Ron Belec: Seattle’s Least-Favorite Process Server

He's willing to do whatever it takes to complete a service--and has an especially passionate enemies list because of it.

At 61, professional process server Ron Belec is usually content to stay at the office and let his employees run around town, thrusting subpoenas and other unwelcome legal documents into the hands of reluctant recipients. But in November 2007, Belec's company, North West Legal Support, was charged with delivering a courtroom summons to a woman who happened to live in the same Pioneer Square apartment building as he did. So he went to make the delivery himself.Belec recalls knocking on her door, announcing he had papers for her, and receiving no response. Whereupon, he says, he returned to his apartment, took out his dentures, and had a couple of drinks.The woman in the apartment recalls the evening differently. She says Belec banged so hard that the door hinges started rattling. She refused to open up and instead called 911.According to a police report, Belec greeted the cops by saying: "What the fuck do you assholes want?" They told him they were there investigating a harassment call. "Fuck you guys," Belec responded.The cops returned to the woman's apartment where, once more, there was a knock at the door. When one of the officers opened it, Belec threw the papers inside and walked off.Mission accomplished.Process servers are the first step in any civil legal action. Under Washington state law, when you file a lawsuit against someone, be it divorce, an auto accident claim, or an attempt to collect on a debt, you have to physically get a copy of the suit into their hands. Servers are tasked with delivering those documents.As the bearers of bad news, they aren't a popular bunch. But Belec has cultivated an especially passionate enemies list. A small man with graying hair and three days of gray stubble on his chin, given to wearing loafers and sweatshirts, Belec is perhaps Seattle's most notorious process server. He represents an old-school way of doing business that can be highly effective, and highly offensive. Sometimes he crosses the line. But then that's OK for process servers.Indeed, Belec had that legally affirmed in a court case just a few years ago. Belec had been hired by a wife to serve papers on her husband during a messy divorce. Unable to locate the man, named Yves Cauvin, Belec called Cauvin's former girlfriend, Jeanne Peterson, at the Southcenter Mall Bon Marché, where she worked. (The mall is now called Westfield and the store Macy's.)According to Peterson, Belec called her several times, trying to get contact information for Cauvin, even making three calls in one day. Eventually she called the police, claiming Belec had threatened to tap her phone and put a tracking device on her car to follow her until she led him to Cauvin. "He told me he knew where I lived, he told me he knew that I was a single mother with a daughter," Peterson says, speaking in a recent interview.Belec was charged with misdemeanor telephone harassment by the city of Tukwila and found guilty. King County Superior Court agreed. But in November 2003, five years after the incidents, the State Court of Appeals overturned Belec's conviction, saying he hadn't been trying to frighten Peterson just for its own sake. Calling her—even haranguing her—for the purpose of serving her ex-boyfriend papers was permissible under state law."It is harassment," observes Belec with satisfaction, sitting recently in his basement office across the street from the King County Courthouse. "It's just not illegal harassment.""Ron Belec does have a reputation of going the extra mile, even if that would risk bracelets [handcuffs], in an effort to diligently effect service of process," says Eric Vennes, Executive Director of the Washington State Process Servers Association.Others are less charitable. "Mr. Belec seems to believe himself to be above the law and a firm message should be sent that he is not," wrote a probation officer who reviewed the Peterson case for Tukwila's municipal court. In interviews with the officer, "[Belec] repeatedly stated that [as a licensed server], he has the right to do things that other people cannot do," she wrote, arguing in favor of sending Belec to jail for his harassment of Peterson.The officer noted that while Belec had only one prior conviction—for driving under the influence in 1985—he'd been charged at least eight other times with various misdemeanors, including assault and patronizing a prostitute. None of those charges stuck, and in his interview with the probation officer, Belec claimed they were all the result of his work as a process server and legal investigator, even the prostitution charge. "I was bounty hunting. A guy jumped bail, and his sister was a prostitute. I was trying to find him," he told the officer. Belec has faced charges twice more in Seattle since then, most recently in connection with the November 2007 incident in his building. In both cases the city attorney's office dropped the charges.Yves Cauvin has since launched an online campaign to take down Belec and North West Legal Support. Posting