's up to about $2,700 again. My paycheck is being garnished $40 a week." A consent judgment entered in District Court last April totals $2,548 with court costs and $500 of attorney's fees included. The interest rate is 10 percent.
Brooks says she paid what she could on the bail for months-$70 some months, maybe $100 on another. She says she never got an accounting of the balance from Big Boyz until they sued.
The second, more recent bail fee is $600, she says. Originally, Brooks says, Big Boyz agent said $300 would suffice on that bail. It doubled when it went to collections, she says, and the bail agent, who she knows as Matt, told her it was out of his hands.
"I know it's a recession and everybody's trying to make money, but burning me is not gonna make you money," Brooks says. "I don't have money for you to make money off of."
In Darr's case there was no mistake. Or, anyway, the mistake was legally benign, Robert Eric Robinson says.
He is standing before Judge Etheridge on March 1. Darr's lawyer, Dennis Cuomo, has just asked that the case be dismissed and says it was already dismissed once "by the plaintiff"-that's Big Boyz-"years ago."
Actually, Robinson interjects, it was dismissed because of a lack of service.
Cuomo acknowledges that but then says his real point is that a "judge granted my motion to dismiss on grounds that the contract was signed under Big Girlz Bail Bonds, Inc." But after it was dismissed by the court, it was refiled again "and we are back on what is in effect the third time."
"So it has never gone to trial?" the judge says. "Nothing was ever attached to prevent refiling?" She suggests that the parties should have just amended the name of the company and tried the case.
"It's the surviving entity from a merger," Robinson says. "As the surviving entity, Big Boyz is entitled to enforce any contract entered into" by the predecessor company.
Cuomo says there should be a document to that effect; Robinson produces the document almost before Cuomo finishes his sentence.
Cuomo then says his real point is that Big Boyz's original corporate charter was forfeited in 2001 and never revived, a point that is already moot. What happened was Magliano sold Big Boyz to Nochumowitz, who was operating then as Big Girlz. Big Girlz absorbed Big Boyz and that charter lapsed, but later, Big Girlz changed its name by incorporating a new Big Boyz and having it "merge" with Big Girlz.
Darr, Bohager, and Lamp are seated right behind their lawyer, who they say they paid $750 to handle the case last time and $750 more today. Ross Nochumowitz, the boyish-looking business manager, sheds his parka (with a patch on the left shoulder that says "RIDE SNOWBOARDS") and takes the witness stand for the next phase of the proceeding. Wearing a hoodie and baggie jeans, he tells the court that he has been licensed as a bail bondsman since 2003 and worked full-time in the business since 2007.
Cuomo then claims that Ross could not possibly know the arrangement his clients have, since the contract predates his tenure. "This individual could not possibly know what trade practice was" in 2001, Cuomo says.
"Mr. Nochumowitz has testified at hundreds of these proceedings," Robinson counters. Aside from some recent legally required paperwork changes, everything has been the same, he says.
The judge overrules Cuomo's objection.
Robinson produces the indemnity agreement from March 2001, including "several promissory notes." One is for a $100,000 bail at $10,000, the second is for the full $100,000 in the event of a skip, and another is for $7,000-the remaining balance after the 3-percent down payment. One of the $100,000 notes and the $7,000 note were signed by Barbara Lamp, Robinson tells the judge, adding that the crossed-out signature (Bohager's, apparently) "belongs to a person who was discharged in bankruptcy."
Cuomo objects to that.
"I'm just clarifying," Robinson says.
The Big Boyz lawyer then enters into evidence the history ledger reflecting payments made-the initial $3,000 payment only.
Cuomo objects to that: "There is no indication that he"-Nochumowitz-"is the custodian of records."
Etheridge allows the exhibit, and Cuomo asks Nochumowitz if he was working for Big Boyz when the suit was first filed.
"Yes," Nochumowitz testifies. "I believe it was an issue of getting them served."
Cuomo: "Isn't it a fact that $3,000 was the total amount?"
Nochumowitz: "Not to my knowledge."
Cuomo: "Isn't it a practice to allow the 3-percent down payment to be the final and only payment?"
Robinson objects, and Cuomo backtracks to lay the foundation for his question. The state requires bail bonds be set at 10 percent, he asks.
Cuomo: "It's a custom and practice-"
Robinson objects: "How can he know what competitors do?"
Cuomo: "Isn't it true that it is a custom and practice for bail bondsmen to accept less than 10 percent?"
Nochumowitz: "As a down payment, yes."
Cuomo: "And as a total payment?"
Nochumowitz: "To my knowledge, no."
It is here that one can see the genius of the Big Boyz play. Because what "everybody"-or at least many bail bondsmen-did for years is illegal, no one can testify in court to its reality. This reality also dictates the method by which the custom and practice is customarily practiced, via verbal agreements that abrogate and supersede the kind paperwork Big Boyz (and every other bondsman) has in great bales at their office. There could be tens of thousands of 3-percent deals that, on paper, are collectible at 10 percent, plus lawyers' fees, plus court costs, plus interest. If bondsmen were men of the law, they would collect them. But most bail bondsmen are not men of the law. They are, to a greater or lesser extent, men of their word.
If its critics are to be believed, Big Boyz's radical business model-its dastardly innovation-is simply to follow the letter of the law. To rely on the written contract instead of the wink and nod that most are used to.
Another unhappy customer-who also did not want to stand up and be named-said Big Boyz's 7,500 collection suits since 2010 are signs of a scam: "You and I know if that's going on, then something's wrong," the customer said. "It's them. It doesn't make sense that 7,500 people would be wrong, and they're right all the time. It's a gimmick, it's a scam. They're preying on vulnerable people."
