Every weekday for the last six months, Donnell Mitchell's Ford Aerostar has idled on West Third Street, across from the Justice Center. By order of the city, he moves the van every hour, sometimes only as far as the next parking meter.
More billboard than transportation, the van is sheathed in noisy advertisements for Mitchell's bail-bond business. Its shell is a thin vinyl adhesive that features enlarged photographs of Mitchell standing arm-in-arm with Jennifer Lopez and lurking behind Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs's shoulder. One of the slogans reads, "We keep the stars free."
"We just call it the spaceship," Mitchell says, toothpick in one hand, cell phone in the other. "We've taken up bail bonds one more notch."
Like espionage or performance art, the bail business attracts off-kilter characters. It's a hustler's game. Large men in porkpie hats and gold-rimmed sunglasses troll the Justice Center corridors. "Need a bond?" they ask passersby, as if scalping Tribe tickets. Perhaps the most flamboyant was the late Sylvester "Sonny" Wilcox, a former prizefighter who wrote bonds in the '60s and '70s. Wilcox drove a pink Cadillac, wore pink suits, and flashed a fist of diamond rings. "People were terrified of him," Presiding Cuyahoga County Court Judge Richard J. McMonagle says.
Though Mitchell prefers charm to intimidation, he may be the principal heir to this tradition of flash. The 29-year-old West Tech grad has an associate's degree in insurance from Cleveland State, but shows little interest in deskwork or actuary tables. He's in the business of Donnell Mitchell. True to the-world-is-mine spirit of hip-hop, he offers the services of private investigator, bodyguard, and music promoter in addition to writing bonds. A few weeks ago, he and his partners wore orange jumpsuits to show their solidarity with the county's incarcerated. He has also shown a penchant -- if not a fondness -- for tweaking the nose of the system.
"This young man is a master entrepreneur," says bondsman Reggie Crosby, who sponsored Mitchell. "People in the bail-bond business aren't accustomed to this."
"I'm just trying to be part of the American dream," Mitchell says.
Writing bonds may not be as glamorous as owning a nightclub or promoting musicians, but criminal justice is a steady, recession-proof industry that runs on cash. "This is a beautiful game," Mitchell says. "If you commit yourself to this game, you can make two, three thousand dollars a week. Everybody who comes into this building has a problem, and if you can help them, you make money."
Or, as Puffy would say, "It's all about the Benjamins."
The van is Mitchell's trademark. It's especially ingenious, considering that bondsmen are forbidden from loitering in the Justice Center. They were kicked out in 1999 for creating an "atmosphere of violence, hostility, and tension," in the words of the court order. Judges and clerks wanted to impose a truce in the turf wars bondsmen fought for clients. "It's almost like treating them like kids, because they act like kids," McMonagle says. One battle ended in a haze of pepper spray.
So hour by hour, Mitchell moves his mobile advertisement to stay a step ahead of the law. He got the idea through his occasional work for Premiere Marketing, a Cleveland promotions company. He saw a similar van a record label used to tout artists and decided to put his wheels to work for him. "I need a 24-hour promotion for myself," he says of the $7,000 customization.
The photographs were taken in 1999, when Combs, accompanied by Lopez, visited Cleveland to promote his Forever CD. What Mitchell was doing near the couple is a little sketchy. Mitchell says he was hired by Arista Records, the parent company of Puffy's Bad Boy Entertainment, to take pictures of the visit, and that he has permission to use Combs's image.
Arista might disagree. "I don't really know him," says company field rep Lisa Coleman. "I think I met him one time. He doesn't really work for Arista at all."
"This is the first time we have heard of this matter," adds Combs spokeswoman Nathalie Moar in a written statement. "We are presently investigating it. We have not granted Mr. Mitchell the right to photograph or use photographs of Mr. Combs and Ms. Lopez for any purpose."
Mitchell's link to the couple is made more tenuous by a police report he filed against their bodyguard. He told cops the muscle stole a roll of film, grabbed him by the shirt, and threw him against a car several times. Cleveland police say the matter is still under investigation, and that the suspect is known only as "House."
Mitchell now dismisses the dispute. "Two grown men had an argument, and it didn't need to end up in court."
But he has shown a knack for stirring troubles of his own. In September, McMonagle held a contempt hearing after Mitchell and bondsman Ralph Watts had an argument inside the Justice Center. Mitchell said Watts threatened to shoot him; witnesses said Mitchell was the instigator. McMonagle held both men in contempt, prohibiting them from conducting business inside the Justice Center for 30 days.
Mitchell calls the efforts to thwart him "funny." One senses he enjoys the tumult. He speaks of beating rivals out of $10,000 bonds as if he were kicking sand in weaklings' faces. "It's a game full of sissies," he says. "We're all a bunch of babies, but the bottom line is who gets the money."
The game, however, allegedly took a turn to the gangsta in November. A 19-year-old county clerk who testified at Mitchell's contempt hearing later complained to police that he followed her out of the Justice Center, called her a "gutter bitch," and threatened to "fuck you up."
A grand jury indicted him on two counts of intimidation and one count of retaliation. His trial is scheduled for April 23. "That shit's gonna be quashed," he says. "That bitch shouldn't of lied."
Needless to say, Mitchell has caught the attention of the trade's more seasoned practitioners. "His approach is just obnoxious," says 35-year veteran Don Shury, who laments the profession's decline in reputation "from worse to worser."
Shury should brace himself for more outlandishness. Mitchell's planning to air commercials featuring rap maestro Master P. And he's not done decorating the van.
"Stars," he says, as if talking in his sleep. "More stars."