notices to Web sites like and Craigslist using the moniker "Citizens Against Ron Belec Northwest Legal Support," Cauvin writes: "Ron Belec has based his career on harassment, intimidation, and deceit. And now is the time to put an end to him and his illegal actions." Cauvin says his goal is to find enough people who feel victimized that he can file a class-action suit against his nemesis.But the bigger threat to Belec's business may not be angry former targets—it's being left behind in a digital age that has little need for in-person anything.Despite the bad reputation of process servers (which probably wasn't helped by last year's Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg movie Pineapple Express) they're an essential component of the civil court system, says Chris Davis, a Seattle-based personal injury attorney and member of the Washington State Trial Lawyers Association's Board of Governors. Davis says servers actually protect the people who are receiving the legal notices. "Our constitution basically says that a person has a right to be notified and the opportunity to appear and respond to the charges, whether those are criminal charges or civil charges."In some cases, Davis says, people attempt to avoid service, hoping that eventually the statute of limitations will run out. Under state law, for example, you have three years to sue someone for damages after a car accident. Even if you don't get the papers into someone's hands, it's still possible to win a judgment against them, but in order to do that, you have to show you've done everything possible to serve them.In pursuit of their prey, process servers have legal protections and access to extensive troves of personal information. State law exempts them from prosecution for trespassing, and Belec's case answered any doubts about their right to contact anyone necessary to smoke out a defendant in a lawsuit. On top of that, they can tap information maintained by state agencies and database services like LexisNexis. With help from those sources, servers can get everything from someone's current address and cell phone numbers to a Social Security number. Much of that is on public record, but accessing it costs more than most people would spend. LexisNexis, for example, costs anywhere from a few hundred dollars for basic searches to a couple of thousand for more advanced digging.In Olympia this year, Belec is pushing for the passage of a bill, introduced last month by Senators Joe McDermott (D-Seattle), Adam Kline (D-Seattle), and Mike Carrell (R-Lakewood), that would give servers access to even more information from the state Department of Licensing. Currently, they can get the mailing address a driver uses when registering a vehicle. Belec wants servers also to be able to get the residential address of drivers who receive mail at a post office box. That "makes our life a lot easier," Belec says. At a hearing on the bill last week, McDermott said that people working with domestic violence victims expressed concerns about making physical addresses more readily available.Even with all that information, and legal stalking privileges, becoming a process server requires only $10 and a signature at the county courthouse. Two years ago, the state processors' association sought to get a state law passed requiring background checks before aspiring servers could be licensed, and creating other oversight as well, says Vennes. But he couldn't find any support in Olympia. The state Board for Judicial Administration didn't want the extra cost and responsibility. The industry hasn't had significant problems with servers abusing their privileges, Vennes maintains. But he is worried that if such abuse were to happen, legislators might take it upon themselves to regulate his business.Belec first got into the trade in 1987, after 20 years working for U-Haul. He won't discuss details, but in the mid-1980s, while running a U-Haul division in Seattle, he got caught in the middle of a fight between the company founder and his children and was forced out, he says. He bounced between jobs for a while, finally landing at a small process-service firm that was bought a year later by ABC Legal Services and its president Andy Carrigan.Shortly after starting, Belec says, he impressed his new boss by his willingness to set up a tent and camp outside an evasive target's home until he returned. The move helped cement Belec's reputation as someone willing to do whatever it takes to complete the service."He didn't get along with some people, and he had a tendency to be sort of stubborn," Carrigan recalls. But when Carrigan needed to find two women who were the heirs in a million-dollar estate case ABC was handling, he sent Belec to Finland to track them down. Without much to go on, he found them both.But things soured for Belec after the arrival of Carrigan's son, Steve, a former San Francisco dot-com executive who joined ABC in 2001. The younger Carrigan wanted to make ABC a more electronic firm— not only serving papers but helping law firms with services like online document management. And he wanted to make the process-serving operation more professional, less