‘She makes people feel like they matter.’ NC woman redefines role of a bondsman.

Kiara Brewster in her Brewster’s Bail Bonding office. Her all-woman business is an anomaly in a male-dominated industry.
Kiara Brewster in her Brewster’s Bail Bonding office. Her all-woman business is an anomaly in a male-dominated industry.

When Kiara Brewster steps out of her white Chevy Camaro and into the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, she’s greeted — more often than not — with confusion.

With a petite frame, dark eyes that match her bronzed complexion, and meticulously-styled blonde hair, the 29-year-old shyly admits she’s a “head-turner” in the jailhouse. Her tattoos peek out underneath the sleeve of a bold pink shirt — sometimes she’ll match her nails to it, but today they’re bright yellow, encrusted with jewels, and firmly grasped around her Louis Vuitton phone case. She’s always on-call.

Sometimes, her clients don’t immediately recognize her.

“They’re always looking around and they see their family, and I’m sitting right beside them, but they’re like, ‘Where’s the bondsman?!’” Brewster said.

With the logo of her all-woman company — Brewster Bail Bonding — embroidered on her top, she approaches with the smile that her father says can pull anyone in — a glamorous anomaly in the male-dominated industry of commercial bail bonding.

“Hi, I’m Kiara, the bondsman. Nice to meet you.”

Bondswoman 3 small.jpg
Kiara Brewster of Brewster’s Bail Bonding in Wilmington. Mondays are busy days. New arrests over the weekend mean a stream of new clients and paperwork for Brewster and her team of bail agents to file and process in court. Alice Hudson

Life of a bondsman

Mondays are busy days in the second-floor office on the corner of 6th and Market — the primary location of Brewster Bail Bonding in Wilmington. New arrests over the weekend mean a stream of new clients and paperwork for Brewster and her team of bail agents to file and process in court.

While a receptionist fills a large whiteboard on the wall with at least 40 new cases — name, court date and bail amounts ranging from $1,000 to $25,000 — a flurry of phone calls and alerts light up Brewster’s phone.

One caller asks about a bond being transferred from Raleigh, a few potential clients ask for her rate, another worries about leaving a loved one alone at the jail once their bail is posted.

“When does he get out?” she asked. The answer is sometime around 2 a.m.

“Yeah, I’ll be there.”

Since opening in 2013, Brewster and co-owner Tammy Tilghman have worked non-stop to expand their bail bonding business to more than five counties in North Carolina, and they have plans for a new office in Jacksonville soon.

Their success is mirrored in bail bonding businesses across the U.S.; the industry generated more than $2 billion in 2018.

Here’s how it works: If a defendant can’t afford to pay the full bail amount for their case, he can stay in jail until his court date, or contract a bail bondsman to front the amount for a fee. The bondsman is then responsible for the client throughout the trial process, making sure he takes take all the necessary steps to resolve his case.

For bail agents at Brewster’s, this means frequent phone calls and visits with clients, making sure they understand their cases and their contracts, and offering support and guidance when they can.

For some clients, Brewster has reached into her own pocket to make ends meet during their difficult adjustment to life outside jail. She’s driven others from Wilmington to Raleigh and back again, just so they can make their court dates.

But there’s one thing she gives every client she encounters: a speech.

“I’m a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, and people come into our lives for a reason,” Brewster said.

“If somebody calls me to the jail, I go down there to see them and talk to them. I just have to. I have to tell them to make better decisions, or to change whatever’s not working for them, and I get a rise out of that — I’m a lover, not a fighter.”

Something as simple as showing empathy can have a huge impact on a client’s life, Brewster understands, because she’s seen it happen with 24-year-old Kaitlin Massey.

After Brewster bonded her out of jail in July 2018, Massey was anxious. She’d had bad impressions of other bondsman — some were aggressive, or made her uncomfortable, others didn’t seem to take her seriously. She worried what Brewster would think of her history, her charges, her tattoos.

Once they left the jail, Brewster invited Massey to sit and talk for a moment, and levelled with her in a way no one else had before.

“She was the first person on that side of the law that treated me like I wasn’t this piece of garbage,” Massey said. “She knew the mistakes I made were not who I was as a person, and she managed to help motivate me, and showed me that I could be something.”

