True story: George Bradley, founder of Serving the Nation, needed to serve papers on a man in jail. “Several attempts had been made to serve him in jail,” Bradley explains. “When you go to jail, there’s a glass wall, and you can’t serve through glass. You can talk to him on the phone, but you gotta hand that subpoena to him. I went in there and said, ‘I’m George Bradley, I’m from the law firm, and I need to see this guy.’”
A guard looked for the prisoner and eventually brought him out to see Mr. Bradley from the law firm. “So I went back into the...office where [the prisoner] was seated, and I walked up to him, and handed him the subpoena. He said, ‘You’re not my lawyer.’ And I said, ‘No I’m not. But you need to give this to your lawyer.’ And the security officer said, ‘I thought you were his lawyer.’ I said, ‘No, no. Never said that. I said I’m from the firm. I am. I’m from Serving the Nation.’”
Bradley will find you, wherever you are. Sitting in his office, six floors above K Street NW, he’ll tell you that himself, without the slightest hint of sarcasm: “You can’t go anywhere or do anything without us knowing about it.” He’s going to track you down, and when he does, he’ll send one of his employees to your house, your office, your health club, to give you what’s coming to you: divorce papers, a court summons, a subpoena for that almost-forgotten fender bender.
“Nobody wants to get served,” Bradley says. As he says it, his lips curl in a smile. It’s his way of finishing the thought: You might not want to get served, but we’re going to do it anyway. Four years ago, Bradley started Serving the Nation in his basement, offering his services to law firms that needed legwork. Now he employs five process servers to make sure you get your papers, and he’s planning to open offices in New York and Chicago. He’s making a good living out of bad news.
True story: Serving the Nation had a subpoena for a former top adviser to President Reagan, Bradley recalls. He had witnessed a car accident and was needed to testify. He had been avoiding service—Bradley inherited the paper from another company that had made several unsuccessful attempts to serve him. Knowing that the Reagan official’s secretary would deflect a straight-ahead approach, Bradley’s server visited the office and pretended to be a private detective. He told the secretary that he had encountered her boss’s name in the course of a murder investigation. As a courtesy, the private eye had stopped by to tell him about it. “The secretary broke all kind of land speed records getting to his office to tell him,” Bradley says. “Of course, he came out, and didn’t know what the heck we were talking about. So he identified himself, we shook his hand, and served him. And he was pissed. Major pissed.” You’ve been served. Have a nice day.
It’s a Friday night in Greenbelt, Md., and Robert Newkirk is looking for a cop. Apparently, an elderly gentleman fell in a store and sued; Newkirk is carrying a subpoena for the cop who witnessed it. A former Lorton corrections officer, Newkirk has been serving for Serving the Nation since January 1995.
It is with a certain measure of glee that I accompany Newkirk: After countless nervous moments stopped in front of patrol cars waiting for delivery of a speeding ticket, I relish the chance to make the sweat bead on some cop’s brow.
We climb into Newkirk’s van and drive to the Beltway Plaza Mall, where the officer is supposed to be patrolling. Navigating our way through the Friday-night teenage thrill-seeking mall crowd, we find another Greenbelt officer, who tells us that our man is “out” and will be back promptly. Sure.
Our cop is there, and his colleague is lying for him. We spend the next two hours chasing the officer around the mall. Finally, we spot him lounging at a movie refreshment stand. When Newkirk calls his name, he sprints through the back door of the theater and disappears.
Newkirk is incredulous. “I’ve served maybe 500 subpoenas and summons, but I’ve never seen a cop run like that,” he says. Policemen have to deal with subpoenas all the time; they know the drill. They’re supposed to deal in “the enforcement of the law, not the evasion of the law,” Newkirk sermonizes.
At 11:40 p.m., just as the last movies of the night are starting to let out, we corner our itinerant officer. Newkirk touches him with the paper, drops it, and walks away. You’ve been served. Have a nice day.
The touch-drop-and-walk maneuver is called the “drop serve,” used when a target is uncooperative. Proper usage: One day in a tough D.C. neighborhood, faced with a 6-foot-1, 225-pound man with one hand reaching into his pocket and a wife cussing and screaming out the window, Newkirk drop-served him.
