2 BOUNTY HUNTERS GET $9 MIL IN LAWSUIT
Michael Kiefer, The Arizona Republic
October 20, 2006
Two bounty hunters who were arrested at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in 1999 for carrying weapons aboard a flight, even though the airline had mistakenly authorized them to do so, were awarded $9 million by a Maricopa County Superior Court jury Thursday.
Southwest Airlines refused to release information to federal prosecutors that would exonerate the men unless they waived their right to sue in civil court, court documents and the two men's attorneys said.
"As I told the jury, everyone makes a mistake," said Phoenix attorney Richard Gerry, "but you cannot use extortion to avoid responsibility for your mistakes."
The attorney for Southwest Airlines declined to comment.
"We did not ask the jury for any amount of money," Gerry said.
But the jury responded by awarding each man $500,000 in compensatory damages and $4 million in punitive damages.
Leroy Devore, 45, and Thomas Hudgins, 43, both of Richmond, Va., were happy with the jury award.
"In the beginning, all we were asking for was some help," Devore said. They wanted the criminal charges dropped.
"I was just glad we had a chance to tell our story," Hudgins said. "It took seven years."
According to the two men, their attorneys and court records, on Sept. 11, 1999, Devore and Hudgins checked in at the airport in Baltimore for a flight to Phoenix.
They had been hired by a bail bondsman to travel to Tucson and bring back a bail jumper facing drug and assault charges. Both men claim they called the airline to find out what they needed to do to transport their weapons. When they arrived at the airport, they offered to check their handguns in their luggage but were instead told to put them in their carry-on luggage.
They were erroneously issued signed authorization documents, which they showed as they passed through security and as they boarded the plane. Such authorizations are supposed to be issued only to certain law enforcement officers, not to bail enforcement agents, as bounty hunters are called.
During trial, attorney Craig Gillespie said, the pilot told the court that he had even left the cockpit to ask a Southwest worker in the terminal about the authorization. Then he took off with Devore and Hudgins aboard.
One of the airline personnel had misread the name of the bounty hunters' company, H&D, as HUD and told the pilot that the two men worked for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Near the end of the flight, one of the flight attendants realized that the men were bounty hunters after a conversation with Devore. And although the crew apparently determined they were not a threat, they were not law enforcement officers.
So the pilot radioed ahead to tell the tower that there were two armed men on the plane who were not authorized to carry weapons. And he asked that the police meet the flight.
Devore and Hudgins were arrested and spent the weekend in the Madison Street Jail. The next Monday they appeared before a federal judge who granted them a conditional release.
They asked if they could finish the job they had come to do, and the judge said yes, so long as they were back in court the next morning.
Devore and Hudgins rented a car, but their guns and handcuffs had been taken, so they stopped at an auto-parts store to buy heavy-duty plastic ties to use as restraining devices.
They drove to Tucson, where their bail jumper was staying with his mother, kept the house under surveillance all night long, then knocked on the door before daylight. The fugitive's mother answered the door and led them to the bedroom where he was sleeping.
"We had him in cuffs before he was fully awake," Devore said.
Then they hurried back to Phoenix and hired a private investigator to watch the fugitive.
Both men were charged with carrying a concealed weapon on an aircraft, which carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. And although documents entered as evidence showed that Devore and Hudgins did not misrepresent who they were and that Southwest employees had violated policies in allowing them to take the guns on the plane, it took prosecutors about five months to drop charges.
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