a matter of chasing people down. "[Belec] and I went to war over the direction of this place," the younger Carrigan recalls.Carrigan the elder says he felt split between the two, but ultimately blood proved thickest. Steve stayed, and Belec left in 2005 to take over North West Legal, which he bought from Eric Vennes.One paralegal at a local firm, who asked that her name not be used, says she switched to North West Legal when Belec left ABC because she can depend on him and his servers to find people who have disappeared. He has no qualms about tracking down and calling distant friends and relatives or following associates until they lead him and his servers to his target. The paralegal says that's especially important in cases in which a deadline for service is approaching. "I have people who have disappeared," she says. And she trusts North West Legal will find them. "They do, they track them down."Steve Carrigan, now the CEO at ABC, thinks Belec often takes it too far. Really, he says, most services aren't a problem—people are usually easy to find and willingly accept papers, even if they aren't too happy about it. Carrigan says that every once in a while his company is unable to serve someone, but estimates that happens in well under 1 percent of all their cases. While Belec's methods make Carrigan cringe, he concedes that in some of those instances, Belec's way can be effective.Belec, who describes himself in Jim Croce terms—"meaner than a junkyard dog"—revels in those difficult serves. He keeps a file at his desk called the "Hall of Fame," with photos from newspapers and Web sites showing some of his more notorious servees. Highlights include the owner of Huling Brothers, a dealership that became notorious for exploiting a mentally ill customer; former Internet porn king Seth Warshavsky; and Kevin Lawrence, the former CEO of Znetix, now serving 20 years for a stock scam.Lawrence was a particularly tricky one, Belec recalls. In the months leading up to Lawrence's 2003 conviction, several lawsuits were filed by aggrieved former clients. Lawrence was nowhere to be found, so Belec rifled through the garbage outside his home and came up with a cell phone bill. Calling the numbers, Belec tracked down a woman Lawrence seemed to be involved with. Then Belec sent some of his fellow servers to stake out her house. Eventually Lawrence showed up and got served.In a business that occasionally requires that kind of nerve, it isn't just the servees who feel threatened. Andrew Dautovic, 43, one of Belec's employees at North West Legal, says that since joining the business just over a year ago, he's had people yell and curse when he shows up at their homes. And sometimes worse.In one visit, Dautovic showed up at a Lynnwood house with a $2,700 creditor claim to find a "No Trespassing" sign and two garbage cans tied together with a length of rope blocking the front door. He ducked under the rope and banged on the door for a while. Then, following his gut, he walked over to the garage and banged some more. No response. Just as he was giving up for the day, the debtor himself, an old man with trembling hands, burst out of the garage and pointed a .380 caliber automatic handgun at him. Dautovic talked the man down, but afterward, shaken, he checked in with a manager at North West Legal whose only reassurance was to tell him he'd get used to it."Servers, man, they go through a lot of abuse just for being a messenger of documents," says Dautovic.Cauvin's online posts looking for people who feel they have been wronged by Belec have elicited a variety of comments from Belec's supporters and detractors alike. Elaine Solberg is one of the handful of responders who say Belec goes too far in his work.Solberg, a Shoreline real-estate agent, says she was on the receiving end of a North West Legal service that terrified her. Her husband's construction firm had built a home in Crown Hill that flooded in December 2007 during record-setting rain. The homeowners sued. Solberg says the suit didn't come as a surprise—such things are common in the wake of natural disasters. Last November 6, she says, someone dropped off a copy of the lawsuit. She accepted the documents, scanned them, and forwarded the whole thing to her attorney.But the opposing counsel had sent a copy of the summons to Belec's firm for official service. Solberg says she still isn't sure why, but the day after she received the first copy of the suit, someone started calling her house saying they had documents for her husband. Family members in other parts of the state were also receiving calls, she says, inquiring about her. Then someone started showing up at the house. Feeling freaked out, she refused to answer the door. The aggressive actions didn't seem like those of a legitimate business, she says.A few days later, she returned home in her car to find a woman parked in the driveway. Solberg hit the garage-door opener, whereupon the woman ran inside the garage, yelling at her to accept documents. Solberg blocked the woman's car and called 911. When sheriff's deputies arrived and discovered the woman was a process server, they told Solberg the