City Paper is not for tourists
A.B. Miller empties his bag out onto a table in the rear of a Wendy’s in Fort Meade, Md. He could restrain all of the customers plus the staff with the hardware he’s brought: There are leg irons, triple-hinge handcuffs, and the always handy thumbcuffs. He has so many restraints that when he holds them in his hand, it looks as if he’s grasping a fistful of half-cooked spaghetti.
Then there are the electronic components to his one-man crusade. A police scanner is accompanied by a code sheet that Miller uses to decipher what he hears transmitted through its marginal speaker. The cell phone is not equipped to take incoming calls. It’s for serious business only. “This is what we’ll use to call the cops,” he says, shaking the slightly outdated phone for emphasis.
Miller likes the cops to know his business. “I don’t run around dressed like a ninja, you understand. I always let the police know what I’m doing,” he says. Miller is the speechifying sort, a man who loves any sort of audience, no matter how tiny. And to have a reporter in custody, well, that’s just perfect. Nothing animates his rotund face like having a listener to brief; even when he’s being serious, his face breaks into unveiled elation at the thought that somebody is paying attention.
Miller is pleased that the Wendy’s is not terribly busy for tonight’s caper. It’s 10:30 p.m., well past the dinner rush. He calls it “ideal. I was expecting a bunch of women and children.”
Miller’s got a warrant for 39-year-old Wayne Oliver, a man he’s heard used to be employed at this Wendy’s. He’s not supposed to be dangerous, but you can never be sure. Miller says he would’ve asked along Greg Thompson, an experienced bounty hunter and the man who owns the bonding company that issued the warrant on Oliver, but “To tell you the truth,” Miller explains, “I think Greg’s a little wary after being shot three times and all.”
Miller has more than enough confidence to hunt alone, but he’s much too social to pass on a chance to forge camaraderie. He’s indiscriminate when rounding up a posse—a heartbeat and the smallest amount of willingness will get you deputized in short order. To bring in Oliver, Miller has recruited Gerard, a 21-year-old ex-Marine, and Gerard’s uncle, Mr. C, a 40-something chain smoker who, like the Marine and me, has no previous experience in law enforcement. There could be reward money to split if Oliver is cuffed, but the primary currency Miller uses to buy people’s time is the promise of adventure. Miller ran into Gerard and his uncle at one of his favorite hangouts, the Silver Diner in Laurel; if he hadn’t asked them along, they’d probably still be there, sipping coffee and playing cards.
Then there is Renai, the manager on duty at Wendy’s tonight, who is not at all inclined to help Miller in his appointed task. She’s unimpressed with his badge—even though it is an official-looking hunk of shiny metal that reads “Bail Fugitive Enforcement Agent.” But Miller is nothing if not relentless. In the half-hour we wait for Renai to come out from behind the counter, Miller goes from polite (“Can I just have a moment of your time?”) to officious (“We’re looking for a fugitive”) to terse (“This is ridiculous. We’ve been waiting out here”), until he finally gets the manager’s cooperation. She’s never heard of Wayne Oliver, but she recently fired a man by the name of Oliver Lamb for stealing. He’s a crackhead lowlife, she says. In fact, one of Lamb’s suppliers was at the drive-through window just a minute ago.
Renai shows Miller Lamb’s employment documents. The information doesn’t match the information that the bonding company gave Miller on Oliver; Lamb is 50, not 39, and his address is different from Oliver’s. Renai says that Oliver Lamb doesn’t even go by Oliver Lamb. People call him Jo Jo. Miller trusts his instincts. “I’m willing to bet he’s got everyone fooled,” he says. “It’s an aka. He’s just taking his last name, Oliver, and using it for his first. You follow me? I’m 99.9 percent certain we’ve got our man. Did you hear me? I’d bet all my awards on it.”
Miller keeps those awards in a scrapbook that he totes, like a security blanket, wherever he goes. The book’s pages are filled with police commendations, articles from local newspapers in which Miller is mentioned, and letters. A lot of letters. Some are handwritten and barely legible. Some are seemingly trivial, like the one Miller typed to a group of local clergy asking for permission to use a church for a food drive drop-off site. Many contain written thanks from citizens and police whom Miller has helped in some way or another. Others are evidence that he’s corresponded with power—Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Gov. Parris Glendening, an official from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Spend enough time around Miller and you gradually realize that the book isn’t just about Miller—it is him. The book—with the life it represents—is how he gets permission to do the things that he does. If you should find yourself in Miller’s possession, that is, bound by leg irons and thumbcuffs, and you aren’t satisfied that this noncop with a tin-horn badge had the authority to nullify, at least temporarily, your rights as a citizen, he would grab his book and let you read it. Says right there, and there, and there, that he’s not only qualified and legally entitled to do what he does, but that he does a bunch of other wonderful stuff, too. He shows the book to anyone who asks and plenty of people who don’t.
