By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
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.
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."
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."
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.
By 2003, Cobra had realized that hunting criminals was his true calling. He filed for bankruptcy, dissolved Hi-Rise Repair, and devoted himself full-time to private investigations. It was a feast-or-famine profession, but he was willing to roll the dice. And he earned a reputation for fearlessness.
"There aren't that many good people in the business, because you would starve if you didn't produce," Dicker says. "He's good at what he does; he's made a lot of connections."
"He is a relentless investigator, that's for sure," says Jeff Poole, a Broward County sheriff's deputy and friend of Cobra's. "He's after you, you're almost guaranteed to get caught."
Millman says Cobra's aggressiveness is an asset, especially when it's time to knock on a fugitive's door. "You think he's just full of crap," Millman adds. "But if you see him on the streets... he's the best of the best."
Of course, Cobra's also been accused of stepping over the line. Six years ago, he and Tank flew to Wisconsin to retrieve a fugitive couple who had skipped out on a Florida bond. In a federal lawsuit, they were accused of illegally transporting the fugitives across state lines. (The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court.)
Then there's the toll his job has taken on his personal life. In the late '90s, Cobra finally told his wife of 24 years about his secret life. By 2006, they divorced. Now she and his children live in Tallahassee, and child support bills take a big bite out of his monthly expenses.
Some days, Cobra is left feeling that he must prove to his family that his profession is a righteous one, not just some overgrown game of Rambo. He once took his mother with him on a job, just to prove to her that he was on the right side of the law.
On February 10, the 17-year-old who was babysitting Haleigh Cummings called police to say the child had disappeared from her bedroom the night before. Camera crews immediately descended on Satsuma, a rural town north of Ocala National Forest. Shortly after, a woman who advocates for missing children asked Cobra to investigate. Cobra left Fort Lauderdale for Satsuma on March 10, telling his girlfriend he would be gone for two days. He stayed nearly a month.
He says he spent 21 hours a day interviewing a colorful assortment of locals — many of them seemingly drug-addled and with the "I.Q. of a rock," Cobra says. The characters he encountered sounded ripped from the pages of pulp fiction: Mr. Snodgrass, Mrs. Lookadoo, someone named Nay-Nay. "It's a turmoil of shit up there," Cobra said. After combing the swamps and woods, he'd come back to his hotel room by 1 a.m. to catch CNN's Nancy Grace giving her latest spin on the story, then head out again by 4 a.m.
As usual, Cobra also brought camera crews with him. He invited Art Harris, an independent journalist from Atlanta who was working on a documentary about missing children, to shadow him in his search for Haleigh.
But this Hollywood-style investigation didn't impress Putnam County's law enforcement community. They thought Cobra was violent and resented him for sticking his nose in a case so far from his home base, Cobra says. Nor did the local bondsmen appreciate the out-of-town competition as Cobra interviewed people involved with drugs in the area and pulled the files of sexual predators — "diddlers," as he calls them. Cobra calls his detractors "jealous haters."
Lt. Johnny Greenwood of the Putnam Sheriff's Office characterizes Cobra's work more diplomatically. "He got relatively decent information while he was here, but he didn't get anything that was new," Greenwood says. "A lot of stuff he was doing just brought unneeded media attention."
Yet Cobra had a cheerleader in Haleigh's great-grandmother, Ruby Kanger, who signed a contract with Cobra to have him keep working on the case. Not for much money — she says she might have paid him five bucks and gave him $20 to get lunch. But she appreciated Cobra's dogged determination. "I think he's like us. He didn't want to leave any stone unturned," she says by phone. Kanger says Cobra has provided her with details that police never shared. "The police have been very tight-lipped... This case has just about killed us because we don't know anything."
Cobra started hearing talk about Daniel Snodgrass, a lean, gray-haired 55-year-old who had been arrested for capital sexual battery two years earlier, accused of sexually abusing a 9-year-old girl who came to him for unicycle lessons. Snodgrass had been out on a $70,000 bond since April 2008 and wore an ankle bracelet with a GPS tracking device.
Soon after Cobra arrived in Satsuma in March, he heard that Snodgrass had been trying to give away his furniture and sell his boat. He'd also been hanging around an office Haleigh's family set up to collect donations to aid in the search. Cobra wondered if Snodgrass might be planning to skip town and had a nagging feeling the man might be a suspect in Haleigh's case. "I just needed to rule him in, rule him out," Cobra says now.
So Cobra picked up a copy of his bond paperwork from the local bondsman and set off to talk to Snodgrass. He called the insurance company that had issued Snodgrass' bond and requested permission to revoke the bond and arrest Snodgrass if he saw fit.
Cobra claims now that C.E. Parrish, owner of the insurance agency, gave him the go-ahead. He set off for Snodgrass' house and took along Harris, the independent filmmaker.
