When a man attacked Dawn Voss with a frozen tuna, the incident became one of her better stories.
Voss had tried to serve papers on him and was unsuccessful, so she brought them to the fish packing plant where he worked. Voss donned a hard hat and sneaked in. The man took off running, throwing the 20-pound frozen fish at Voss as he went.
The man was arrested, Voss says.
But was he served?
“I got him,” Voss says with satisfaction.
Voss is a contract process server for Glen Carbon, Ill.-based Kellerman Investigations. She works in Illinois and Missouri, making from $20 to $100 for each service, with the amount depending on the location and type of service — restraining orders, domestic services and rush jobs are more expensive.
Her work brings in enough money for a “comfortable” living for the single mother and her two children. In the last six years, Voss’s job also has brought her a broken knee; an invitation to appear on “Judge Judy” to talk about a case involving a woman who threatened her (Voss declined); dog attacks; and a white Dodge Charger, which she bought for $35,000 after her previous car was totaled in a head-on collision with a drunk driver when Voss was on the road for work.
“She ended up getting served with my lawsuit,” Voss says of the other driver. “She hit the wrong one.”
Process servers like Voss drive thousands of miles each year, face the unknown with each service and are almost always are the bearers of bad news. Voss says she gets “about one crazy a month.”
The need for their services has increased in recent years in Missouri, where filings in circuit courts rose from 1.16 million cases in fiscal 2008 to 1.21 million in fiscal 2010, according to the Missouri Judiciary’s 2010 annual report.
Process servers operate in an industry that’s often loosely regulated and easily thrown into disrepute by a few bad apples. Missouri has no licensing requirement for process servers, though it does for private investigators. In some counties and cities, including the city of St. Louis and Jackson County, court approval is required to work as a process server. Illinois requires a licensed private investigator to oversee process servers, who must have a Permanent Employee Registration Card from the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Background checks and fingerprinting are required to get the card. Kansas allows licensed private investigators to serve papers in all the state’s counties.
On a windy November day, Voss jumps out of her Charger when she sees that — this time — someone’s at the house.
It’s the fourth time she’s tried to serve debt collection papers on Patrick Boker Sr., who’s listed at this address in the St. Louis suburb of Woodson Terrace. On the previous trips, Voss made no contact with anyone.
She’s bound for disappointment this time, too. The man in front of the house tells her he doesn’t live there. Boker dated a woman living in the house, the man’s mother, but didn’t live there, he tells Voss in a short conversation in the middle of the street.
“It’s a skip trace,” Voss says afterward, referring to the need to find the correct address for someone who’s supposed to be served. Skip traces can be money losers for Voss. Much of the time, servers get paid even if they’re unsuccessful. But with bulk lawsuit filers like debt collection agencies, payment can depend on serving the papers, says Kellerman Investigations owner Greg Kellerman.
Voss serves her papers about 98 percent of the time, Voss says and Kellerman confirms.
She uses a combination of guile and persistence. And her appearance helps: Voss looks nothing like the burly, uniformed man you might expect to come to your door when you’re anticipating trouble in the form of a summons or service. The former personal trainer is slim, brown-eyed and 31. Her shoulder-length hair is brown, at least this month. In October she was a blonde; she changes her look frequently to keep a low profile.
“Most people who know they’re going to be served never expect a small female and no uniform,” Voss says. “That is a huge advantage.”
About 60 percent of people accept their papers; the rest dodge service, says Kyle Jones, who owns Olathe, Kan.-based Aristocrat Process Serving with his wife, Melissa. Then there are those with unusual or violent reactions. They make up a small percentage of legal paper recipients, but enough to supply Aristocrat with fodder for a monthly newsletter feature on unusual services.
Jones once found himself staring down the barrel of a shotgun. It was after dark, and the elderly woman he was serving lived down a winding country road. Jones carries a gun himself, but there’s not a really a need for it, because process servers typically talk themselves out of situations, he says.
“You put your hands up, then go from there,” Jones says.
Others in the business agree: Politeness takes you a lot farther than packing heat.
A non-aggressive approach works best, says Kimberly Brown, who is vice president of Kellerman Investigation’s software service for process servers, Service Exchange Network, or Serve-X.
Brown, who occasionally fills in as a process server, has been assaulted: She served the driver of an SUV who closed the window on her hand and dragged her.
“I’m very pro-gun, but the fact is will it help the situation or could it make it worse?” Brown says. “Most of the time when you get into situations, you’re using your wits and your smarts and your people skills. They start when you get out of the car and approach that door.”
“In every situation, a gun would have made it worse,” Kellerman adds.
Voss carries $1 million in insurance coverage for lawsuits or injuries and follows a number of rules to protect herself: Be polite. Carry dog treats. Be alert. Don’t go down a dead end street. Plan an exit route. Avoid North St. Louis.
“East St. Louis doesn’t bother me,” Voss says.
She doesn’t read through all her services, but she takes a careful look at those that might be sensitive, such as domestic cases. A woman facing service for child support caused Voss’s most serious injury. Voss followed the woman from her home to a gas station. When she walked between their cars to serve the papers, the woman pinned Voss between her own car and the woman’s. A bystander freed her by backing up Voss’ car, which still had the keys in it.
Voss’ knee was broken, but she still tried to get to the woman. The incident, which happened in her first month as a process server, didn’t deter Voss.
“I like the adrenalin,” Voss said. “I like how fast-paced it is.”
Some situations tug at Voss’s heartstrings: children playing in the front yard of the house where Voss is bringing a foreclosure notice; the woman whose husband had left the house and whose car was being repossessed who wished Voss a “blessed day” after Voss served her.
“Lately it’s everybody” who gets served with debt collection or foreclosure papers, Voss says, including people with dual incomes in beautiful homes in nice subdivisions.
One of Voss’s rules for physical safety — get in and get out — also helps her keep a guard on her heart.
“Sometimes people want to tell their story,” Voss says. “Two things: I don’t have the time, and I do have a huge heart. … If I helped everyone, I wouldn’t have a dime to my name.”
Voss made an exception, however, for an elderly woman who was renting a house in Illinois. The owner of the house was being foreclosed on. The woman cried and said she didn’t know what to do when Voss served the foreclosure papers. She had no family or friends to help out.
Voss pointed her to possible resources, and a minister found an apartment for the woman.