Here's how the bail bonds system works: A bondsman puts up the full bail amount to get someone out of jail. The defendant pays the bondsman 10 percent for this service. If the defendant goes missing, the court keeps the full bail amount — and the bondsman loses thousands of dollars.That's where Cobra comes in. If he delivers the fugitive to police, he keeps the 10 percent commission originally pledged to the bondsman — or more if he has to track the fugitive out of state.

"You don't get paid upfront. You only get paid when you deliver," explains Bob Dicker, a retired FBI agent who teaches at the Gold Coast School of Insurance, a Miami training center for bail bondsmen.

In some ways, bail bondsmen are more powerful than police officers. They can break into a house, nab someone without a warrant, and sometimes even drag him across state lines. If they think a client is about to flee or commit another crime, they can arrest him, just in case. Ann Teague, president of B.A.I.L. Florida, a state association of bail agents, explains it this way: "I can put 'em back [in jail] just 'cause I don't like 'em."

Cobra’s search for missing 5-year-old Haleigh Cummings (top) left him broke and facing a felony charge.
Cobra’s search for missing 5-year-old Haleigh Cummings (top) left him broke and facing a felony charge.
C. Stiles

The only catch is that if a bondsman revokes a bond without good reason, he doesn't get paid. In extreme cases, he could be sued or arrested for violating his client's rights.

Midmorning, Cobra makes a brief stop at the office of one of his employers, Broward County Bail Bonds. He checks his email and makes a few calls — all inside the Tahoe; he never actually uses the office building.

"We off on a fuckin' mission!" he announces, flipping on the radio. "I love Stevie Nicks," he says as he speeds off.

He heads to a strip mall north of Oakland Park Boulevard and parks in the fire lane outside a Jamba Juice. Soon, fellow investigator Lee Cohn pulls up beside him so that their driver's-side windows line up. Neither gets out of his vehicle. Cohn hands Cobra two names scrawled on a piece of paper — they are civilians allegedly involved in a June incident with Miami Beach Police Officer Adam Tavss, who shot two people in the span of four days — first an unarmed tourist, then a carjacking suspect.

Cobra is helping an attorney for the tourist investigate both shootings. Mainly, he's trying to determine if the Miami Beach Police Department violated its policies by allowing Tavss back on the job within days of the tourist's death. "I want to know what the flavor is inside that office," Cobra says. "What kind of therapy did he go through between the first shooting and the second shooting?"

This is an unusual job for Cobra. He's used to hunting bad guys, not slapping cops over policy. But he's doing it as a swap for services; the attorney has agreed to help him with his legal troubles in exchange for this investigative work.

"I'm kind of standing on Styrofoam shoes on this one for the simple reason that I never go against cops," Cobra says. "That's my business: I work with police."

As he heads down to Miami, he exhales Marlboro smoke out the window and keeps up a constant stream of caffeinated chatter. He zigzags from one dramatic tale to the next, talking about partners who've been killed and a mission to catch a fugitive in war-torn Haiti. He eventually gets to the Palm Beach County commissioners, bragging that he once investigated "the whole damned lot of them" — including now-imprisoned former commissioners Masilotti and Mary McCarty.

Although it sounds far-fetched, newspaper clippings confirm that Cobra was part of a secret operation to expose Masilotti's corrupt dealings — long before the FBI stepped in. Early in 2005, citrus company Callery-Judge Grove hoped to develop 10,000 homes on what was formerly agricultural land. First, it needed the County Commission's approval. A Callery-Judge Grove manager alleged that Masilotti offered his support for the project — in exchange for a bribe. The grower's attorney hired Cobra and other investigators to dig up dirt on Masilotti before reporting the problem to police. "It was supposed to be tight-lipped," Cobra says. "If anybody finds out, you die."

Cobra helped trail Masilotti for 22 months. He dug through Masilotti's trash, scouted his car from a helicopter, and followed him to the Bahamas. He even knew the hair-transplant specialist Masilotti used in Jupiter. But he fell short of finding evidence that would make criminal charges stick. "I'm a slick fucker; he's slick as shit," Cobra says now.

In October 2006, just before news of the secret investigation hit the papers, Masilotti resigned after 14 years in office. He faced corruption charges for reaping millions of dollars from various land deals. Masilotti pleaded guilty and is now serving five years in prison.

Cobra, meanwhile, moved on to more celebrated clients. In 2007, after his appearance on ABC News, he caught the attention of some producers with connections at Spike TV. His "unique personality" seemed fitting for reality TV, says Gary Widom, a local reporter/producer who met Cobra while covering the Riendeau case. "Either you really warm up to him and you like him or you hate him."

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