Renai directs Miller to the place where Oliver Lamb—the man he hopes is really Wayne Oliver, aka Jo Jo—is supposed to be staying, a crude town house located in Pioneer City. Our colleague Mr. C is familiar with the address, a dreary cul-de-sac in the low-income projects a little more than a mile from the Wendy’s, so he drives the minivan. On the way, Miller outlines each team member’s duties: Mr. C and I will hold back at the curb while Gerard and Miller approach the house. It’s dark, but there are still people outside—mostly kids on bikes, but also a couple of adults, and Miller quizzes them all about Jo Jo.
Miller doesn’t find the citizens of Pioneer City terribly helpful, but even that fact has significance. He’s certain that the people at the house are lying when they deny knowing his man—driving away, he even floats the idea of returning later in the evening to raid the place. What was it that raised the eyebrows and backs of the people he questioned? Was it when he asked about Wayne Oliver? Oliver Lamb? Or Jo Jo? Or was it less the questions than the doughy, inconsequential guy who came around asking them at midnight?
Never once do we as a team question (at least openly) whether we’re going after the right guy; Miller has enough enthusiasm for all of us. Challenging his instincts would require full-scale mutiny. Besides, even if he can’t find the guy he is looking for, he has found a mystery. Who is Jo Jo? Does he know Wayne Oliver? What is their relation to Oliver Lamb?
Miller’s unremitting optimism (“We will take a prisoner tonight!”) diffuses a larger question: Is this the kind of guy who could stand up to a wily thug, regardless of whether his name is Jo Jo or Wayne or Oliver? He is not an imposing figure. He’s in his 50s (he won’t say exactly how old), about 5-foot-9, and Jewish, and he walks with a pronounced limp, the result of seven bulging herniated discs (four in the back, three in the neck) that he’s suffered from a variety of car accidents and beatings. His taste for doughnuts and hoagies is partly responsible for his stout physique and unreliable heart. (Throughout the month of July, he places many calls to me from a hospital bed.) The A in A.B. stands for Arnold. He cannot run. He claims never to have smoked, much less tasted a beer, but he coughs violently and frequently—allergies, he says. For a night of bounty hunting, he wears a button-down Polo shirt, pleated slacks, and loafers. He doesn’t carry a gun. “Guns only cause problems,” he says.
Miller returns to Wendy’s from Pioneer City unfazed. “He’s just a sneeze away,” he proclaims. “I can feel it in my heart.” The papers he’s got on Oliver include some phone numbers. He’ll make some calls. He grabs his cell. It’s dead.
At 12:30 a.m., the Wendy’s drive-through window is still open. There’s plenty of activity in the kitchen, which also happens to be where the restaurant’s phone is. Miller uses it to find out that the numbers he has on Wayne Oliver are bogus—both are for the Inner Harbor Hotel in Baltimore. “I like a guy like this,” he says of his prey as the Frosty machine roars to life. “He’s a challenge.”
From Information, Miller gets the number to an Oliver residence that’s nearby:
“Is this the Oliver residence?…Do you know a Wayne Oliver?… Is he gonna be around tonight at all?” The Frosty machine kicks in again. “I can’t hear you….My name is Mr. Miller. I’m a bail fugitive enforcement agent.”
He waits for Oliver’s sister to get on the phone. “I’m a little bit confused. What is the birth date of your brother?…1960…Does he go by any other names?…Does he ever go by the name of Jo Jo?…He has a friend that does. This all starting to make some sense now.”
“Now this Jo Jo,” Miller continues, still into the phone. “Have you ever heard him mentioned as Oliver Lamb?…You have. Now let me ask you: Does your brother ever do anything with drugs?…He does?”
As Miller explains into the phone that a bonding company is out $5,000 due to Lamb’s having skipped bail, Renai steps next to him to fill a bucket of ice, briefly drowning him out again. When she’s done, Miller’s saying, “It sounds like your brother has gone through an awful lot of trouble to take on a new identification. And again, who is Jo Jo?…Your brother’s best friend. Ma’am, can you tell me how to get over to you?” Miller ducks as someone walks by with a vat of chili. “I really want to see if I’m chasing your brother or your brother’s friend….You think I’m chasing your brother.”
The circumstances that have pushed Miller to use the Wendy’s phone tend to obscure what he is accomplishing with it. Standing in a grease slick, straining to hear above the clatter, I’m suppressing laughter throughout the entire conversation. A real manhunter probably wouldn’t be reduced to cadging phone calls from the night manager at Wendy’s. Yet Miller is oblivious to everything but his dialogue. As he hangs up, he wears the expression of someone who’s just completed something that’s worth beholding.
