By Michael E. Miller
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Bail bondsman William Staubs, AKA "Cobra," pushed open the window to a condo. Inside, Cobra, a large man with stringy blond hair, a meaty face, and an unmistakable hillbilly twang, discovered a kitchen filled with pieces of PVC pipe, a handsaw, and grenades. A shooting target was set up in the living room: a drawing of a soldier with the head as bull's-eye.
With news cameras behind him from Fort Myers' ABC affiliate, WZVN, Cobra surveyed the scene. He was dressed entirely in black, belly hanging over his pants and a floppy hat protecting his face. He looked into the camera and warned viewers about the fugitive who owned the condo, Christopher Riendeau. "The guy is definitely well-versed," Cobra said, "in all these different secrets and trades of warfare."
It was May 2007. Cobra and fellow hunter Gregory Cameron, AKA "Tank," were searching for Riendeau, who'd been charged with dealing drugs but disappeared before his court date and skipped out on a $100,000 bond. The two bail bondsmen had been hired by a Miami bail bond firm to track down Riendeau so the firm wouldn't have to pony up the cash.
For a month, Cobra — who is based in Fort Lauderdale — and Tank hunted Riendeau from Florida to Rhode Island, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Texas. They tracked his cell-phone records and fake I.D.s, noticing he favored hotels near military bases. They learned that Riendeau was a former military police officer with a grudge against the Army.
Finally, the hunters zeroed in on a hotel in Clarksville, Tennessee, near the Fort Campbell Army base. Using a battering ram, they busted open the door to find Riendeau naked on the bed, lunging for his pistol. Cobra tackled him, holding a gun to his back. He cuffed his prisoner and threw clothes on him before leading him to his truck.
On the drive back to Naples, Riendeau told Cobra about a storage shed in Georgia that held pipe bombs, grenade fuses, and dozens of guns. The FBI investigated the case as a potential terrorist attack on a military base. In the end, Riendeau was sentenced to 15 years in state prison for drug charges and for making the bombs.
ABC World News picked up on the story, putting Cobra in prime time to inform the world about the threat Riendeau posed. He told ABC: "It's not some hillbilly saying, 'Hey Mama, how you doing?' This was real."
The taste of the spotlight was intoxicating. "I'm actually a national hero," Cobra says now. "I done did the famous thing. I stopped a bomber."
As a licensed private eye and bail bondsman — Florida's legally sanctioned version of a bounty hunter — Cobra holds one of the most adrenaline-pumping jobs in the nation. He also has a Forrest Gump-like knack for stumbling into work on high-profile cases. He's chased down Riendeau, shadowed O.J. Simpson, and spent nearly two years trailing Tony Masilotti, the corrupt former Palm Beach County commissioner.
Thanks to reality TV, a few people in Cobra's line of work have become celebrities. Duane "Dog" Chapman, a bail bondsman and convicted felon from Hawaii, is now a household name thanks to his A&E show, Dog the Bounty Hunter. Leonard Padilla of California has appeared on the National Geographic Channel's Bounty Hunters and made headlines as a character in the national soap opera surrounding missing toddler 2-year-old Caylee Anthony.
Cobra could be next. He's been in talks with the Discovery Channel for months. But one problem stands in his way: His work on the case of missing 5-year-old Haleigh Cummings has landed Cobra in a world of trouble. He found himself on the wrong side of a pair of handcuffs and is now facing a felony charge himself.
On a bright July morning in downtown Fort Lauderdale, Cobra stops at his favorite Shell gas station to pick up slices of greasy pizza and a can of Starbucks espresso-and-cream Doubleshot. This, along with an ever-present pack of Marlboros, is his fuel. "Nicotine and caffetine," he calls it.
His monstrous Chevy Tahoe doubles as his mobile office, with a mounted laptop positioned so he can type from behind the wheel, a system that records all conversations, a searchlight nicknamed R2-D2 that extends its lamp through the sunroof, and a Kel-Tec 100 in the back. He says the entire tricked-out vehicle cost him $100,000.
At age 52, Cobra has a bouncer's build, with a ponytail, snakeskin cowboy boots, and a gold chain around his neck. His hands are enormous catcher's mitts, and he carries a towel to wipe the sweat from his face. "I'm a hillbilly," he admits. "You got to be crazy to do this shit."
Cobra brags that he has apprehended 8,000 fugitives and has a 96 percent success rate in solving cases. "I mean, I filled up damned near three prisons by myself," he says. "And then they want to try and put me in one. And I'm like, no! There might be somebody in there I know!"
The math may sound improbable — if it were true, he would have arrested 22 people a month for 30 years — but it's representative of Cobra's world, where boasts and facts get tangled and legal, ethical, and bill-paying concerns sometimes conflict.