Bounty Hunters Are a Lethal Weapon in a Justice System Corrupted by Money

TODAY, I LIVE in Brooklyn, but I didn’t grow up in New York. I’m country. I grew up in a small Kentucky town and was a part of a church that taught us a verse from the Bible that says “the love of money is the root of all evil.” For my whole life, even as my faith has struggled, I’ve held on to that verse and have believed that wherever we find evil, we’ll always find a money trail somewhere nearby.

And I have long since believed that profit, jobs, and wealth are at the center of the explosive growth of America’s mass incarceration crisis – and not just with jails, prisons, and police, but with the offshoot industries that survive and thrive on the back of our crooked legal system. One of these crooked industries involves bounty hunters, and there’s been an incredible injustice with a group of them killing an innocent man in Tennessee and avoiding any real punishment for it.

Jalen Johnson Milan was a beloved 24-year-old father of three young children in Clarksville, Tennessee, about an hour north of Nashville. Two years ago, on a spring evening in April of 2017, Jalen and some buddies, including his cousin, Jaden Hogan, who was driving, took a trip to the local Walmart where they ended up parking next to a car that had a drug informant inside named Kirsten Mahon.

When I say “drug informant,” am I right that your first assumption is that this is about to be a story on a police sting gone awry? You’d think so, but this was something altogether different.

According to surveillance video from the Walmart, within seconds of pulling into that parking spot, their car was surrounded by seven men who frantically yelled from every side, telling Jalen and his friends to get out of their car. The seven men had guns drawn. One of the men who surrounded the vehicle smashed open a window. Freaking out, Jaden Hogan, the driver, backed out of the parking spot, and then mashed the gas to the floor, so that he could get them all away from these men with guns.

They didn’t know if it was a gang, robbers, or police surrounding them, but it was clear their lives were in danger. Put yourself in that position, and imagine your car being surrounded by seven rough-looking dudes with guns drawn who did not identify themselves as 

When Jaden sped away, two of the seven men who surrounded the car, Joshua Young and Roger West Jr., unloaded their guns, firing shot after shot. Jaden, the driver, was hit in the neck, and Jalen was mortally wounded, with a bullet ripping through his heart and lungs. Investigators later tested every bullet at the scene and determined that they all appeared to have been fired by Young and West, according to reporting by The Leaf Chronicle, a newspaper in Clarksville that has provided consistent coverage of the case.

Those seven men got into their car, and for nearly seven miles they chased their prey through Clarksville. Jaden Hogan, the wounded driver, frantically called 911 from the parking lot before the chase was even fully underway, telling the operator that they had been surrounded and shot by a group of men, and that they were fleeing for their lives, speeding down a local road. But here’s the weird thing: The shooters also called 911 saying that they were in an emergency situation as they claimed to be chasing down a local drug dealer named William Ellis.

With both parties on the phone with 911, one of the dispatch operators advised the injured men to pull their car over and surrender to the men who just shot them. But remember this: The shooters weren’t police officers. They weren’t FBI officials or from the Drug Enforcement Administration. They hadn’t been to anybody’s police academy, and they damn sure weren’t supervised by any serious government agency.

They were a ragtag group of bounty hunters and bail bondsmen who were searching for a man named William Ellis who owed them a lot of money because he had skipped bail on two different occasions — leaving debts of thousands of dollars to the bail bondsmen. They had paid a desperate local sex worker, Kirsten Mahon, who struggled with drug addiction, to set up a fake drug deal with Ellis so that they could perform what they called a routine “snatch and grab,” possibly squeeze some money out of him, and then turn him over to authorities. This is routine work for bail bondsmen and bounty hunters.

Except William Ellis wasn’t in the car they had shot and chased; Kirsten Mahon later testified that she tipped Ellis off in advance that people were looking for him. By the time Jaden Hogan finally pulled his car over, his cousin Jalen was already dead. The bullets recklessly fired at the car seven miles prior had ripped his insides all up. The bounty hunters and bail bondsmen would eventually swear under oath that the men in the car shot at them too, but not a single gun was found on their prey, not a single shell casing found in their car, and investigators determined that every bullet fired appeared to be fired at the victims — not from them.

Nine days later, county prosecutors threw the book at the bounty hunters and bail bondsmen — charging them with a slew of crimes ranging from first-degree murder, attempted murder, aggravated kidnapping, reckless endangerment, and damn near every other charge you can think of. It took two years for the case to finally come to trial. It was complicated as hell with 50 different witnesses, hundreds of pieces of evidence — and two of the seven defendants had flipped, agreeing to testify against the other five. Altogether, the five remaining men faced a combined 80 charges.

In the end, earlier this month, a jury found the five men not guilty on 79 different charges — only convicting one man, Joshua Young, with recklessly firing his gun in the Walmart parking lot. He might not even go to jail.

Listen, I’m a prison abolitionist. I’d like to see the whole legal system torn down and rebuilt from scratch. But how in hell a group of pissed off bounty hunters and bail bondsmen can kill an innocent man, in what at very best has to be described as a case of mistaken identity, and get away with it, is beyond me. Defense attorneys basically suggested 101 conspiracy theories, effectively planting doubts in the mind of the jury, that William Ellis really was in that car and disappeared somewhere — even though nobody ever saw any such thing happen. The attorneys also suggested that the victims really did have guns and fired them, even though no evidence whatsoever showed such a thing. Their ploy worked — in great part, I believe, because the jurors treated the bail bondsmen and bounty hunters like they would have treated law enforcement officers, giving them respect and deferring to their storyline.

In the end, it’s gun violence run amok. Jalen Milan was one of the nearly 40,000 people shot and killed that year in our country – which more and more resembles the Wild West. And at the center of these past few years, which have been some of the deadliest years ever measured for gun violence, with almost no progress whatsoever on substantive gun reform, is money. It’s always money. Money for campaigns from the NRA. Profits for the firearms industry. Money for lobbyists. And again, right at the center of the shooting death of an innocent young father, were bounty hunters and bail bondsmen so determined to get back their money from a man that they shot a stranger, thinking it was him. Guns are a problem, but dammit, the money trail is never far behind.

This article originally appeared in The Intercept on August 18, 2019