Bounty hunters wearing black ski masks and looking for a bail jumper kicked in the front door of a house, held children at gunpoint and shot a young couple to death in a case of mistaken identity, police said.
Three of the bounty hunters were in custody Monday, including one who has been charged with second-degree murder and two hospitalized with gunshot wounds.
Police were looking for four others.
Investigators said they don’t believe the bail jumper was in the house and may never have lived there.
“It’s still a mystery why they went to that house,” said police Sgt. Mike Torres.
The shootings have focused renewed attention on Arizona laws that allow bounty hunters to break down doors and use guns to bring bail jumpers back to jail. They don’t need a court order or warrant. They don’t even need a license to do what they do, police said.
“Whatever force necessary,” said Linda Ownbey of Liberty Bail Bonds, the state’s largest bail business. “It’s spelled out in the contract that people have to sign.”
In Sunday’s shooting, the bounty hunters were looking for an out-of-state bail jumper who owed a California bond company $25,000. Police said one bounty hunter held a woman and her three children at gunpoint while others kicked down the door to the couple’s bedroom.
Killed were Chris Foote, 23, and his 21-year-old girlfriend, Spring Wright. Police said Foote apparently managed to shoot two of the bounty hunters with a handgun before he died.
Luisa Sharrah, who lived in the house, said she woke up to find two men straddling her and tying her hands with white cords.
“I was in bed with my two girls … then these two guys beat me in the head with a Mag-Lite,” she told The Arizona Republic. “I kept screaming at them, ‘What the hell do you want?”’
Sharrah said one bounty hunter held her and her children - ages 12, 11, and 6 - at gunpoint.
The gunmen kicked down a door in the home and were met by a volley of bullets from Foote’s gun, she said, but the bounty hunters shot back.
David Brackney, 45, and Michael Sanders, 40, were hospitalized in stable condition with gunshot wounds to their arms. Both had worn body armor. Torres said they would likely be arrested and charged upon release from the hospital.
Late Sunday, police arrested Brackney’s son, 20-year-old Matthew Brackney, at a residence about a mile from the shooting site. He was booked on two counts of second-degree murder.
Police did not release the name of the bail company involved in the shooting.
A decade ago, there was a public outcry to regulate bounty hunters’ actions after a 19-year-old bounty hunter shot a fugitive in the back. The bounty hunter was sentenced to six months in jail.
When going after a bail jumper, bounty hunters are protected against kidnapping charges but they can be charged with aggravated assault if they use more force than is reasonable.
Still, Phoenix police recently issued a department policy reminding officers that they cannot interfere or intervene on bounty hunters’ business.