True story: Newkirk went to serve a subpoena to a man named Maurice. He knocked at the door, told the man who answered his business, and showed him the name on the service paper. “Oh, that’s not me, that’s my brother Maurice. What is it you have for him?” “I have a subpoena,” Newkirk replied. “What’s it for?” the brother asked. Newkirk answered that he didn’t know, he didn’t read the document. Just as Newkirk was telling Maurice’s brother that he could accept the paper for his sibling, a woman’s voice called from inside the house, “Maurice, who’s that at the door?” Newkirk touched Maurice with the subpoena and turned to walk back to his car. You’ve been served. Have a nice day.
“He tried to shove it in the back of my shirt; he started cussing me out,” Newkirk recalls. “But I looked back in my rearview mirror as I was leaving, and I saw him pick the paper up off the ground.”
That’s a good serve. A good serve means that the server leaves without the paper—no matter how messy delivery was, no matter how “creative” he has to get. Of course, there are rules to the service industry. A server can’t break any laws. In Virginia, a server is not allowed to serve after 8 p.m. A server can’t serve in the District or Virginia on a Sunday or holiday. In Maryland, a server can’t subserve—serve someone who lives in your house by delivering to you—without a court order. A bad serve means lots of paperwork, re-filing, and re-serving, which nobody in the legal process needs any more of.
The force that drives Serving the Nation rests on a table in the far corner of the office’s entrance hallway. Bradley’s computer can scan your credit report. It can find out where you work, or if you own a car. It knows who your neighbors and relatives are. It can look you up by phone number, ZIP code, or Social Security number. It can check which magazines you subscribe to. “We’re tapped into every network, every system that’s out there, with the exception of the FBI Criminal Background, and we’ve made arrangements to take care of that. The information is out there,” Bradley explains.
But the servers do the hard labor. All of Bradley’s servers have a law enforcement background. Bradley is a licensed private investigator, and so are some of his servers. After all, they need to be at least as resourceful as the average gumshoe. “There is no such thing as an easy serve. A lot of times you have to use your imagination in order to get the job done,” Bradley explains, rather euphemistically.
Process serving does require a certain
measure of creativity, but it also demands a large dose of persistence and civility. An average serving day can bring anything from angry and bitter (soon-to-be) divorcees to itinerant no-shows who seem to have disappeared from the face of the earth. I spent an entire day driving around the District with Newkirk, and we visited seven homes without finding a single person to serve. Newkirk had stopped by most of the houses at least once before, but this is just part of the business. He’s a patient man; sometimes his wife rides with him to keep him company.
On another day, many of the serves I witnessed were of the most routine variety: nice suburban couples who smiled, cordially invited us into their homes, and signed for their summons. But Newkirk certainly does meet his share of hostility, which he greets with resignation and empathy. “How would you feel? You’re bringing misery into someone’s life,” he says. “There are poor people, with nowhere to turn, then they get something like this. I try to show some compassion and understanding in their troubled times....A little ventilation from someone is not going to hurt me.”
Newkirk will always be polite and straightforward the first time he comes to your door; he says there’s no need to be confrontational. Instead of carrying a firearm, he totes an Express Mail envelope to disguise the papers he delivers. “The whole idea,” he maintains, “is to get them to open the door and identify themselves.” And if there is a snag, Newkirk also carries his trusty walking stick.
True story: Serving the Nation once made a delivery to Bill Clinton. “Basically, Clinton had his policy of wanting to be with the people and have everybody accessible to him,” Bradley says. “Prior to the inauguration, we had one of the servers go to the press room, where Clinton was surrounded by press, and he was able to walk up to him, and he just served him. He served the president personally.” It was for a trivial matter; this was before Whitewater hit the newspapers. Bradley thinks that Clinton may have witnessed a car accident back in Little Rock.
“Certainly there are other ways to serve the president. They have counsel to receive those documents and that would be considered serv-ice on the president,” Bradley says. “But we have a reputation to maintain, you know.” CP