By James Finn & Lea Skene | The Advocate | July 30, 2022

Long before the murder-suicide, Van Hopkins had been warned.

His own business partner accused him of running his ankle-monitoring business in a way that risked “failing to actually supervise people.”

Hopkins, at least a decade into his career, was familiar with the responsibility that comes with supervising criminal defendants using electronic monitoring technology, most often GPS ankle monitors. For years, he ran a monitoring program in New Orleans alongside a local bail bondsman, Matt Dennis.

The joint venture was among a balkanized web of companies operating mostly in the shadows of Louisiana’s criminal justice system. Those companies get their money directly from defendants who are desperate to get out jail.

Last year, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Dennis accused Hopkins of jacking up prices. In a scathing letter, he said his partner had become fixated on profits while losing sight of their shared mission: protecting public safety.

“We all agreed on day one that profit would not be our motive, and I alone still believe this,” Dennis wrote in the March 2021 letter. “I will not allow you to victimize my customers for your personal gain.”

The two parted ways. Within months, Dennis’ fears of a massive failure of supervision were realized.

A St. Francisville man repeatedly violated the terms of his release last fall by stalking his estranged wife for weeks, ultimately killing her — all while wearing an ankle monitor. The device registered his every move, but Hopkins and his staff at Adapts Electronic Monitoring failed to alert law enforcement to the violations until it was too late. A grand jury indicted Hopkins on negligent homicide months later.

The story of how Hopkins ended up in court reflects the nature of the industry built around ankle monitors.

“We don’t know how well they work, we don’t test them, there’s no approval process,” Kate Weisburd, a law professor at George Washington University who studies electronic monitoring, said of the devices. “It’s like the wild west.”

No standards, no oversight

The Advocate | The Times-Picayune requested lists of defendants ordered to wear ankle monitors from more than 80 district, juvenile and city courts in Southeast Louisiana. Many courts said they don’t order monitoring, while some said there was no way to search for the records. Just six were able to provide full lists.

The system varies widely across localities. Some law jurisdictions have deals with specific ankle monitoring companies. Elsewhere, judges simply recommend companies they’re familiar with; or defendants shop for the service on their own, choosing from an array of mom-and-pop providers.

The devices usually cost defendants around $10 per day for the duration of their release — or more, people in the industry said. One study found that defendants in a California jurisdiction paid over $17,000 per year for the devices.

Glitchy GPS technology also tends to yield bad data on defendants’ location, and regulation over the technology is all but nonexistent, Weisburd said.

“All the things we attach to peoples’ bodies — hearing aids, for example — are extensively regulated,” Weisburd said. “Yet we know virtually nothing about ankle monitors. We don’t know how well they work, we don’t test them, there’s no approval process. It’s like the wild west.”

When the system fails, the results can be deadly. Nothing stopped a New Orleans offender, ordered to wear an ankle bracelet, from murdering a woman in 2021. In California, officials said in 2013 that electronic monitors used on gang members were so unreliable that they posed “imminent danger” to the public.

The industry has faced criticism from activists and scholars who question its disproportionate impact on people of color and its overburdening effects on lives of defendants. The devices often subject them to rules that are “vague, broad and open to interpretation,” Weisburd and other scholars wrote in a 2021 paper.

At times, the lack of oversight can open the door for companies to take advantage of indigent defendants — a dynamic that permeated a lawsuit against a Baton Rouge monitoring company in 2017.

Two former defendants sued the firm, Rehabilitation Home Incarceration, claiming it held hundreds of inmates “ransom” by requiring they shell out hefty fees on top of their court-ordered bail before they could be released from jail. The lawsuit claimed that 19th Judicial District Judge Trudy White had “an informal agreement” in which she would ask RHI to provide pretrial supervision for defendants.

White presided over criminal cases at the time; she now serves in the district’s civil division.

Records show the company’s owner, Cleve Dunn Sr., shuttered RHI in 2018 and settled the suit early in 2020. Six months later, records show Dunn opened a new pretrial supervision company: Defendants Assistance Program of Baton Rouge.

It’s unclear how many people that company has monitored since its inception; court records don’t provide clear data on which pretrial companies watch specific defendants. But records show the firm is one of six companies city-parish courts currently use for ankle monitoring supervision.

Reached by phone last week, Dunn would say only that his company was tracking a single defendant in the 19th Judicial District. He declined to comment further.

‘Properly and thoroughly’

In this largely unregulated system, Hopkins learned to thrive. He did not return repeated requests for an interview.

Records show his main company, Adapts Electronic Monitoring, did business across the Deep South for years. In 2014, Adapts’ Louisiana subsidiary — AEM of Louisiana, Inc. — struck a verbal agreement with the West Feliciana Parish sheriff to monitor defendants. Hopkins’ company tracked the whereabouts of defendants wearing ankle bracelets while deputies served as enforcement, tasked with arresting people caught violating terms of their release, Sheriff Brian Spillman said.