The phone is Miller’s baton. Just as his prospects looked bleak, he called a strange woman in the middle of the night and, in a matter of minutes, she was practically begging him to take her brother to jail. He heads out into the world in pursuit of thugs, with a firm belief that people want to tell him things. And they do. He believes he is doing God’s handiwork, so he has huge balls and no shame. None. If he is a clown, he is a clown prince.
Renai has taken an interest in Miller’s search. So he asks her, “Renai, what do you make of all this?” She just shakes her head. Personally, I’ve lost track of who it is we’re looking for. Is it Oliver Lamb, the name of the guy who was just fired from Wendy’s? Or Wayne Oliver, the name of the guy on Miller’s warrant?
“Who’s Wayne Oliver?” Renai asks. Miller shoots her a glance that says he’s disappointed that she hasn’t been paying closer attention. As though it were obvious, he answers her: “Jo Jo’s friend.”
Miller’s business cards are neon-pink. The typeface is black. The information is organized vertically and in a variety of fonts.
At the top of the card, a second name, “Mr. Cadillac,” is printed underneath Miller’s own. The next words appear in capital letters—”MILLER PUBLISHING. POSTERS. CALENDARS. CLASSIC CARS”—in a font in which the “I” looks just like a “J.” Beneath that: “Models Wanted. Swimwear.” Then a series of telephone numbers that suggest he cuts a fairly wide geographic swath: one for Northern Virginia, one for Washington, one for Baltimore, a car-phone number, a fax number, and an 800 number. (All but the 800 number have 301 area codes.) The bottom of the card reads: “Independent Wholesale Car Dealer.”
Funny thing about Miller’s card: Even though it’s chockablock full of various businesses, it’s incomplete. It says nothing about Miller’s being a bounty hunter or a confidential informant to various police forces. He’s also a process server for a law firm in Baltimore and owns rental properties in Southern Maryland.
But the most glaring omission on his business card is Miller’s freelance social work. In between selling cars and chasing hoods, he adopts people. He’s like a character out of Touched by an Angel, except that he doesn’t seem to have a clear line to God or a clear plan even if he does.
But his heart is large. Even when he shanghais a bad guy, Miller thinks he’s getting the guy back on the road to something better. There is no limit to what he wants to do for people, even if he doesn’t always pull it all off. He’s looking into starting a charity organization called Help Laurel. There was a time when he pondered going to Kosovo so he could “be of assistance to the refugees.” He tells me once that he was registered to run for County Council in Howard County, but opted out because he didn’t have a steady date to bring to public events: “I just don’t see the point.”
Miller’s life is totally improvised, with no perceptible borders. All of those phone numbers on his business card are directed to one cell phone, because it’s the only phone he really has. He has no home; sometimes he crashes at one of his rental properties, but he often stays at an Econo Lodge in Laurel. He was married once, in his 20s, but it didn’t last long; the marriage was annulled. Today, he’s single, and the woman he loves only appears in conversation. His parents are dead. He rarely speaks to his only brother. By his own account, he’s desperately lonely. The loneliness, he says, “is one of the reasons that I’m so involved like I am. You know, to pass the day. Otherwise, I’d go crazy, you understand, just sitting here. When I get involved with other people, I forget about me.”
Miller has a habit of insinuating himself into the narrative of other people’s lives. This is what he means by being “involved.” He feels blessed to help others, and he truly believes in the sublimity of random acts of kindness. This past winter, Liz Brightwell was sharing a room in Laurel Hospital with one of Miller’s friends. She had just ended a long relationship. As a result, she was homeless and, according to Miller, suicidal.
Miller was often at the hospital visiting his friend, and one day, Brightwell recalls, “Mr. Miller looked at me and said, ‘I kind of help anybody that I feel needs help. Or if I see that they’re struggling, I try to give them a helping hand. If there’s anything that I can ever do for you, don’t hesitate to call.’ And he handed me his card.”
Two days later, Brightwell was discharged from the hospital. “It was real cold and I had nowhere to go, and it was 8 or 9 o’clock at night,” she says. “I called [Miller], and he came and picked me up and he made sure I got a room at a motel and took me where I needed to go. He made sure I wasn’t on the street where anything could happen to me. He’d call me every day to make sure everything was OK. He’d drive me wherever I needed to go. He was just a great help. He has a heart of gold. He truly does.”
Miller says he did what anybody should do.
“She was involved with someone else for, like, 28 years,” Miller says of Brightwell. “All of sudden, for that relationship to end, you understand, to be kicked out with no money saved up or nothing, that’s a terrible thing. She was going to commit suicide because she was so depressed….It’s just such a loss. She didn’t want to live.”