Back in District Court on March 1, Cuomo moves to dismiss the case based on the assertions he just made, unsupported by documents or testimony. His motion is denied.
Robinson then rests his case "on the instrument"-the paperwork that everyone signed promising to pay $10,000-a promise they say they understood to be bogus and completely superseded by verbal assurances that their $3,000 payment would be their final payment.
Cuomo throws one more wild curveball at the court: "There has been no indication that these defendants signed these documents," he says.
In a calm voice, Robinson tells the judge the obvious thing. "The defendants have not testified," he observes. "They can dispute that these are not their signatures," but if they don't, the paperwork can speak for them.
The people who signed are sitting in their chairs. They have already been sworn in. Their lawyer makes no move to call them.
Robinson continues: "The fact that the defendants are not testifying to dispute the signatures, when they are completely legible. . ."
Etheridge is convinced. "This could go either way," she says-as a default judgment or a judgment after trial. She's talking about the trial costs now; the conclusion of fact and law is inevitable. She reads the dates on the promissory notes again, March 22 and 23, 2001: "The court is satisfied."
She finds in favor of the plaintiff after trial. The judgment is $7,000 plus lawyers' fees at $1,050, pursuant to the contract, $113 in costs and fees and the legal rate of interest, which is 10 percent.
The lawyers shake hands.
Darr storms out.
"Just because it's not a criminal court doesn't mean there aren't sanctions," Etheridge scolds Darr once he's back in the courtroom.
She has a wide face framed by brown hair, glasses, and hoop earrings. In this TV Judge Moment, it's clear she'd make a good TV judge. "I can't allow you to disturb the court this way," she says.
Nochumowitz has retired to the back of the courtroom. He is smiling. In the past hour, not only did he become $7,000 richer, he was entertained in the process.
In the hallway a few minutes later, Robinson explains that the real problem in this business is the customers. "We get contacted by people who say they'll pay-and they don't," he says. "By the time it gets here [in court], they've had five separate opportunities to settle." He lists them:
1. They get a letter
2. They get another letter, from us, the lawyers.
3. They get a notice of the lawsuit.
4. They get served with the suit.
5. They get notified of a trial date.
The process is similar to another collections system, one that brought unwelcome attention to the Nochumowitz family's business practices nearly seven years ago, when The Sun did its series on ground rent.
"Entities associated with four groups of individuals and families, including the Nochumowitzes, have filed more than half of the nearly 4,000 ground rent lawsuits brought since 2000," the paper wrote as part of a scathing series that led to reforms of the archaic system.
That story said the Nochumowitzes filed more than 500 suits in seven years. On Jan. 7, 2010-one day-Big Boyz filed 485 lawsuits in District Court, according to the case search system.
"First, on a pure numbers level, all it means is that Big Boyz simply does more business than others," Paul Nochumowitz writes in his letter to City Paper. "What is one supposed to make of the fact that Bank of America files more foreclosure actions than a small regional bank? Simple: Bank of America has funded more loans."
And Big Boyz is far from alone. Hours after the Darr trial concludes, Ross Nochumowitz emails City Paper with a faxed list of rival bail companies and their case search results.
"It was a pleasure meeting you this afternoon at Baltimore City District Court," the email reads. "While I would ask that you direct any questions regarding the practice of filing suit for bail bond premiums to Barry Udoff, I wanted you to have this list (see attachment) of just a few examples of the many bail bonding companies which also file suit for said premiums. In that same connection, I submit that it would be inaccurate, and grossly unfair, to attempt to single Big Boyz out as the 'only' company which files suit for premiums. Maryland Insurance Law dictates that bondsmen must make all reasonable attempts to collect the full 10-percent premium. Those companies which do not pursue the full fee risk being found in violation of the Insurance Code, and any fines, license suspensions, and license revocations that may flow therefrom." (Udoff, Lexington National's main man and a fixture in Annapolis when the legislature is in session, did not get back to City Paper before deadline.)
East Coast filed only one case in 2010, but in 2011 the company went to court 83 times, and last year its count was 1334. Got Bail?'s caseload peaked in 2010 with 998 cases. It's had about half that number in each of the past two years.
In mid-March, two weeks since the court date, Bohager still steamed about the case. "If I had a payment plan, how come you didn't contact me for seven years?" she asks, as Darr hoists heavy bags of topsoil to spread in the flower beds in their front yard. "Get what I'm saying? It's because there was no payment due!"
She insists, again, that Magliano talked to Paul Nochumowitz. "Now he comes after me because Vinnie and Paul aren't on good terms!" She says the family will appeal the verdict. "I got a lawyer. I paid him twice already," she says. "Now I guess I've got to pay him again."
Bohager wonders if maybe she should have gone to Ross to try to negotiate the debt down. "Could have said, 'Hey,' you know what I mean? 'You know we don't owe this money.'"
And maybe Ross Nochumowitz would have forgiven the debt. But that seems unlikely. Through the company's lawyer, City Paper asked Paul Nochumowitz if, in his opinion, bail bondsmen legally should be able to cut a deal for less than 10 percent, and if not, why not?
"The 10-percent fee is mandated by the legislature and it's a regulatory issue," Andrew Jay Graham emailed back, quoting his client. "That's the law, and as far as anyone knows[,] it is not changing. As a conscientious business, we do what the law says and don't spend time speculating about such things."