The bondsman works for Gallagher Bail Bonds, located in Council Bluffs.

The bounty hunter broke into a house in east Omaha, terrorized a family by sweeping through and “clearing” rooms with gun drawn and then ... realized he was at the wrong place.

In turn, prosecutors in January filed felony burglary charges against Duane Wilson III — a 25-year-old rookie employee with Gallagher Bail Bonds in Council Bluffs.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine blasted Tom Gallagher’s bounty hunters, comparing them to vigilantes and saying they aren’t welcome in Omaha.

Now an unlikely source has ridden to the bondsman’s rescue.

Douglas County District Judge Shelly Stratman has dismissed the burglary charge against Wilson, ruling that the bounty hunter’s actions were not out of line with court rulings that govern the actions of bounty hunters. She agreed with Assistant Public Defender Scott Sladek’s arguments, citing state law and “admittedly dated” court rulings governing bounty hunters.

One of those: a 1957 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling that says the “state may not interfere with the (bondsman’s) control” over someone on bail. Another: an 1872 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said bail bondsmen may pursue a bail skipper “into another state; may arrest him on the Sabbath; and, if necessary, may break and enter his house for that purpose.”

Stratman wrote: “If the state desires to curtail the broad powers of bail bondsmen, then it ought to do so legislatively rather than through selective criminal prosecution.”

Kleine said he eventually may ask the Nebraska Legislature to draw up more laws to rein in bounty hunters. But first, he said, his office will appeal the judge’s dismissal of the case.

Kleine’s paramount concern: the peril of such confrontations. Fugitives should be apprehended by officers in the Metro Area Fugitive Task Force, not by “armed vigilantes,” Kleine said.

And Kleine had an even more pointed concern: This bounty hunter broke into the wrong house.

“That is at least one difference-maker here,” Kleine said. “This isn’t the house of the person who skipped bail. It’s the house of a family who was totally innocent and was terrorized. Something very bad could have happened.”

According to police reports:

Gallagher’s business was looking for a 17-year-old who had been bailed out of the Pottawattamie County Jail. The teen had failed to show up for his court date.

The morning of Monday, Jan. 30, a couple and their 13-year-old daughter were at their house near North 13th and Fort Streets in Omaha.

Margaret Vazquez, 37, and the 13-year-old heard a knock at their door. Before they could open it, a white man forced the door open, smashing a hole in the drywall.

“Someone pushed open the front door with gun drawn,” the police report says.

Vazquez repeatedly asked who the man was but didn’t get a response. Vazquez “said the suspect had his finger on the trigger and looked ready to shoot at any time” as he walked through the house “clearing” rooms like a SWAT team wannabe.

The intruder left. Once he was out of the house, Vazquez demanded to know who he was. He displayed a badge that didn’t look like a police shield or a sheriff’s star, the woman said.

He then went next door and knocked on the door of the Vazquezes’ neighbor. At some point he figured out that the address he was looking for was on 13th Street East, 2 miles away.

The family was rocked by the intrusion. The daughter is “now afraid to sleep in her own home and (is) now talking with her school counselor as she is afraid all the time,” a police report said.

Wilson wasn’t carrying a gun, Gallagher has said. The bail bondsman said he doesn’t carry a gun, and neither do his employees.

Omaha police disagree. They noted that the bounty hunter eventually found the right address. There, the fugitive’s mother told police she heard pounding on the door and someone yell “OPD!”

“He then began to yell that he wanted her son,” according to the police report. “The white male then began to search all the rooms in the house ... gun in his hand.”

In an interview with Omaha police, Wilson said “his flashlight might have been confused with a handgun.”

“Wilson stated that he knows that Nebraska does not recognize bounty hunters but felt that he still had the right to enter the residence,” the report said.

Stratman essentially agreed.

The district judge, a former prosecutor, wrote that Nebraska, unlike other states, has a “paucity” of laws governing bounty hunters. Basically, two vague paragraphs are devoted to the subject.

“A search of Nebraska law ... yields little guidance ... (or) parameters for their conduct,” Stratman wrote.

By contrast, Stratman cited 15 other states that have laws that are at least twice as long as Nebraska’s and that specifically regulate bounty hunters’ conduct.

One of those states: Iowa.

Iowa’s regulations include the requirement that bounty hunters notify law enforcement of their plans to apprehend a bail jumper.

In bringing charges against Wilson, Deputy Douglas County Attorney Jim Masteller had noted an Iowa case that was “extremely similar” to this one.

In 1997 a bounty hunter was convicted of burglary after he broke into the Des Moines mobile home of a couple and their three children. The bounty hunter kicked open a door — knocking the male homeowner into a wall. He declared he was “looking for some Mexicans” and threatened to “smack” the female homeowner if she didn’t shut up.

He then realized he was in the wrong home, apologized and went to the right place — the trailer next door.

A jury convicted him of burglary. In upholding the bounty hunter’s conviction, the Iowa Supreme Court wrote that the 1872 U.S. Supreme Court ruling “does not lend support for the proposition that a bounty hunter has some authority to break into the home of an innocent party.”

Kleine said his attorneys will point to that ruling in their appeal of Wilson’s case.

He agreed with Judge Stratman that the law may need expansion. But it doesn’t negate Kleine’s belief that Wilson committed burglary by invading the sanctity of a family’s home.

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“If this is allowed to happen, in effect they could just start breaking into houses all over the place to find the person they’re looking for,” Kleine said. “You simply can’t allow this kind of behavior.”

This isn’t the first time Omaha authorities have sounded alarms about bounty hunters.

Last year Omaha police were called to an armed standoff in the parking lot of the Relax Inn, 60th and L Streets. In that case, prosecutors say, a fugitive and bondsman both displayed guns — and Omaha police were left to sort out who was the bad guy.

In August 2016, Kleine considered charges against a Council Bluffs bail bonds employee after several bystanders reported a possible kidnapping in Omaha. That “kidnapper” turned out to be a bounty hunter.

On Nov. 20, 2017, a Council Bluffs man wanted on driving under suspension charges alleged that four employees of Gallagher’s manhandled him at the Quik Trip on the Northwest Radial near Hamilton Street. The Omaha City Prosecutor’s Office has cited the employees with misdemeanor assault and false imprisonment.

Gallagher didn’t return phone calls last week seeking comment. In previous interviews he has lamented that Omaha authorities are preventing him from doing his job.

“People think the (Missouri) River is a magic line they can hide behind,” Gallagher said. “With Kleine supporting that, it’s made my life hell. We’re going to do what the law allows us to do.”

Kleine said he is, too.

“When you allow people to act as vigilantes, it can put a lot of innocent people in jeopardy,” Kleine said. “I’m going to do everything I possibly can to prevent this activity from going on.”, 402-444-1275

Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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