His persistent altruism means that Miller is not big on personal boundaries. I’ve known him for four months, and it’s common for him to leave me six voice-mail messages in a single day—including days when I talk to him directly two or three times. Generally, his messages are a melange of stories about people similar to Brightwell—the veteran whom he found stumbling around in the cold; the woman with the baby who was denied financial assistance from a Laurel charity; the young couple whose only daughter was hit and killed by a car. “I collect people, it seems like,” he says.
And he isn’t just hit-and-run when it comes to the betterment of his fellow traveler. Give him an issue he takes a liking to, and he will start calling politicians, organizing charity events, contacting media representatives, and writing letters. Things rarely turn out quite the way Miller envisions them, but he gets off on his ideas. Along the way, people get helped, Miller among them. If nothing else, the helping hand usually yields fodder for the scrapbook.
In the spring of ’98, Linda Anderson had an idea to put on a sock hop for the kids at Montpelier Elementary School in Laurel, where she was serving as chair of the social committee. Miller owns two vintage pink Cadillacs (one a limo, one a flattop, both ’59s), which he parks outside the Silver Diner in Laurel. Anderson called him to see if she could use the cars as props for the sock hop. Miller excitedly lent her the cars.
This past spring, Anderson decided she wanted to turn the same event into a charity for hurricane victims in Honduras. “When I told A.B. of my idea, the possibilities were endless,” Anderson says. “He wanted to do anything he could do to help. Within one day, he had called the embassy….He was calling me five times a day. ‘We could make a million dollars.’ For a minute I had to think, ‘Who’s planning this thing? Me or him?’”
Miller became obsessed with the sock hop. He left me messages referring to it as “my fundraiser” and talked about how he had invited Gov. Glendening, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, Hillary Clinton, and all the major news organizations. In the weeks following the event, Anderson says Miller called her daily about the letter of thanks he wanted her to write for his scrapbook.
“He’s got a big heart and he’s well-meaning, but you’ve got to be stern. At one point I had to say, ‘Look. Listen. Please. I’ll call you. You don’t call me. I’ll call you.’”
In the midst of it all, Miller set up a meeting for him and me at the Embassy of Honduras so that I could see, as he put it, “all that we’ve been working on.” Miller was sick the day of the meeting, so I went alone to meet with acting Ambassador Benjamin Zapata. He showed me pictures of the ravaged country and voiced his appreciation for the money Miller had helped raise with the sock hop. In total, I was at the embassy for less than an hour. In that time, Miller called the embassy twice.
Yeah, it’s A.B. here, following up on that message I left about a minute ago. It means a lot to me that you’re going to be able to walk for Alzheimer’s. A worthy cause. You know, President Reagan has this horrible disease…. Listen, that sock hop for Honduras I wanted to remind you of for April 23 and all. Looks like we got a large number of participants and all. That Linda Anderson, the lady with the PTA I worked with last year. Quite a remarkable lady with the idea and all. You might want to do a story on her. Also, I’m going tonight and try to find the homeless around. I got a $100 discount on my next car, and what I’m gonna do then is get these homeless involved. I’m just gonna go ahead and give them the $100 so they can get a nice room and some good food and something to drink and get cleaned up and get off the street for once. I don’t know if you wanna be involved or not. Anyhow, I got to go up to Baltimore and place an ad in the Sun and serve some papers for the law firm right now. So you give me a call later, and we’ll set up a time when we can go get you registered so you can become an agent and we can go catch some crooks [laughter]. So do I stay busy or do I stay busy? Did you have any idea what you were getting into when you first talked to me? Did you get a chance to look at all my police awards? Ain’t that something? I tell ya, every day’s a new adventure with me. I got a million stories. A million of them [coughs violently]. Anyhow, I gotta go sell a car. I’ll holler at ya later. —phone message left by A.B. Miller on my answering machine, April ’99
It’s getting late, really late, but we are still on the hunt for Wayne Oliver, or Oliver Lamb, or Jo Jo, or some other aka I have lost track of. What we do know, thanks to Miller’s phone work, is that Wayne Oliver’s relatives are eager to point us in the right direction. The family lives 15 minutes from Wendy’s—did I mention that Miller does not travel with maps?—and it takes us 45 minutes to get there. When we finally arrive, it’s nearly 2 a.m.
The Olivers live in a pre-fab-looking split-level set in a wooded Fort Meade neighborhood. Both the road and the driveway leading up to their house are unpaved.
Miller does not expect to come away from the house with a prisoner; he just wants a picture of Wayne Oliver. Knowing what Oliver looks like, Miller believes, will give him a sense of what’s going on. If Oliver’s picture matches Renai’s description of Jo Jo—a tall, roughly 6-foot-2, light-skinned black man, with cornrows and a pair of goofy, heavily taped glasses—then Miller will know we’re on the right track. If the picture and the description don’t match…well, he hasn’t quite figured that one out yet.