With Brewster’s encouragement over the next few months, Massey got a job, then a second job, and then a house for her and her young son, away from Massey’s abusive partner. Even today, Brewster checks-in with Massey’s progress and motivates her to stay on a positive life path.

“It makes you feel good,” Massey said. “She makes people feel like they matter.”

But not all her clients are so receptive.

Hanging above her desk in bold red letters, Brewster’s “Do NOT Bond” list is a daily reminder of those who have taken advantage of her generosity, skipped payments or missed a court date — clients she’s contractually obligated to locate and return to court, or pay the entire bond amount herself.

The scar on her back serves as another reminder. After one client skipped court, Brewster found her crouched in a bedroom closet at her home. The client ran outside, and Brewster gave chase. During the pursuit, a rainstorm erupted, causing Brewster to slip and fall on her spine before finally catching the runaway.

It was either that, or pay the $25,000 bond in full.

“I only had one option there,” Brewster said, laughing. “I had a job to do.”

Bondswoman 1.jpg
Kiara Brewster walks into the New Hanover County Judicial Building near her main office in Wilmington, NC to write a bond. Alice Hudson

Building relationships

It all started with her father.

A former bondsman himself, Raul Brewster has a booming voice and a big heart that he shares with everyone he meets. In elementary school, Kiara would ride around Wilmington with him, checking-in on his clients.

“No matter where he went, everyone knew him,” she said. “He was like the face of Wilmington.”

While some bondsmen might obsess over profits, or only see clients if they miss court, Kiara said her father showed her the real value in bail bonding is found in the relationships built with clients.

If someone needed a ride to the courthouse, Raul Brewster would be there to drive them. If clients were having a difficult adjustment to life outside of jail, even after their contract with Brewster ended, he’d offer them words of encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, even money out of his own pocket.

Dealing with an arrest can be a shocking and confusing experience for people, Raul Brewster said, but having a supportive bondsman who is invested in their client’s progress can make all the difference.

“If you give them this kind of guide in the direction they should go, they’re more apt to get through the case and better their lives, even to the point where they might not need to see a bondsman in the future,” Raul Brewster said.

Kiara Brewster 2.jpg
Kiara Brewster of Brewster’s Bail Bonding in Wilmington. She is one of the few women bail bondsmen in a male-dominated industry. Alice Hudson

“At the end of the day, we want them to be functional in the community. It’s not just about a business, it’s about helping your community.”

It’s these lessons that Kiara thinks about when Brewster’s Bail Bonding passes out Christmas stockings for the homeless, or when her company sponsored a donation drive to help families rebuild after Hurricane Florence last December.

“It’s important to us at Brewster’s to give back to the same community that supports us,” she said.

“It’s also important for us to try and help steer kids in a positive direction,” she said, which is one reason Brewster’s Bail Bonding also links with local nonprofit Support the Port for their annual “Stop the Violence, Start the Peace” campaign, encouraging children to be role models in their community.

It’s a message Brewster feels called to reiterate to younger clients, as a young person herself, because she understands what they’re going through.

“I myself got into a little trouble when I was in high school, and at that moment it could have broken me, but instead, my dad helped me through it,” she said.

“At a young age, we all make mistakes, some worse than others, but the beautiful thing about mistakes is that you can be forgiven. You learn from it, and now have the opportunity to change your life around. That’s the impression I like to leave with my clients.”

Fighting stereotypes

When she began her business, Brewster knew she was entering a world glamorized by “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” a world with dangerous criminals, high stakes and gruff men.

But a large part of her success in the industry, she said, is credited to everything that sets her apart from that stereotype — her femininity, her youth and her big heart.

Working in a climate where that combination is a rarity, Brewster stands out in her own way, said fellow bail bondsman Coach Pridgen. Her presence is one that people — even one of Pridgen’s own clients — can’t help but gravitate toward.

“They told me one day, ‘Coach, I think you’re a nice guy, but I just like Kiara better,’” Pridgen said, laughing. “And I thought I was pretty personable myself.”

For Brewster, it’s a small validation that the work she’s done to build her brand in this industry, and leave a positive impact on her clients and her community, is paying off. The heads she turns are starting to take notice.

“It’s empowering, and it feels good,” Brewster said. “I can do exactly what you (men) do, probably better, with my nails done and my short hair.”

This is a story from UNC Media Hub, created by students at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism. The students report long-form stories, videos and multimedia news packages covering North Carolina and the world.
Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer