'A legal loan shark'

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Columbia University on October 27, 2000.

She has a job, the woman says, pressing her fingertips against the scarred plastic window. She just can't prove it.

Gayle Lluberes, on the other side of the window, rolls her eyes, but keeps her voice polite as she tries to help the woman complete the paperwork to get her boyfriend out of jail.

"You need something that shows where you work and what you get paid," Lluberes explains, delivering a speech she gives a dozen times a day. "A pay stub. Anything."

The two wrangle for a few minutes over how old of a paycheck the office will accept, than the client leaves, returning with the paperwork an hour or two later.

By that time, Lluberes and her co-worker, Winston, are deep in consultation with another client of Ira Judleson's bail-bond business,

Lluberes and Winston serve as Judleson's assistants, handling the paperwork to reunite friends and relatives with their imprisoned loved ones while Judleson, the actual bondsman, applies his expertise in the city's courtrooms. "You're an important part of the legal system," Lluberes later said about her job. "It's like being a paralegal, but you don't have to have all the education."

The excitement and importance drew Judleson to the work, too, he said, leading him to open up shop three years ago. He entering the field after selling a group of nightclubs he owned in the Bronx and now has offices throughout the city, popping into each while making the rounds of courthouses and jails in Queens, Staten Island and Manhattan.

The downtown office -- his main one -- squats in a corner on the 11th floor of a skyscraper whose other offices are filled with lawyers, legal consultants and the estate of Count Basie. Around the corner and down the hall from the elevator bank, the office sees a steady flow of business on a Thursday afternoon.

Judleson makes his money by getting people out of jail. "I get people out for a price," he said. "I'm a legal loan shark."

Bondsmen like Judleson enter the legal process after someone gets arrested. At the suspect's first appearance, a judge will decide if he must be kept in jail until his trial. If the judge believes the suspect will stay in the area, he will often set bail, a sum of money that the court will hold to make sure the accused shows up.

If a suspect doesn't have enough cash to pay bail, he can turn to someone like Judleson. For a price -- usually 10 percent to 25 percent of the bail amount -- a bondsmen will pledge to the court to pay the bail if the suspect flees. With a portion of this unrefundable fee, the bondsmen then buys a bond from an insurance company.

New York state law requires bondsmen, but not their assistants, to be licensed, a procedure that costs $50 and requires passing a $28 test.

Judleson said he was first exposed to the bondsmen business when a friend was arrested (and late acquitted). He initially had trouble getting financing, but while playing softball in New Jersey, spoke with a man who was setting up an insurance company.

The older gent turned out to be a long-lost uncle, Judleson said, and the two agreed to go into business together.

Judleson now works at a desk squeezed into the back corner of his cramped Manhattan office, out of sight from clients. The paper-littered surface sports newspaper clippings about famous clients and photo copies of the New York penal code, while the mostly bare walls display a variety of posters: Orson Wells with a gun, a film noir vamp and, incongruously, a Kim Anderson print of two children kissing.

Judleson himself looks like he would fit in well in a noir-type world. A bluff, barking man sporting a five o'clock shadow, the bondsman swept into the back office with a ferocious intensity, interrupting conversations with the office staff to talk on the phone then putting those calls on hold to answer his constantly ringing cell phone.

"I love it," he said. "I'm part of the system, and I get to deal with all the big players. I deal with the biggest lawyers in the country.

"I do all the rappers," he added, with a touch of pride. "I'm the bondsman for Old Dirty Bastard."

His business moved up a notch last year, he said, when more than a dozen of the accused arrested in a Mafia sting turned to him for help. Most recently, plastic surgeon Robert Bierenbaum, now a convicted murderer, turned to Judleson when he was looking for bail money.

"It says a lot that I've been in this a little over three year and people from the mob are coming to me," Judleson said. "I deal with everybody. I've bonded out Crips and Bloods. I've been called by the Latin Kings.

"If you treat them with respect, they'll treat you with respect," he said. "I don't show fear. If you show fear, they'll be all over you. I respect them, and they show me respect."

Respect might be the most important part of the relationship between a bondsman and his clients, said Bob Baird, a bondsman in Orlando, Fla., who wrote a book on the subject. "I write up a contract that binds us all together," he said last week. "But a contract is only a way to hedge a bad bet. It doesn't keep you here if you're going to flee."

Like most bondsmen, Judleson requires three things before writing a bond: money, a friend or relative outside jail who will vouch for the suspect and collateral. Houses are the best, he said, and he will only rarely accept cars as colatoral.

Of the $50 million in bonds he wrote over the past three years, Judleson said he's only had to seize the collateral and send out bounty hunters about 3 percent of the time. Most of the bail jumpers have been found by bounty hunters, he said, but some -- like a Dominican drug dealer who went back to his home country -- he's never seen again.

Clients are less likely to flee if he's written a tight contract -- charging a higher fee, or insisting on more collateral, for instance, Judleson said.

Tight contracts also earn the respect of judges, he said, who review the contracts before putting the suspect out on the street.

"If you're there at two, three o'clock in the morning," he said, "the judges will respect you."

With that, Judleson swept back out of the office, heading back to the courthouse to meet a client.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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