woman had a legal right to be on her property until she accepted the documents.Solberg worked as a legal secretary before going into the home-sale business in 2005, so she understands the use of process servers, but she'd never heard of anyone being harassed as she says she was. "He didn't need to do this," she says.She wrote a letter of complaint to King County Council Member Bob Ferguson, who recommended contacting state Attorney General Rob McKenna's office. Solberg says the current real-estate market has put a financial strain on her family's finances, but once things turn around she plans to look into the possibilities for legal recourse. "This little slimeball, we're not done with him at all," says Solberg about Belec.Belec isn't worried about the online campaign against him. He says that when people accuse him of going too far to get documents served, it only helps his reputation as a man willing to do whatever it takes to finish the job.Steve Carrigan prefers a more genteel approach. ABC's headquarters, a few blocks east of the King County Courthouse, has the contemporary look of a "knowledge worker" office, with employees propped up on exercise balls at their desks in an open, airy space that was formerly a Chinese theater. Carrigan says he wants to "bring this industry out of the boiler room and clean up the image."To that end, he discourages his servers from banging on doors (he prefers polite knocking), stalking targets, or tricking people into opening the door. (Seth Rogen's character in Pineapple Express dresses up in costumes to get a response from his targets. In a similar vein, Belec once had a server pretend to be a john to get a woman he knew to be a prostitute to answer the door to accept papers in a lawsuit.) Carrigan also gives his servers little "Do Not Disturb"–style door hangers that explain to residents the importance of responding to lawsuits, in the hopes of avoiding long stakeouts and shouting matches.But even Carrigan's approach doesn't prevent controversy. Last October, when a pair of former State Supreme Court justices filed a lawsuit alleging campaign-finance violations on the part of Dino Rossi's supporters, an ABC worker went to Issaquah to deliver a subpoena to the Republican gubernatorial candidate's home. The next day the Rossi campaign expressed its outrage in a press release, complaining that the plaintiffs' "classless operation" had served papers to Dino's "underage, teenage daughter.""I don't know what he's complaining about," says Carrigan. "He got the service and that's the intent."Knoll Lowney, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case, points out that, by law, a subpoena for testimony can actually just be left on someone's front stoop. Ringing the doorbell and handing it over in person was just a courtesy, he says.Despite a digital culture that is busily killing off whole industries and giving rise to new ones, the legal profession remains very paper-dense. Stacks of file cabinets fill legal offices. At trial, lawyers still haul around carts of three-ring binders with photos and documents necessary to make their case. Armies of messengers and servers traverse the city on bikes or in cars to get notices to clients, signatures from attorneys, and papers officially filed at the courthouse."You've got a profession that is very used to documenting things, having people sign documents that they can hold in their hands," says Glenn Garnes, a former attorney who started a company aimed at making the legal business more electronic.Both North West Legal and ABC make about a quarter of their revenue from messenger services. But that's starting to change. The federal court system recently started requiring attorneys to file documents online, and King County Superior Court will do the same in June. When that happens, Belec says, "a messenger will become as rare as a dodo bird."The biggest potential blow to both companies would be the digitization of process service itself. Chris Davis says he doesn't expect to see that anytime soon. It would be very difficult to prove that someone actually received and viewed an e-mail.But a ruling two months ago in Australia has Vennes nervous. There, a judge allowed an attorney for a firm in a mortgage-default case to serve the defendants through Facebook. The judge allowed it because Facebook accounts, unlike e-mail, include photos and other identifiers that make it easier to show that you sent the notice to the right person. Vennes is quick to note that Australian case law has no bearing on the way things are done in the U.S., but it is a first step toward putting the service business online. "That's scary for people in the industry," Vennes says.Belec says that if people are ever able to serve defendants online, it will put him out of business. For the moment, though, all is well. Indeed, a miserable economy has brought nothing but good news. One of his biggest clients handles foreclosure cases, and the assignments from them have tripled this year. And if the economy doesn't turn around soon, "I suspect that collection work will hit the roof."

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