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Unlicensed California bounty hunter charged with crimes in Colorado

Unlicensed California bounty hunter charged with crimes in Colorado
Unlicensed California bounty hunter charged with crimes in Colorado 00:46

A 49-year-old man on the run from California authorities for kidnapping and stealing from the people he arrested while operating illegally as a bounty hunter is accused of committing similar crimes in metro Denver last year.

Bounty hunters play a unique role operating between law enforcement personnel and normal citizen. They are given a share of the legal power and access to information and equipment awarded to members of professionally trained police forces. Certifications for the position vary between states. Some states require dress codes and training on arrest tactics. Others only need an absence of a felony conviction, a signature, and a phone call to local authorities before that person can place handcuffs on another. 

But this particular bounty hunter's alleged actions, and the reported harm done to the people left in his wake, illuminate an apparent gap in the regulation of bounty hunters in both California and Colorado. And perhaps the rest of the country. 

Jesse Wagner, a.k.a. Jesse Nuñez, following his arrest almost a year ago. Jefferson County Sheriff's Office

A trial for Jesse Wagner, also known as Jesse Nuñez, was scheduled to start Monday in Jefferson County. It's now been re-scheduled for November. He faces a dozen charges, all stemming from a two-week relationship with a woman he arrested on a bail bond violation in May 2023. Wagner, rather than taking the woman directly to jail, is accused of keeping the woman out of jail - and sometimes in his own custody - for two weeks. This, as he used her to make other arrests, took her out to dinner, and forged a sexual relationship with her. Wagner even called the woman "baby" and offered to pay her for additional sex, according to Wagner's Lakewood Police Department arrest affidavit.

The woman told Lakewood investigators Wagner threatened to take her jail if she didn't cater to his wishes. The relationship ended when Wagner kicked down her door, hit her with a police baton while she was retreating from him on the floor, and groped her sexually in a fit of jealousy when she refused to accompany him home with him, according to the affidavit. 

Wagner provided body-worn camera video to investigators of that arrest. He told the investigators the woman tried to shut the door on him and was known to carry a weapon in her waistband.

Prosecutors disagree with his assessment. They have charged Wagner with kidnapping, assault, extortion, human trafficking and sex offenses. He also faces burglary counts for allegedly pocketing $2,400 from one of the suspects the woman led him to - money which he used to pay one of her bonds. 

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In Adams County, Wagner is charged with assault with a deadly weapon following a botched sting operation in a Commerce City hotel parking lot one month after the alleged Lakewood relationship concluded. According to that case's affidavit, Wagner and two employees of his business, Fugitive Warrants LLC, tried to arrest a man wanted on misdemeanor traffic violations. They lured the man into the parking lot under false pretenses (a former girlfriend's car being broken down) and tried to "box in" his pickup truck with their cars. The three men told investigators they shot the truck's driver after they identified themselves as law enforcement and the pickup driver retaliated by trying to hit them with his truck. 

However, truck driver claimed the men made no attempt to identify themselves as such. He said he feared for his safety and made no attempt to hit them with his truck.

As in the Lakewood arrest, the pickup truck driver's version of events was corroborated by video recordings taken by cameras worn by the bounty hunters. Per the Commerce City's affidavit, the video showed none of the three bounty hunters identified themselves as working on in any sort of law enforcement capacity during the encounter. When one of the bounty hunters pointed a handgun and demanded the pickup driver stop, the pickup driver responded, "Why?" The pickup struck a total of three others vehicles (including two belonging to the bounty hunters) in a panicked attempt to drive away. Wagner, then, is heard in the recordings telling his partners to "shoot him, shoot him, shoot him." Those partners fired their handguns. Seven bullets went into the pickup's driver's side door, injuring the driver. 

The pickup driver ceased trying to escape at this point and put both hands into the air, according to the affidavit's description of the video. As soon as the pickup's door was opened, Wagner deployed a Taser into the driver's face. Once the driver was on the ground, Wagner asked the driver why he didn't obey their commands.

"Why did you try and kill us? What's going on with you?"

The pickup driver replied, "I was scared, man. You f***ing pointed a gun on me. I don't know who you guys are. No 'police,' no nothing. What the f***?"

Later, a Commerce City investigator did a background check on Wagner and found several felony convictions on his criminal record. Those infractions should not allow Wagner to possess a weapon or be a licensed bounty hunter.  

Wagner was arrested in July 2023 for both Colorado incidents.

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It's not known precisely when Wagner came to Colorado. But it is clear he left California for a reason. He was declared a fugitive in that state after escaping arrest in October 2022. He was wanted on kidnapping and burglary charges after he and two of his Fugitive Warrants employees arrested an armed fugitive, burglarized the fugitive's residence, conducted a felony traffic stop to take the fugitive's girlfriend into custody (though she had not wanted by police), burglarized her residence, and then held the pair against their will in that house. All the while, California authorities said, Wagner's team was not legally licensed as bounty hunters.   

"While bail agents and sureties who hire bounty hunters are required to be licensed by the California Department of Insurance," the California press release reads, "bounty hunters currently are not."  

Jesse Wagner, a.k.a. Jesse Nuñez, searches a property in the San Diego area in an image taken from video.   CNN/KGTV

At the same time California was executing search warrants and declaring Wagner a fugitive, its state legislature passed more stringent requirements for bounty hunters.

In Colorado, the Department of Regulatory Agencies is tasked with licensing bounty hunters. After CBS News Colorado notified the department of Wagner's criminal cases, a DORA spokesman confirmed Wagner is not licensed to operate in Colorado. The agency has not responded to inquiries since. 

 Wagner's two California employees, meanwhile, were arrested and charged. Their criminal cases are still active.

Wagner's two employees in the Commerce City incident were also arrested and charged. Both pleaded guilty to felony assault in recent months and received three-year probation sentences.    

With Wagner's JeffCo trial now delayed until November, his next court hearing is an arraignment in Adams County in mid-July. It's expected he will be extradited to southern California for prosecution there at the conclusion of his Colorado cases.

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