Originally created 06/20/00

Two bounty hunters arrested

NORTH AUGUSTA - Two Georgia bounty hunters have been arrested on felony charges, accused of turning a North Augusta neighborhood into a shooting gallery while looking for a man who failed to appear in court on a traffic charge, sheriff's officials said Monday.

Otis Willard Belote, 45, and David Ray Defreese, both of Calhoun, were arrested Friday and charged with pointing and presenting a firearm. They were released from an Aiken jail Saturday after posting bond.

Witnesses said the two men, who were wearing jeans and T-shirts, allegedly pulled guns when they found Douglas Widener in the 1000 block of Old Ridge Road about 9 p.m. Friday. When Mr. Widener saw the guns and ran, the pair fired their weapons while chasing him through a residential neighborhood where children were present, said Angela Gainey, Mr. Widener's sister.

A third bounty hunter picked up a two-way radio and yelled at the pair to stop shooting, she said.

"The one man was on the radio yelling, `Cease fire! Cease fire! The man is unarmed!'ƒ" Mrs. Gainey said.

Mr. Widener was never detained and spent the night hiding in the woods. He walked six miles and used a pay telephone Saturday to call a relative for a ride.

Mr. Widener said he panicked when the men pulled the guns. He had no idea who they were, he said.

"They didn't identify themselves; they just pulled out their guns," Mr. Widener said. "I was scared."

The bounty hunters, who reportedly worked for A-National Bonding Co. of Gordon County, were looking for Mr. Widener because he failed to appear in court on a suspended driver's license offense. His license was suspended after a drunken driving conviction.

Mr. Widener said he didn't appear in court because he thought he already had taken care of the charge by paying the Gordon County jail. On Monday, family members paid his $1,300 fine, relieving him of any possibility of jail time.

But deputies arrested the bounty hunters because they opened fire, sheriff's Lt. Michael Frank said.

"They crossed the line when they drew their weapons and fired at this individual," the lieutenant said.

The men were not licensed to act as bounty hunters, or "runners," as required by South Carolina law, Lt. Frank said. If a defendant doesn't appear in court, a bonding company has the right to apprehend a defendant and produce him to the appropriate court. But the bounty hunters must be licensed in that state.

In a telephone interview, Luke Lester with A-National Bonding Co. of Gordon County said he had talked to one of the bounty hunters and said the case involved "a lot of misunderstandings."

But he denied Mr. Belote and Mr. Defreese worked for his bonding company.

"They're not employees of ours," he said. Mr. Lester refused to comment further and ended the interview.

Mr. Belote had an unpublished number in Calhoun, and directory assistance haf no telephone listing for Mr. Defreese.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.


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