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Last spring, Eugene Kesselman was fighting his estranged wife for custody of their son, and as the case dragged on, his bitterness mounted. As spring turned to early summer, he had a brilliant notion. His wife, Kateryna Terets, was an immigrant from Ukraine who had ignored a final deportation order issued in 2002. If he could get her deported, surely all his problems would disappear.
He first called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency responsible for deportations, and offered to set up his erstwhile lifemate so that the agency could take her into custody. Apparently, he got nowhere.
So he made another phone call. Soon he was talking to Jeremy Brickner, a bounty hunter who made his living pursuing illegal immigrants and delivering them to ICE for deportation. He was one of a select few hired by bond agencies to find aliens with final deportation orders, people released on "immigration bonds." According to Brickner's records, he delivered 112 aliens to la migra's doorstep in the last three years.
Brickner took Kesselman's case.
Kesselman lured Terets and her 11-year-old daughter to his parents' nondescript apartment deep in the Richmond, offering her a chance to visit their son. When she walked into the room, Brickner slapped handcuffs on her wrists, and flashed a copy of her deportation order. He drove Terets and her daughter to a Hilton Garden Inn in South San Francisco, where he held them overnight in a hotel room. The next morning, he dropped them off at ICE's office on Sansome Street, and walked away. It was just another bounty.
But according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Francisco, Brickner took too many liberties with the law. In December, the attorney's office charged him with two counts of impersonating a federal agent, alleging he represented himself as "Immigration" when he handcuffed Terets, and again when he picked up a man in San Jose. ICE may be grateful for the other 110 aliens he picked up for them, but now the agency appears to have turned, bringing the full fury of the federal government down on him.
Bounty hunters are known for their excessive bravado and their evident delight in acting like cops with a little extra leeway bullying, cajoling, and lying to get the information they need. The country's law enforcement system depends on them to do their dirty work quietly and then to deliver the goods but if they become an embarrassment, their questionable tactics leave them vulnerable to government crackdowns. Even Dog the Bounty Hunter, the mulleted star of an A&E reality show, got in trouble with the law this fall; Dog is facing kidnapping charges for arresting a fugitive in Mexico where bounty hunting is outlawed.
Now the law has come for Brickner, who is currently out on $100,000 bail and awaiting trial. He maintains his innocence and says he doesn't feel guilty about anything he has done in his career. Brickner also says that all bounty hunters work in the gray area of the law. He thinks the government is trying to make an example out of him, perhaps to scare bounty hunters into better behavior, or to drive them out of the immigration business entirely.
Illegal-immigrant bounty hunting is such an obscure field, immigrant advocacy groups don't even know to be outraged about it. "I don't know anything about bounty hunters other than seeing them on bad TV," says Kat Rodriguez of the Coalition for Human Rights, which tracks vigilante groups active on the Mexico border. It seems that ICE (the agency that replaced the INS when Homeland Security was formed) would prefer to keep it that way.
Too bad for them. Brickner's case opens a window into this strange world, where law-bending deputies help an outnumbered and under-funded government agency do its job. It also offers a glimpse of how Homeland Security quietly lets private citizens go to extraordinary lengths to reduce the number of illegal immigrants who ignore their deportation orders.
In public, however, ICE is trying to disown Brickner's entire profession. Asked about the agency's relationship to bounty hunters, a spokeswoman says delicately, "I don't think we want to go there."
Thirty-year-old Brickner is not a physically imposing man. He stands about 6 feet, with a lean frame and quick movements to match his nimble brain. But he has a nice smile and engaging manner that probably take him farther than a punch in the jaw. He's talkative and funny and charismatic, the kind of guy whom you'd like to help out if he asked for a favor. He'd make a good con man. His colleagues say he was a great bounty hunter.
Seven years ago, Brickner's most hair-raising experience was supervising a rowdy high school Spanish class. The former substitute teacher started bounty hunting as a hobby, he says, tracking down criminals who had skipped bail when he wasn't teaching school. It wasn't as strange a jump as it sounds he had studied criminal justice in college at Sacramento State. He had started college with a "redneck, closed-minded, 'lock 'em up and throw away the key' mentality," he says, but came out with a more sophisticated understanding of the system, and how it could be played.