Mark Poutenis

Have Gun, Won't Travel

Sometimes, The Spike just wants to reach out and smack someone. In this case, that would be Southwest Airlines, which is being incredibly chickenshit in the way it's handling an incident involving two paying customers.

The two wronged parties are -- make that were -- bounty hunters. And it's clear from The Spike's reading of the (inevitable) lawsuit that Southwest totally screwed up and then refused to do the right thing when it could have and should have.

As usual (excuse The Spike's cynicism, but isn't this the way it always goes?), this case has dragged on far too long, has cost far too much time and money, and now seems about to waste a jury's time, costing more taxpayer dollars as it grinds toward an obvious conclusion.

Here's the scoop: On September 11, 1999, Thomas Hudgins and Leroy Devore, "bail enforcement agents" from Baltimore, showed up at the Southwest Airlines counter in Baltimore to catch a flight to Phoenix. Their assignment: bring back a bail jumper living in Tucson who'd skipped out on a charge of possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

Hudgins and Devore were relatively new to the "fugitive recovery" business, having formed the company just six months earlier. Hudgins, according to court records, had spent most of his adult life either breaking and training horses in Kentucky or working as a martial arts expert. In fact, he spent a few years with Chuck Norris in Hollywood and appeared in episodes of Walker, Texas Ranger and several movies. Devore was in the military for 18 years before joining Hudgins in the bounty hunting business.

The trip to Tucson was the first that required airplane travel, says the pair's Phoenix attorney, Craig Gillespie.

So the men called Southwest to see what they had to do in order to take guns and other weapons on the flight. They say they were told to simply present their credentials to the Southwest ticket agent, along with a letter on their company letterhead and the paperwork on the fugitive they'd been assigned to recover.

They did so and, at the counter, Hudgins and Devore were given written authorization (in the form of a "Notice to Armed Individuals") by an agent who, according to court documents, wished them "good luck and happy hunting."

A security guard escorted them and their carry-on bags full of artillery around the x-ray machine and had them sign a log. They still had plenty of time before their flight, so they left the gate area and had breakfast. The security guard waved them around the checkpoint a second time.

They went to the gate, where they showed the gate agents their IDs and weapons declarations. They were given boarding passes. They got on the plane, carrying flight bags that held two semiautomatic pistols (unloaded), a lot of ammo, speed loaders, a knife in a sheath, a stun gun, brass knuckles, and, The Spike's favorite, a black ski mask. (A bit much, in The Spike's book, to capture a minor drug dealer in Tucson, but hey, these guys were new to the business.)

During the flight, while chatting it up with a flight attendant, they mentioned they were bounty hunters and that they had guns right there on the plane with them.

The Southwest attendant is the first person in this story to have correctly known that only cops -- real, certified, trained, sworn law-enforcement personnel -- can bring guns on a plane. This was federal law even before the more famous September 11 two years later.

She told the pilot, who called ahead and asked that Phoenix police meet the men when the plane landed. They were detained, and ultimately the FBI got involved. Hudgins and Devore were charged with the federal crime of carrying a concealed dangerous weapon on board an aircraft.

Worse, they were hauled off to the Maricopa County jail, where they spent three days before getting someone to bail them out.

Then they still had to nab the bail jumper in Tucson. Without their gear (which had been seized by authorities), the men bought some of those heavy-duty plastic ties at an auto parts store to secure their suspect. They brought the guy back to Phoenix but still had one more court date before they could leave town. So they had to hire a private investigator to baby-sit the guy in a hotel room while they were in court.

They did not fly Southwest back to Baltimore.

The Spike hasn't been able to figure out why Southwest Airlines just didn't tell the cops, "Whoops, we screwed up; it wasn't these guys' fault." Southwest declined to comment on the case because it is still pending.

Gillespie says Southwest at first insisted the men be prosecuted. Later, he says, Southwest attorney Don Hood told him that he'd intervene (and, in essence, 'fess up) only if the men agreed not to sue Southwest.

But by that time, Gillespie says, the men had lost their business, their ability to get jobs and, one of them, a fiancée. They'd also suffered considerable emotional distress, having been humiliated and in fear for their lives after three days in Sheriff Joe's facility, where they were "petrified" and subjected to "the terrible smell of feces, urine and body odor" of 50 other inmates. (Okay, even The Spike has to say the court pleadings get a little drippy here, with contentions of post-traumatic stress disorder, nightmares and the like -- these guys are bounty hunters, for God's sake. Not to mention the irony that what goes around comes around.)