Cobra pulled his Tahoe into the driveway of a low-slung house with a sandy yard and a tarp extending the carport. He honked and briefly turned on his siren. A tall, shirtless guy with a gray beard came outside and waved his arms. It wasn't Snodgrass. "Daniel, I need to talk to Daniel," Cobra said through a loudspeaker from the safety of his truck.
Cobra lumbered out in full bail-agent gear, gun holstered to his leg, to talk to the shirtless guy, who pointed angrily at the camera and asked Cobra to leave. When Snodgrass still didn't appear, Cobra picked up his iPhone and called 911. "I was coming here to revoke the bond on Mr. Snodgrass, and I'm being obstructed by somebody else inside Mr. Snodgrass' house," he told the dispatcher.
Minutes later, Cobra spotted Snodgrass. He was scrawny and also shirtless, with a gray mustache and a few missing front teeth. Harris' video camera rolled as Cobra charged up the driveway, grabbed Snodgrass, and corralled his arms behind his back.
"Argh!" yelled Snodgrass, writhing to escape Cobra's grip.
Cobra stuck out an enormous boot and tripped Snodgrass, who face-planted into the ground.
"Lay down. Lay down. Lay down!" growled Cobra, struggling to strap on the handcuffs as Snodgrass lifted his head to protest.
"What are you arresting me for?" Snodgrass demanded.
"You don't know who you're fuckin' with," Cobra responded. Then he yanked Snodgrass to his feet and headed toward his truck.
But in a rare twist, Snodgrass, it seemed, had done his research on Cobra. "You don't even work for the insurance company no more," Snodgrass blathered as Cobra tried to shove him into the Tahoe. "I didn't do nothing wrong. You're not even supposed to be on this case.
"And I'm being framed," Snodgrass told Harris' cameras. Then he shouted to the other shirtless guy: "Marty, call my lawyer!"
As Cobra drove toward the Putnam County Jail, he started to worry. Parrish called back and told him to release the prisoner. Cobra handed the phone to Snodgrass. On the video, Parrish could be heard saying something about a "misunderstanding" and "You're fine; you're OK." They hung up, and Cobra let Snodgrass go.
The next day, Snodgrass filed a complaint of false imprisonment against Cobra with the sheriff's office. He gave his theory about why Cobra arrested him. "The only reason they did this, Cobra and the two cameramen, [was] just so they could get a story. And I wouldn't give them one, so they kidnap [sic] me to get one," Snodgrass wrote.
Cobra vigorously denies that he was seeking publicity.
Snodgrass' bondswoman, Dale Ingraham, told sheriff's deputies that Cobra "had no authority to revoke his bond."
Parrish did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But Roger Capener, his partner at the agency, is adamant that Cobra acted without proper authority. "He asked me if I would give him permission to pick up Mr. Snodgrass, and I said absolutely not," Capener says. "In no way, shape, or form was he to go out and arrest this guy on anybody's behalf."
So why does he think Cobra did it? "Because he's a nut, if you want to know the truth. He's a loose cannon."
It took two months for the Putman Sheriff's Office to complete its investigation of Cobra. On May 21, sheriff's Detective Ken Taylor called to inform Cobra that there was a warrant out for his arrest. Cobra drove all night from Fort Lauderdale to turn himself in at the Putnam jail the next day. He hated being locked up with the common criminals, the people he'd spent decades arresting. "I've never been put in jail before," he blustered. "I'm a bondsman. I'm an officer of the court."
Cobra pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial. In the meantime, he's sidelined, sentenced to a special kind of purgatory. His Discovery pilot is tentatively slated to film in September, Widom says, but there's no guarantee it will lead to a full-blown show. And each day, Cobra's unpaid bills mount.
He's picked up a few private-eye jobs that keep him running the Tahoe all over town — stopping at Las Olas to figure out who stole thousands of dollars from a clothing store, doing surveillance on a man's house that's being burglarized, looking into the Miami Beach police shooting. But none of this pays much. He spends his weekends at the Swap Shop, selling everything from his cowboy boots to his construction tools.
One morning, he shows up at the Broward County Bail Bonds office with an enormous three-ring binder labeled "O.J.'s trash file." There, carefully preserved in plastic sleeves, are Simpson's bond papers, a white plastic surgical glove, the fingernails, the pubic hair. "I think it's sellable," Cobra announces.
A few days later, he finally gets some good news on one of his cases, a search for drug dealers who skipped bond in California. A bounty-hunting partner on the case, Harold Jackson, is on the ground in New Jersey and calls to gloat: He's got one of the fugitives in custody, chained to a bed frame.
This means Cobra has a paycheck coming. He hooks his iPhone up to a speakerphone in the Tahoe, so that Jackson's praise is suddenly broadcast in the truck. "I said listen, don't underestimate me," Cobra tells him.
And Jackson agrees. "You got eyes and hands everywhere."