The people who answer the door—Oliver’s sister, brother-in law, and mother—are more than happy to help. They seem oddly comfortable with the fact that four apparently confused white men claiming to be bounty hunters have come knocking at 2 a.m. looking for one of their relatives. Oliver’s sister, Doreen, says that she’s used to this kind of thing. Her brother has been in jail before, and drugs have turned him into a stranger.
The picture we’re shown was taken at a wedding. The man in the photo, the one who we’re told is Wayne Oliver, is wearing a white dress suit and a broad smile. The brother-in-law explains that the photo was taken a few years ago and that, because of his drug habit, Wayne is most likely thinner now, perhaps even unrecognizable as the person he knew. Still, there’s no way that this Wayne Oliver is the same person who’s been passing as Oliver Lamb aka Jo Jo at the Wendy’s. The guy in the photo is bald and dark-skinned. And he doesn’t look 50.
On the ride back to our respective cars, Miller tries to form some thoughts. The search has pumped him with adrenaline. Riding shotgun, he shouts, “I tell you! Do we have ourselves a drama, or do we have ourselves a drama? I mean, what do we have here? Is it a case of mistaken identity? I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know what to think.”
Gerard, whom Miller refers to either as “the young man” or “the Marine,” is quiet but visibly enthused. When we get to the diner, Miller takes the kid aside. “Let me show you something,” he says, pulling out his scrapbook. “Read that right there. Maryland State Police. 1998.” It’s an award Miller received for providing information to investigators regarding narcotics trafficking in Howard County. Miller reads on. “Mr. Miller is deemed a valuable asset not only to the Maryland State Police, but his community as well.”
Gerard is impressed. “Mr. Miller?” he asks. “You going to be needing any more help?”
Miller answers, “Sure. I got a lot going on.”
Miller once worked for his late father’s detective agency in Norfolk, his hometown. But he has never trained to be a cop and, given his age and disabilities, never will. He calls himself a “confidential informant,” or a CI. “Eleven years I been donating my time to the community,” he boasts, referring to both Laurel and Howard County. “I hear a lot about what’s going on, you understand.” When he hears of something that he thinks might be of interest to the police, he calls them. Perhaps the lead will turn into an arrest and, with any luck, an award or a letter of thanks that he can put into his book. Sometimes, the awards are presented at a ceremony, “and that’s quite an honor, I tell you, standing up there with all of them police officers and the mayor. Can you imagine it?”
Fear is what brought Miller to crime fighting: “It had gotten to the point where the only place I felt safe walking was in the aisles of the supermarket.” I tell him that this strikes me as strange—to assuage the fear of a thing by putting yourself closer to its essence. Miller starts to glow. “It is crazy, isn’t it?” he says, as though he never thought of it before. Miller can be convincingly authoritative; his speaking voice, a rushed, singsongy drawl sprinkled with rhetorical tics—”You understand?” “You follow me?”—is a hard thing to ignore. But when he smiles, as he does when I question the underlying logic of his strategies, he looks ecstatic, like a kid who’s gone prematurely gray.
Miller’s work as an informant has, in fact, only intensified his fear. For this story, he asked that his face be obscured in all photos so as to keep his identity hidden from the criminals he’s helped lock up. Part of the reason that he doesn’t have a permanent home, he says, is because it makes him hard to find. About three years ago, Miller claims, he was beaten so badly by thugs he was set to testify against that he was confined to a wheelchair for months afterward.
One night this spring, he went to one of his Cadillacs parked at the diner to find that a window had been smashed with a rock. One of Miller’s street informants told him that it wasn’t the work of vandals. He’s convinced that the window “was a warning. The brother of someone I put away.”
In spite of his seemingly boundless faith in human nature, Miller segued smoothly into the world of bounty hunting. And his clients respect his talents. “Given the work he’s done with the police, he was naturally of interest to me,” explains Thompson, the owner of the Glen Burnie-based bail bond company for which Miller often works. “Every [case] that I’ve dealt with A.B. on has been pretty successful. He finds [the fugitives]. I’ll give him that.”
Miller’s apparent skills were irrelevant in obtaining a license to hunt fugitives. One day this past May, he took me to a professional law enforcement shop in Brentwood, Md., where, after showing my ID, having my picture taken, being asked a grand total of zero questions, and parting with $16.92 (this includes tax and a metal chain), I was handed a laminate emblazoned: “Bail Fugitive Enforcement, Special Agent.” Under that heading, the laminate reads:
This is to certify that Brett J. Anderson is an independent Bail Enforcement Special Agent who, when legally employed by a licensed Bailbondsmen [sic], may cross State lines and use reasonable force in the apprehension of fugitives in interstate flight. The Agent operates under the authority of the 1872 Supreme Court ruling.
