Before movies of the week, before Cops, there were true-crime magazines such as True Detective, Daring Crime, and Top Secret devoted to the nuts and bolts of the underworld. Their golden era came during the Depression, when tales of Bonnie and Clyde and Ma Barker’s gang brought thrills to the masses. The genre’s big daddy, True Detective, published its last issue in 1995. But if you were to get caught next week for kiting checks, you might have a chance to see a modern version of those crime-fixated rags of yore — Crime, Justice & America. Of course, you’ll have to get locked up in county first.
“‘Here I am in jail,'” says Ray Hrdlicka, the magazine’s Livermore-based publisher, recalling one letter he’d received, “‘and once again I am reading your magazine. So now I’m sending you this letter to ask if you could please send it to this address, because I use it as a safe house for crooks and thugs and criminals.'”
The 47-year-old publisher started his magazine in May 2002, with ten issues to date. He is targeting not just county inmates but also attorneys and prison guards, perpetrators’ families, and cops on the beat. The magazine has featured interviews with jailed white supremacist leader Matt Hale and the police sketch artist who helped catch Samantha Runnion’s killer. Articles titled “11 Reasons Not to Talk After an Arrest” and “16 Ways to Be a Better Witness” appear alongside “How to Improve the Amber Alert.” Staple features include “Weird World of Crime” and “Crazy Laws.”
Until recently Hrdlicka has been fairly successful. Crime, Justice & America is distributed in 31 California counties, with special editions for large counties like Los Angeles and for regional groups of smaller ones. Some jails accept the quarterly in bulk, to be left in common areas, while others provide weekly booking rolls to Hrdlicka’s distribution manager, who mails copies to each prisoner.
At Santa Rita jail, the bulk delivery resulted in hoarding, but Lt. Jerry Maldonado, the officer in charge of inmate services, says that could have been a case of inmates spiriting away the magazines to block light out of their cells. So the jail switched to the individual-address method, and though its staff is somewhat overwhelmed as a result, Maldonado believes the magazine is worth it. He, for one, has never seen anything like it. “This isn’t the county’s position,” the lieutenant says, “but I like a lot of the articles he’s had in there. I’ve learned some stuff.”
But a pending court battle with the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office has thrown Hrdlicka’s business plan into solitary for the time being. In February 2004, Sonoma jail officials refused to distribute the magazine after concluding its articles were too provocative. Initially, Hrdlicka says, they claimed the white-supremacist article would incite a riot. He responded by sending out prepublication drafts of the next issue, allowing the officials to view it in advance for disruptive content. That May, according to court documents, a lawyer for the county conceded that the issue’s content had not raised “safety and security concerns.” But because the magazine contained numerous ads for bail bondsmen and criminal defense attorneys, the sheriff decided it violated the jail’s “unsolicited commercial mail” policy.
Hrdlicka took the county to court. Until the case gets settled, several other counties, including Contra Costa, have opted to hold off on accepting the magazine. “With a daily inmate population of over 1,600 inmates, clearly what is being proposed will have an impact on our staff and operations,” the Contra Costa facility noted in a statement.
“I can see their view,” says Santa Rita’s Maldonado. “If I’m a family member, and my son’s not getting my mail because you’re distributing magazines, I’d be bent out of shape.”
Free-speech rights can be murky when it comes to incarcerated populations, and Hrdlicka’s case could also hinge on even more obscure issues of commercial free-speech rights in prison — Hrdlicka laments that the sheriff views the magazine as a mere advertising vehicle. According to lawyer David Greene of the First Amendment Project, who is representing Hrdlicka in the case, the sheriff maintains a list of bail bondsmen inmates can choose from; four times a year, the bail agents’ association sends representatives over, and they draw names of bail agents to determine which names appear on the list and in which order. Distributing the magazine would ostensibly undermine the sheriff’s system.
The jail, meanwhile, cites an undue burden on its staff, violation of its commercial mail policy, unlawful business solicitation, and incendiary content. Hrdlicka was denied a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction he hoped would let him distribute the magazine in the interim. Oral arguments in the case begin October 4, and it may take months to resolve the case.
Hrdlicka is no stranger to controversy. Armed with an undergraduate business degree and a private investigator’s license, the Chicago native moved to California in the early 1980s to compete in national-level decathlons. He soon discovered that working part-time while he trained wouldn’t cover the state’s high cost of living. He then tried to do PI work full-time, but found it impossible to compete against rivals with decades of experience. “So I found a little niche,” he says, “which was being able to find guys that had jumped bail.”
Bounty hunting is “a young man’s game,” Hrdlicka says. “Because you’re working eighteen-, twenty-hour days, you’re all over the place and all over the world. And you have no life. A lot of fun, but you have no life.” He eventually moved to the retail side — bail bonds. Using what he calls “innovative marketing techniques” — double-truck ads in multiple editions of the Yellow Pages, that sort of thing — the business grew. Then, he says, he changed the underwriting procedure “because I knew how to find these people.”
By the mid-’90s, Hrdlicka had built the nation’s largest bail-bond business, H&H, with operations in ten states. In the process, he changed a fifty-year industry tradition, drawing upon methods that he calls innovative, but some competitors considered unethical. Traditionally, inmates and their families are asked to post 10 percent of the bail amount, and put up a house or some other property to guarantee the rest. Hrdlicka’s companies instead offered installment plans on the 10 percent payment and popularized the use of signature bonds, wherein the bail agent offers a bond on little more than a signature. “What does your lifestyle look like?” he says. “What does your credit look like? What does your potential for jumping bail look like? You mix all that together, and decide I don’t need a house. I just need your signature. Now, 98 percent of everybody out there does that.”
Not so fast, says one local bail bondsman, speaking on condition of anonymity: 98 percent of the bonds are signature bonds, not 98 percent of the bond agents. “If the legal system wanted this person out on the streets,” he says, “they wouldn’t have put a bail on him.” But the big bail bond companies don’t care about that, he says, and as a result, “there are mom-and-pop organizations like myself that are just hanging on by a mere thread, waiting for the judgment to come for doing this type of business.”
In any case, Hrdlicka’s innovations didn’t go unrewarded. H&H was pulling in $30 million annually by 2001, when it filed for bankruptcy protection after a series of financial missteps caused its insurance partner to pull out. “My wife married the CEO of a multimillion-dollar corporation,” he says. “We were planning to go public. And I had to come home and tell her, ‘Honey, we’ve got to start all over again.'” And so, he recalls, “I took a look at what I know, which was the personalities and the functions within the criminal justice system.” And so he started a magazine.
Things were going fine until the Sonoma County dispute arose. Then this past February, Hrdlicka’s wife, Lisa, was diagnosed with late-stage melanoma. She died in May, leaving behind their two sons, now five and six. “That’s the reason I needed to get my head back into the game,” he says, “because there was a period of time, maybe six weeks after she died, when I could hear her voice saying, ‘All right, now get the hell back to work. Take care of our kids.'”
The publisher’s priority now is to build an expanded sales team for a national edition he hopes to launch by next year. Hrdlicka cites his faith and sense of humor as getting him through the hard times, and he looks forward to the Sonoma case being settled. “We’re almost through with this,” he says. “I’m tired of being portrayed as a bad guy.”