Gillespie is convinced that Southwest wanted his clients convicted because that would help the airline in the civil lawsuit that was sure to come. In fact, in court paperwork, Gillespie says Hood told him, "Their convictions will be our best defense."

The prosecution continued for six months. The U.S. Attorney's Office finally dropped the charges "because we convinced them that [Hudgins and Devore] didn't do anything inappropriate," Gillespie says. "But we were told that, at no time, had Southwest intervened."

The Spike thinks this is textbook chickenshitness. Especially because on September 22, 1999 -- just 11 days after the incident -- Lisa Weigold, the assistant station manager for Southwest in Baltimore, concluded in a written report on Southwest's investigation into the matter that the ticket counter personnel and gate agents had "failed in their duties," violating company policy for letting bounty hunters take weapons on the plane. All involved were disciplined and retrained, Weigold wrote.

Moreover, the FAA, based in part on Southwest's own investigation, fined the airline $22,000.

"This has been very frustrating for my clients," Gillespie says. "They felt like they were being thrown to the wolves."

Now the pair wants financial justice -- approximately $1 million each, according to a settlement conference memorandum. Negotiations fell apart last month, and a hearing soon will be held to set a trial date.

Jeez, Southwest. Throw the guys a few hundred thousand. It was, after all, your fault.

Girl, Reinvented

And speaking of airline adventures gone awry, The Spike was sorry to hear that Lisa Perez has given up her dream of becoming a flight attendant, instead returning to the nastier world of partisan politics as a top aide to soon-to-be Governor Janet Napolitano.

Perez was a political princess of sorts in Washington state, serving in the campaign and later the administration of Democratic Governor Mike Lowry in the mid-'90s. A former congressman, Lowry was actually a pretty decent governor, but he fell on political hard times after paying his former deputy press secretary $97,000 to settle a sexual harassment suit. After that, he couldn't even get elected public lands commissioner.

Let's just say Perez was to the Lowry administration what Annette Alvarez was to the Symington administration here -- young and pretty and promoted quickly from a low-level clerical job to a key role as keeper of the governor's calendar, climbing over people well more experienced and, some would say, more deserving.

Still, as The Spike noted earlier in this column, what goes around tends to come around. Perez was eventually caught up in the whole sex harassment mess when it came out that she had been the sole witness to an alleged Lowry misadventure with a State Patrol fingerprint technician. The tech, a respected veteran of the force, accused the governor of pushing himself into her from behind and rubbing his middle extremity (and The Spike doesn't mean his paunch) against her as she pulled his hand around to take his fingerprints.

The trooper technician also complained that Perez was yukking it up with the governor during the incident, using offensive and inappropriate language.

Perez, of course, stood by her man and told trooper investigators she saw nothing. (She did apologize for her foul language.) Still, the governor's staff was forced to take sensitivity training after the incident, which apparently didn't do much good, since Lowry was later found by another special investigator to have continued his insensitive ways when it came to his deputy press secretary.

Perez also was the target of a press frenzy when it was rumored that she was the mystery woman caught with Lowry in a car parked behind a local bar late one night. Police approached the suspicious vehicle, shined the flashlight in and, uh oh, there was the governor with a young woman who wasn't his wife. Perez insisted it wasn't her and, indeed, another woman on Lowry's staff acknowledged being the person in the car.

But discrepancies in police descriptions of the woman led some reporters to chase Perez around the state capital for weeks, not so much to nail Perez but to determine whether the governor was lying. Authorities eventually erected a special security gate in the governor's office to keep the pesky press out.

So it's probably no wonder that Perez was a bit tired of the media glow that can be focused -- rightly or wrongly -- on people who work for a state's chief executive, arguably its most public figure.

Thus, The Spike was surprised to get a call from Perez when she landed in Phoenix a year or so ago. Perez remembered The Spike from The Spike's days as a political reporter in Washington state and called to reconnect. Perez told The Spike she'd moved here to go to flight attendant school, having become disenchanted with politics.

Alas, The Spike was sorry to read in last week's Republic that the stewardess gambit apparently crashed and burned. Instead, Perez is now one of Napolitano's closest advisors, a member of her so-called Kitchen Cabinet. It seems Perez just couldn't stay out of politics; she joined the campaign as a volunteer and soon was promoted to a paid position as deputy campaign manager. History, as they say, appears to be repeating itself.

And The Spike, who still loves a good political scandal, is delighted to have her back.

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