If you were to be arrested and unable to make bail, you could call someone like Thompson, who, for a nonrefundable fee amounting to 10 percent of the total bail (the rate’s in accordance with Maryland state law; other states may have different fees), would issue a bond guaranteeing payment of the bail should you fail to show up for your day in court. Because the bondsman would be responsible for your bail, he would have plenty of incentive to come looking for you should you decide to flee. Should that happen, a bail fugitive enforcement agent, or bounty hunter, would be the person the bondsman sent after you. The agent would likely be carrying a weapon, and, thanks to the 1872 Supreme Court ruling, he would be licensed to use force, would not need a permit to break down your door, and would not be required by law to read you your rights. If you’re the fugitive that a bounty hunter has a warrant for, you are, technically speaking, his property.
“We’re like a sheriff to an escaped convict,” explains Thompson, who’s been a practicing agent himself for longer than 10 years. “In other words, we can chase this person into every state in the United States.”
Nick Pastore, a consultant to the locally based Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and the former chief of police in New Haven, Conn., is not a fan of the current bail bond system. Many bounty hunters, he thinks, are in it only for the excitement, and although their techniques may be legal, he says, “more often than not, you can make the case that they’re breaking the law.”
“The title of what [bounty hunters] do kind of highlights the problem,” Pastore says. “They’re bounty hunters. They’re businesspeople. What they do is strictly mercenary. There’s no training requirement. There’s no certification requirement. There’s no government service associated with the situation. There are no rules. There are no constitutional safeguards.”
Because bounty hunters can act with impunity, animosity can crop up between cops and their mercenary counterparts.
On a certain level, Thompson understands why some police officers don’t accept the practice of bounty hunting with open arms. “I mean, [the police are] out here every day, and when they arrest somebody, they don’t get a special paycheck.” He says that D.C. cops are particularly resentful of people who earn fees by hunting down bad guys.
For his part, Miller claims that he never has problems with the police. “It’s the way I operate,” he says. “I’m not running around like cops and robbers, you understand. Like cowboys and Indians. Wanted dead or alive. That’s nonsense. I don’t carry a gun, and I always, always notify the police when I’m working in the area. If I’m going to take someone, I always make sure that there’s an officer present. Do you follow me?”
Miller doesn’t rent himself out for cash, either; he says he donates all his reward money to charity—usually, he says, to local fire departments, which he often taps for eager deputies. But Miller can’t claim that he doesn’t get a kick out of hunting people down in the middle of the night. Once I get my laminate, he takes to starting his phone messages, “Sherlock Holmes here. I’m looking for Watson.”
We are finally getting to the bottom of the Jo Jo mystery. Sort of. “You’re not going to believe this,” he tells my voice mail the day after our night of fruitless searching. “Greg’s got a warrant out for both of them! When he gave me the warrant on Wayne Oliver, he actually thought he was giving me the warrant on Oliver Lamb. What are the odds of that?” You could say that we were looking for the wrong body but the right guy.
Miller has dug up a promising lead on Lamb aka Jo Jo, who’s wanted by the bonding company for failing to appear in court for a traffic violation (he drove under a suspended license) and, we find out later, for two other outstanding warrants with the police. Bonnie Blessin, another Wendy’s manager, doesn’t like Jo Jo much and told Miller over the phone that she knows where he has been crashing—in an apartment just inside the Baltimore city line. She said that if Miller shows up at Wendy’s at 11 p.m. on a Friday, she’ll take him to where Jo Jo is staying.
Miller’s packed some additional equipment for the mission—duct tape and a billy club he refers to as “the Beast.” (The Beast is for banging on fugitives’ doors; I assume that the duct tape means that if we run out of other restraining devices, we will tape the fugitive into submission.)
The team he’s assembled consists of me and Lynn Jones, a sweet, 30-something woman who’s been working as a maid in a hotel and is apparently another one of the people in Miller’s collection. She tells me that Miller’s been acting as her daughter’s “mentor,” and he’s also trying to get her husband into the used-car business. She’s not a registered agent—which is fine, Miller says, as long as she doesn’t personally take the prisoner. “I think it’s wonderful what he’s doing,” Jones mutters as the three of us pile into the car. During the drive, Miller keeps repeating, “We will get a prisoner tonight. You hear me? We will get a prisoner!”
The search hits a snag as soon as we arrive at the Wendy’s: Bonnie’s not there, and when Miller calls her house, her roommate tells him that she’s sleeping. “This is very disappointing,” Miller tells the roommate. “Could you wake her up, please?” He arranges for us to meet Bonnie at another Wendy’s, one farther north and closer to both her house and Jo Jo’s. From there, Bonnie will deliver us to the fugitive’s apartment.
