"Bring them to me."
That's the order Jerry Cox supposedly gave a team of bounty hunters he dispatched four months ago to capture Lance Peabody and Leah Pinion. At the time, Peabody owed Cox at least $1,500 dollars, half of a 10 percent fee Cox had charged for posting a bond for Pinion in July.
The couple had been on the run, and if Cox couldn't track them down, he'd miss out on the money owed by Peabody. Then he'd have to pay the city of St. Louis $30,000, the price of Pinion's bond.
According to documents filed by Maryland Heights police, four bounty hunters, guns drawn, stormed the couple's room at the La Quinta Inn in Maryland Heights at 1:30 a.m. on August 17. They handcuffed Peabody and forced him to turn over the keys to his 2006 BMW, then used the Beemer to drive him back to Cox's bail bonds office in St. Charles.
There, seated behind his desk, Cox allegedly threatened to send Peabody to jail for aiding and abetting a fugitive (his girlfriend, Pinion) and said he could take control of the deed to Peabody's house in O'Fallon, Missouri, which Peabody used as collateral to secure Pinion's release on the bond.
In July, Peabody, according to a search warrant application, paid Cox half of the $3,000 that he owed after Cox Bail Bonds posted Pinion's bond in St. Louis, where she had been locked up for violating probation. In 2004, she pleaded guilty to luring two men to her home with an online dating service, then having an accomplice rob them at gunpoint.
Cox, police say, wanted an additional $5,500 dollars to cover the cost of sending the bounty hunters after them.
Peabody told police that as he and Cox talked about his debt, Cox calmly toyed with a handgun that had been sitting on his desk, shifting the gun from one hand to the other, as he said, "Nobody has ever ran from me and gotten away."
Police searched Cox's office on September 16 and recovered two guns, including a loaded Walther PPK .380 pistol. It was found in Cox's desk drawer with a round in the chamber.
Peabody's mother told police that she paid her son's $5,500 debt to Cox with a small insurance policy she'd received from the death of a family member.
Cox, 65, and his son James, a part owner at Cox Bail Bonds, turned themselves in to St. Louis County police the day before Thanksgiving. They now face felony charges of kidnapping, first-degree burglary, tampering with a motor vehicle and stealing.
The elder Cox, a former state representative in St. Charles, has also been charged with failing to inform law enforcement of a fugitive's arrest, a misdemeanor.
The bounty hunters, Kevin Grillion, Dennis Weatherford, Erik Nolan and Morris Davis — all from the St. Louis area — face similar charges.
The Coxes were released from St. Louis County jail on two $50,000 bonds, posted by Cox Bail Bonds agent Tammy Smith, shortly after they were booked. According to the search-warrant application, Smith was present in Cox's office the night Peabody was brought in.
"Bondsmen bond out other bondsmen all the time," says Keith Morgan, bonding supervisor for St. Louis County. "Some of these guys, there's no telling what they're doing."
Cox could not be reached for comment. Since his arrest, he has been hospitalized with what his son and attorney say are cancer-like symptoms. His attorney, Wayne Schoeneberg, vigorously denies that his client did anything wrong.
"I think [the charges] are bullshit. That's a legal term. There's not evidence that Jerry Cox did any of those things they say he did," says Schoeneberg. "When these people were picked up, Jerry Cox was home in bed. There is no evidence to the contrary."
But Cox's problems extend beyond the criminal charges.
If St. Louis Circuit Court Clerk Mariano Favazza has his way, Cox's company will no longer be able to do business in the city of St. Louis, where Cox Bail Bonds wrote an estimated $1.2 million worth of bonds this year.
After learning in October of the hotel raid, Favazza summoned Cox to his office. "I had to have Mr. Cox come in and give his side of the story," he recounts. "I asked him about seeing Peabody in his office and he said, 'I told them to bring them to me.'"
On November 3, Favazza moved to have Cox's name stricken from the list of bondsmen approved to operate in the city. Favazza contends that bondsmen must be "reputable" in order to work in the city's courts.
"He was threatening criminal prosecution to collect a civil debt," Favazza says. "That doesn't sound reputable. I don't know if it's criminal, but it sure as hell doesn't sound reputable."
Cox, meanwhile, maintains it is up to the Missouri Department of Insurance, the agency that licenses and regulates state bondsmen, to determine where bondsmen are allowed to work.
On November 6, Cox's attorney filed suit in St. Louis Circuit Court, asking a judge to order Favazza to reinstate his client. The petition was denied but an appeal is pending.
"What is reputable? Is it what Mariano says is reputable? Is it what any one circuit judge throughout of all of Missouri thinks is reputable?" asks Schoeneberg. "Maybe I'll be the one who determines what reputable is. My friends will stay because I think they're reputable and my enemies will go because I think they're not reputable."
Though Cox is currently banned from writing bail bonds in St. Louis, he can still do business in other parts of the state.
According to Matt Barton, director of licensing for the Department of Insurance, his agency is powerless to take action unless Cox is convicted of a crime. Barton adds that even if Cox were found guilty, he might still retain his general bail bond agent's license.
"It's not a given that he'd lose his license if he is convicted," Barton says. "It's something we're taking a look at, but right now we don't have any statutory authority."
Cox is a well-known figure in the Missouri bail bond industry, and his case has drawn scrutiny from other bondsmen.
"We're concerned about how negative publicity might affect the industry," says Angela Park, a bail bond agent in Rolla. "There are a lot of people that are concerned about that, that as an industry we'll all be perceived in a bad light because of actions of these individuals."
In 2005, Cox was the target of a murder-for-hire plot, orchestrated by a rival bail bondsman named Virgil "Lee" Jackson. (Click here for Keegan Hamilton's feature story "Birds of a Feather," April 15, 2008.) He is also a long-time member of the Missouri Professional Bail Bonding Association, a group of bondsmen currently lobbying the state legislature for self-regulation of their industry.
Bart Cooper, president of the Associated Bail Agents of Missouri, a group formed to oppose Cox's association, says he hopes Cox's case will lead to tighter regulation of the trade.
"When I read this kind of thing, I'm not surprised. The laws in our industry are pretty loose. It underscores the need for legislative reform," Cooper says. "But the sheer irony of this is that Lee Jackson tried to do in Jerry Cox. He didn't succeed, but Jerry Cox, it appears, may have done himself in."