Headquartered in Tupelo, Mississippi, the company at one time monitored Curtis Flowers, a man from a town near Tupelo whom prosecutors infamously tried six times for the same quadruple murder.

Court documents in Flowers’ case offer another look at how Hopkins ran his operation: AEM tracked and monitored defendants and relayed to law enforcement when one of the 500 Mississippians under its purview violated their release, Hopkins wrote in a 2019 filing. If that happened, an email, text or phone call went to law enforcement.

“We have a team of people who can monitor events, respond to inquiries, and ensure that information is promptly and thoroughly disseminated,” he wrote.

Dennis, Hopkins’ ex-partner, says ankle monitoring companies have to walk a balance: The fees they charge defendants to use the devices need to be high enough to make the business sustainable, but low enough that defendants can afford them.

Dennis says he partnered with Hopkins in 2014 because he saw a chance to better strike that balance. Previously, he relied on third party vendors to rent him ankle monitors; by getting the equipment directly from Hopkins, he didn’t have to pay those fees. And that meant he didn’t have to pass those costs onto his clients.

Their company was able to charge defendants $6 per day instead of the usual $10 to $20 seen across the industry, Dennis said.

But, when jails started emptying out because of COVID, Hopkins saw a chance to raise the fee back to $10 and pull in more cash, according to Dennis. For him, it was the last straw.

A better way?

From a building on New Orleans’ Tulane Avenue, Dennis has continued running the company, now under a different company name — ASAP Release. His growing clout in the monitoring world allows him to obtain monitors more cheaply from producers than in the past, he said, keeping daily defendant fees at $6.

He maintains that using locator technology in concert with the bail system’s aggressive enforcement remains the best option for pretrial release.

The problem with most monitoring operations, he said, is their frequent failure when it comes to precisely and constantly monitoring defendants’ movements. Their record keeping tends to be shoddy, he said, adding that many of the companies appear disinterested in the enforcement side.

Worst of all, there are no standards to keep them in check when they fail, he said.

“Other GPS companies thrive on deniability,” Dennis said in an interview. “These companies need there to be a disconnect when things go bad.”

Some in the criminal justice world say the problem runs even deeper. While the devices are meant to keep people out of jail, for instance, defendants sometimes end up locked up again for trivial violations recorded by monitors.

Dennis’ operation has gained influence in recent years. The company now supervises most people released on ankle monitors while awaiting trial in Orleans Parish — over 200 defendants total, he said. But he is not without his detractors. A lawsuit several years ago, since dismissed, alleged that his operation dispatched bounty hunters to collect exorbitant fees from a defendant. And he has clashed with various city officials and bail reform activists over the years.

Yet some in the criminal justice world agree that his method poses the best option under the current system. Dennis touts a long list of instances where he has successfully tracked and arrested people accused of violent crimes before they reoffend.

“I think he’s trying to do the right thing for the right reasons,” said Rafael Goyeneche, director of the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a nonprofit that investigates wrongdoing by public agencies. “Of course there’s a profit margin in it for him. But … the rates that he’s charging are $6 or $7 a day — a lot lower than other programs.”

Attempts at running taxpayer-funded monitor programs have often fizzled, including in New Orleans, as depleted departments struggle to meet staffing needs posed by such programs. Many would like to see sweeping changes to the system.

“I think it’s both the technology, and the fact that companies haven’t been straightforward with us about what the weaknesses are,” said 18th Judicial District Attorney Tony Clayton. “To say their products are foolproof is less than honest.”

The case that set it off

Last fall, the St. Francisville murder case exposed the system’s problems.

For weeks, Marshall Rayburn repeatedly broke the terms of a $100,000 bond and restraining order issued after he was accused of routinely drugging and raping his wife over their 15-year marriage. His court-ordered ankle monitor, provided by AEM, recorded every violation — including visits to a Chick-Fil-A, a sex shop and forays past the home of his estranged wife, Peggy Beasley Rayburn.

But AEM never alerted authorities of the massive red flags. And no one intervened when Marshall Rayburn parked down the road from her house, wrapped his ankle monitor in duct tape to kill the signal and broke into her home — where he shot Peggy Rayburn dead before turning the gun on himself.

The case could spur deep repercussions for AEM. Peggy Rayburn’s family has sued for damages. In a potentially first-of-its-kind prosecution, a grand jury filed negligent homicide charges against Hopkins and an employee tasked with monitoring Rayburn, Deborah Shirley. She has not responded to requests for comment.

Defense attorneys for Shirley and Hopkins also did not return requests for comment.

As shock over the Rayburns’ deaths reverberated in St. Francisville, Spillman, the sheriff, asked the Louisiana Attorney General’s office to rule on whether state law requires sheriffs to run and enforce GPS monitoring programs.

The responsibility to order monitors and set terms of release falls squarely on judges, the prosecutor’s office responded.

And when it comes to enforcing those terms, the office said, Louisiana law “does not expressly state which person or entity is responsible for implementing a global positioning program.”

Staff writer Joseph Cranney contributed to this report.