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Just Don’t Call Him ‘Prince Stahlman’

George Stahlman III talks about how bail bonds work, the shady side of the business and the warning he’ll give his kids about relying on dear old dad if they ever get in trouble.

George Stahlman III may be the son of San Diego’s famous “King Stahlman,” but he’s not one for royal titles. Forget “Prince” or “Duke.” Just call him “Junior.”

Not that he isn’t above embracing one of the most effective gimmicks in the history of San Diego advertising. His late father, the “king” of local bail bonds, lives on through his motto (“It’s better to know me and not need me than to need me and not know me”) and his familiar image. Ask any local to name a bail bonds company and his name is likely to instantly come to mind, making him as ubiquitous here as icons like the Jerome’s furniture guy and car salesman Cal Worthington and his dog Spot.

Yes, that’s his grinning face under a red-and-gold crown at the top of the kingstahlmanbail.com web page. He still appears on TV commercials, and a King Stahlman bobblehead doll sits on Junior’s desk at his bright, gleaming North Park office.

Wait, North Park? A bright and gleaming office? Shouldn’t Junior Stahlman work in a smoke-filled, ramshackle shack next to the jail? Many local bail bond companies have left those behind in favor of suits and ties and good lighting.

“What you see here points to what my father represented,” Junior Stahlman said. “Let’s get rid of the Tijuana whorehouse image of neon and people loitering about. Let’s clean up our appearance and do things by the book. He really changed this industry for the better.”

But bail bonds still have a shady side, he said. “Before, the seediness was the outside appearance of the bail bond office. Everyone was hard-drinking, card-playing and hard-charging. Now the seediness is done by skirting the rules.”

Stahlman himself, almost 50 years old with four young kids and another on the way, is now the top boss instead of a bail bond salesman. He no longer endures the 12-hour work days that began when he dropped out of high school at 17. But there’s no doubt that the Stahlman empire and his father’s legacy — seven years after his death — still live on through him.

In an interview, Stahlman talked about how bail bonds work, the shady side of the business and the warning he’ll give his kids about relying on dear old dad if they ever get in trouble.

How did your father change the bail bonds world?

My father was really big about professionalizing the business. Bail bondsmen always got a bad rap down there with criminal defense attorneys, used car salesmen …

… reporters …

Yeah, the bottom-feeders. He tried to do a lot to upgrade the image, have people wear suits and ties, be professional on the phone and in our appearance. He was very philanthropic too.

How’s business now?

It’s really up and down. It’s not what it was 20 years ago in our heyday. When I started, there were probably 20-25 bail companies in town, and 10 percent down was the industry standard.

Now, there are about 60-plus bail bond agencies. You have a lot of companies that fly under the radar. You may have a guy who gets a license, gets his name on the list at the jail and writes three to four bonds a month. He can make a living, but he’s got no office space, no advertising, no employees.

What about the traditional 10 percent-down rate?

There’s a big trend to do bail at zero percent down but there’s about 50 things you have to qualify for to get that. I’ve heard crazy stuff, people bailing out for 2 percent. Or 5 a lot, 7, 6, 9, 8 percent.

Is bail a loan? It sounds like a car loan.

Let’s say you’re arrested, and your bail is $10,000. You have three options.

You can stay there and wait to go to court to see if you can get released on your own recognizance. That usually takes 48 hours from the time you’re arrested.

Or you can have someone come and put up the full amount of your bail at the jail: Deposit the $10,000. If you make your court appearance, the person who put that money gets it back, although — at the discretion of the district attorney — they may take fees if you used a public defender or there are fines or fees.

Your third option is to contact a bail agency. You pay them a premium, and the bail company puts up the full bail in bond form, a kind of promissory note, a promise to pay it.

If the person fails to appear in court, the bond becomes an IOU. The bail bond agency can find the person, but if 185 days goes by and nothing has been done, we have to pay the whole thing.

Do people still put up their house or car to pay for bail?

The days of collateral and bail are pretty far gone. It’s only on the big bonds like $100,000 or more when collateral is required. Real estate is about the only thing will cover that. Twenty-five or 30 years ago, it was a little bit different.

How would you describe the professionalism of the bail bond business today?

A lot of agencies might have the appearance of guys wearing ties and suits, but it’s pretty shady.

The biggest thing you’re seeing now is solicitation inside the jail.

Like most insurance business, we underwrite insurance. You have to assess risk. If you want car insurance, and you’re a terrible driver, your policy has to be done differently. We look at the person who’s in custody: What’s the nature of the crime, what’s the likelihood of appearing?

What solicitation does is taking the underwriting out of bail bonding. You’ll have a bail company who will send someone to the jail to pull someone for a visit. They say, “You go in there and tell everyone in the tank to call me, and I’ll bail you out for free if you get 10 guys to call me.” Then lots of times they don’t underwrite those guys.

Do you ever consider whether someone is guilty when you decide whether to sell them a bond?

Thirty or 35 years ago, we had a guy who worked for us who came home from working, and there was a man in his house who tied him up and robbed him with his own gun. That night, our guy went to work and bailed him out.

I always think about that. He thought: Hey, who better to get this guy’s money than me?

What’s the story with bounty hunters?

We don’t have people on staff. But if you’re in this you know who those people are whose job is to investigate and track someone like that.

How do you differentiate yourselves from the competition?

You have people who are scared by the entire process, and it’s foreign to them. That’s where your customer service comes in. A lot of time you have to hold someone’s hand through the whole process. I don’t think there’s a bail bond agency in town that doesn’t have Kleenex in supply because this might be the worst thing that’s ever happened to them.

Was it different in the old days? Would your dad have given out some Kleenex?

My dad was perfect for this job. He really had a heart for it. That allowed him to be effective. He really cared a lot about this town, about helping people in it, helping them through things. That’s what he passed on to me, and what I try to instill in my employees today.

What was your dad like overall?

He ate, slept, breathed bail bonds. He was a Depression-era kid, ad he was in the Navy and battle-hardened. His ship was sunk at Guadalcanal, and he was a Purple Heart veteran. There’s a certain kind of person who came out of that.

What will you tell your kids about getting in touch with you if they ever need bail? Would you give one of them a deal?

I’d probably offer them the same deal my father used to offer me: Don’t call me.

Did you ever call him?

No. I just took him at his word.

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