It’s after 1 a.m. when we get there. Bonnie points out the brown Buick parked in front; it’s the car that she’s seen Jo Jo driving. The eight-unit building is located in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood, which Miller thinks poses a problem for our all-white team. We need to find out which apartment belongs to Jo Jo. To do so, Miller wants to recruit a black fireman to go inside the building and start knocking on doors, pretending he’s looking to score. When Jo Jo is located, according to Miller’s plan, we’ll call 911 (his cell phone’s charged this time), grab the Beast, enter the building, and take the prisoner.
“I’ve done this before,” Miller offers as we idle outside the dark apartment building. “It just wouldn’t look right, you understand, if one of us went in there asking for drugs. They wouldn’t believe us, you understand. This plan will work. I’ve always found that firemen are more than happy to assist me. I’ll donate the reward money to the firehouse.”
It’s 2:30 a.m., and Miller has no Plan B. The Linthicum Fire Station is roughly a mile from Jo Jo’s building, but it’s apparently unoccupied. It takes 10 minutes of ringing the doorbell for reality to sink in. “Want to know what this could be?” Miller announces to the dark surrounding us. “There could be nobody here.”
At a nearby 7-Eleven, Miller asks the woman behind the counter if she might know “any responsible black men who we could trust to help us bring in a fugitive.” She eyes Miller’s badge and makes a few calls. When that fails, Miller asks a pair of white kids who’ve stopped into the store for a snack if they know any black males they could call at this hour. They don’t.
We try three more fire stations. The only promising bite we get is in Arbutus, where a befuddled fireman tells us, “The only real black volunteer we have isn’t really black.” Miller remains maddeningly optimistic. At 4 a.m., he’s saying, “Jo Jo’s too close for us not to get him. He’s just a sneeze away. We’re gonna get him.”
I have to ask: “How? Are we going to just start knocking on random doors at 4 in the morning looking for some black guy we’ve never met to come out in the middle of the night and help us out? You’re crazy.”
On the ride home, Miller’s uncharacteristically quiet. Jo Jo remains at large, and the scrapbook still has a blank spot where he belongs.
The team’s racial problem is solved the next day. Mr. C and Gerard are back on board, and the Marine has recruited his friend Phil, a somewhat chubby black man of 19.
The plan has been somewhat revised. Phil is going to go into the apartment asking for Jo Jo. When he finds him, he’ll say he’s looking not for drugs, but for a girl, one from Wendy’s whom we’re told Jo Jo used to date. She won’t be there, but, the thinking goes, Jo Jo won’t find it strange that someone’s come looking for her. By the time we have a bead on the apartment, we’ll have the building surrounded. The cops will be called and, after that, the prisoner taken.
At least that’s the plan. We drive in two cars—Miller and I in one, Mr. C, Phil, and Gerard in another. After being lost for well over an hour, we stop at a convenience store just outside of Baltimore. Gerard has had it. “You’re unorganized. This is a waste of time. When you get organized, call me,” he says before peeling out of the parking lot.
The team’s down to just me and Miller. “That damn kid,” he gripes. “He thinks he can talk to me. When he’s been in the business as long as I have, you understand, when he’s got a book full of police awards, then he can start talking to me like that. This is not an exact science, you understand. He’s got a bad attitude. And I’ll tell you something: That kid Phil, he was scared. He wasn’t any good.”
I find it hard to fault either Phil or Gerard; knowing the precise location of a fugitive seems to me a crucial element in the bounty-hunting process, and I for one wouldn’t be gnawing at the bit to go knocking on the door of a supposed junkie inquiring about a woman I’d never met. Nonetheless, Miller seems entirely unfazed: “We will get a fugitive tonight. Do you hear me?”
It’s still light out, only 8 p.m. when we finally get our bearings—time, at least, is on our side. The Buick that Jo Jo’s been driving is parked in front of the building, and, to judge from the lights in the apartment windows, everyone inside is awake.
Better yet, when we arrive at the English Consul Volunteer Fire Department in search of fresh recruits, there are plenty of candidates. Two of the firemen, Vaughn Kaszak and Timmy Hoffman, are actually licensed bounty hunters—Kaszak’s a former cop. Miller enlists two others: Doug Burns, a muscular tobacco chewer in a camouflage hat, and Hoffman’s 18-year-old girlfriend, Crystal (who refused to give her last name), an aspiring police officer. Miller promises to donate the reward money ($250) to the fire station in exchange for their help. In the midst of showing off his book to the station’s treasurer, Miller whispers into my ear: “See, this is the kind of reception I’m used to.”
