By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
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By New Times Staff
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While Widom and the other producers were gathering footage for a Spike TV promo, Cobra — whose appetite for fame was growing — began pursuing a made-for-TV case, O.J. Simpson's armed robbery.
In January 2008, Simpson was arrested for attempting to steal sports memorabilia from a Las Vegas hotel room. Cobra called a bail bondsman friend in Vegas and got assigned to the case, knowing he could get some great footage. Cobra's job was to monitor Simpson around his Miami home and help protect the Vegas bondsman's investment. "I would just keep loose tabs on him," Cobras says. "Very loose."
The first thing he did was go through Simpson's trash — partly to help track him but also for dramatic effect. He discovered Christmas cards, notes from fans, a white plastic surgical glove, fingernails, even pubic hair. None of the evidence indicated that Simpson was a flight risk, but it sure was fun to show people. "That was a publicity straight-up deal," Cobra admits.
The Spike TV deal never materialized, but Widom kept shopping the footage around, and Cobra recently signed a contract to shoot a pilot for Discovery.
The problem is that these days, Cobra can't touch the kind of cases Hollywood craves. His bail bonds license has been temporarily suspended because of the pending felony charge against him. That means he can't arrest fugitives and can't earn his normal 10 percent bond premiums. Discovery might lose interest if he can't make any big busts for the camera.
Now he's broke and worried he'll miss his shot at the big time.
Once, when Cobra was 12, his parents were squabbling about money in front of him. His dad took out a gun and shot himself. The family lived in the woods near Luray, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley. Cobra remembers running down the dirt road, barefoot, desperate for someone to take his dad to the hospital. No one wanted the blood in their truck. To this day, he can't stand the smell of fresh flowers; they remind him of the funeral.
His stories from childhood are marked by the same violence that runs through the rest of his life. When he was 5, a German shepherd mauled his face, biting him so badly that he needed surgery. "Seeing all the injustices drove me to try to make a difference," he says now. Chasing down criminals and putting them back in jail is Cobra's version of justice. "I'm always the gentle giant, the guy that's trying to help you," he says.
The U.S. Navy brought him to Florida in the mid-'70s, when he was based in Jacksonville. He did a nine-month tour on the USS Saratoga. They sailed to the Mediterranean in the days when Marlboros were 10 cents a pack at sea, and Cobra would drink gallons of orange juice to stay awake for 72-hour shifts. "Life was good back then," he says.
Cobra's first hunt was accidental. A shipmate had gone AWOL, and Cobra happened to hear that the guy had shown up back in the States. He reported it to the captain, who told him that "this might be your specialty." Cobra decided he had "a God-given talent."
Soon, he found ways to get paid for finding people. He became what he delicately calls an "information broker." If he heard where a fugitive was hiding, he'd tip off the bondsman and get a slice of the premium. If a private eye, a lawyer, or an aggrieved wife wanted him to dig up dirt on someone, he was there to help. He hung out with a "snarly-rarly" biker crew that called him Magnum P.I. Sometimes, a member of the crew happened to have skipped out on a bond. Cobra would contact the bondsman and broker a deal so the fugitive could pay off his bond but not get hauled back to jail.
But this was never a full-time profession. After the Navy, Cobra played it straight, starting a condo renovation business, Hi-Rise Repair Co., in 1986. He married and had five kids whom he sent to religious schools. He never told his wife about his secret hobby.
By the early '90s, hunting fugitives had become a regulated profession in Florida. You had to be a licensed bondsman to arrest someone, and that required passing a state exam and getting a background check. Cobra enrolled in the bail bonds school at Gold Coast in Miami. And that's where he found his niche.
"Bounty hunting is like, OK, shit, I don't where this guy is. Who are his homeboys? Does he have a bitch? It's a hunt, it's a very serious hunt," Cobra explains.
One day, Cobra bought a pair of snakeskins from a shop near the school, thinking he would make a belt from them. He was showing off for the women in the class, sticking the skins in his pants, pretending they were live snakes. Dicker — the retired FBI agent who teaches at the school — dubbed him Cobra. (Another friend joked that Cobra stood for "Covert Operations by a Redneck Asshole.")
Once licensed, Cobra chased fugitives in the worst corners of Overtown. He also discovered that his day job was an asset in his hunts. Once, when he and fellow bail bondsman Sean Millman were hunting for a fugitive in Hollywood, the only clue they had was that he was hiding in a house with a screened door that faced west. "I know that house," Millman remembers Cobra saying. From his rehab work, Cobra remembered that house's screened door. They drove up to it, and Cobra spotted a man running in the darkness. And, says Millman, "sure as shit," it was the fugitive.