While we wait for Kaszak to retrieve his bulletproof vest (he won’t participate without it), Miller lays out the plan for his team: We’ll split into twos (Miller and me; Burns and Crystal) and drive in three separate cars. Burns and Crystal will essentially take over the role originally designed for Phil. Miller and I will watch the front of the building with one walkie-talkie; Hoffman and Kaszak will be posted in the back with the other. Everyone’s briefed on Jo Jo’s appearance—cornrows, goofy glasses, 6-foot-2, light skin.
No one on the team is much older than half Miller’s age, but he seems to have earned our faith with little more than nonstop chatter and his hopeful smile. To judge from everyone’s faces, I’d guess that if you took all of our pulses, mine would be the only one that’s racing.
Hoffman asks me, in confidence, “Is this guy for real?”
“Apparently,” I respond.
It’s roughly 10:30 p.m. when we return to the apartment. There are fewer lights on inside than there were before, but the Buick hasn’t left. There’s a dog barking in the park across the street, and a moving van is in front of the house next door. Kaszak and Hoffman are on the walkie-talkie: “Are Doug and Crystal inside yet?” Miller answers: “They’re inside.”
Burns and Crystal report to Miller after exiting the building. They got answers at only two apartments: one in the basement and one on the second floor. None of the residents had ever heard of Jo Jo, but Burns says that when he was talking to a woman from the second-floor apartment, he noticed a man sleeping on the floor behind her. He couldn’t get a look at his face.
Miller sends Burns and Crystal back inside to find out who owns the Buick. Over the 20 hours and 325 miles that we’ve chased Jo Jo, Miller has never once cursed or expressed anything resembling frustration. Until now. “I didn’t realize it was gonna be this damn difficult to find this man.”
Hoffman’s on the walkie-talkie, wanting to know what’s going on. Miller tells him, “Just wait.”
Burns is back at Miller’s car window. “The Buick is hers,” he says. Whose? “The woman in the second-floor apartment.” That’s enough for Miller. He grabs his phone and his equipment bag. “Let’s move!”
Miller dials 911 as we’re standing outside the apartment. He wants to wait for the cops before we go in. There’s no time. A woman, the one from the second-floor apartment, is exiting the building. She’s asking who we are and what we want. We’re leaning on her Buick. Miller barks into the walkie-talkie: “We gotta do this now.”
Kaszak, the ex-cop, appears, and we go inside.
The woman who came outside is more puzzled than alarmed, and she seems satisfied by Miller’s explanation: “Ma’am. My name is Mr. Miller. I’m a bail fugitive enforcement agent, and we have reason to believe that there’s a fugitive in your building. Do you mind if we come in and take a look around?” We’re walking as he says this, and by the time the woman can answer yes, three of us—Miller, myself, and Kaszak—are standing in her living room.
Besides the Buick owner, there are three other people inside: the guy on the floor, a woman on a couch eating French toast, and a man standing behind a dining room table. “Who’s that over there?” Miller asks, pointing to the standing man. It’s not Jo Jo. “How about this over here? Who’s that sleeping?” We can see now that he’s got cornrows. The woman on the couch answers: “That’s my friend. Oliver.”
I count 10 seconds in which nothing at all happens. No talking. No movement. None of the people we’ve intruded on seem surprised or scared by the fact that we’re there. The woman on the couch doesn’t quit watching the news.
Then the man wakes up and grabs his glasses: They’re taped in the middle. It’s Jo Jo. He’s wearing long pants but no shirt. He starts reaching underneath his pillow. Both Kaszak and Miller explode. “Let’s see your hands! Don’t move! Don’t move!”
Kaszak moves quickly to Jo Jo, yet manages to be gentle as he places a knee in the small of his back. Jo Jo is still half-asleep when he answers Miller’s question about who he is. Kaszak’s already got him in handcuffs and leg irons.
As we lead the fugitive out the door, the woman on the couch mutters to Jo Jo, “Call us when you’re ready,” without ever taking her eyes from the television. The woman who owns the Buick is borderline elated. “I thought you guys were breaking into my car,” she giggles.
Jo Jo never struggles or protests, and Miller takes pains to treat him with respect. On the way to the police station, Kaszak rides with the fugitive in the back of Miller’s car, while Miller lobs back questions regarding Jo Jo’s comfort. Jo Jo says almost nothing. Miller tells him that he’ll do his best to get him out of this mess. “We’ll clear this up for you, Jo Jo,” he says. “And then we’ll get to work on getting you a job.”
Once Miller finishes signing paperwork at the police station, he summons Hoffman (who has followed us) and Kaszak to his car. Both have expressed interest in doing more work with Miller. “I want to show you fellas something,” he says, and he grabs for his scrapbook. He provides commentary as he makes his way through its pages—”This is from when I donated my vintage Cadillac….Read that. Governor Glendening…See what it says there? A.B. Miller…”
After closing the book, Miller holds it up to his chest and tells his new friends, “The reason I show you guys this is because I want you to know that I’m for real.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.