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Hunting for Humans : When a posse of bounty hunters gets together to polish up the techniques and etiquette of their chosen profession, they learn several useful things. Such as don't set your prisoner on fire. And never, ever volunteer to be squirted with Mace.

August 08, 1993|ROY RIVENBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — In a room full of shaved heads, handlebar mustaches and Harley-Davidson belt buckles the size of footballs, Bob Burton is going over the finer points of hunting humans.

Make no mistake, he tells the audience, "there's nothing like the thrill of putting your hands on a total stranger and telling him he's under arrest." But remember these simple guidelines:

* When transporting your prisoner by plane, it usually isn't a good idea to carry your gun through airport metal detectors.

* Always accompany your prisoner to the restroom but, while there, try not to stare.

* Never, ever, set your prisoner on fire.

Burton, 55, knows his subject. A former mercenary and insurance salesman, he's America's preeminent professional bounty hunter. He's also president of the G. Gordon Liddy Institute in Miami, which trains bounty hunters and bodyguards.

Here at the Sandman Inn, Burton is leading what is billed as California's first convention and training seminar for bounty hunters, would-be bounty hunters and "anyone else with an inquiring mind and handcuffs."

About 30 people have paid $315 each to attend the weekend event. And it's a wild ride.

At the door to the seminar, a uniformed security guard and two Shamu-sized plainclothesmen stand sentry. Inside, CNN, NBC and Soldier of Fortune magazine try to interview class members who refuse to reveal their names or allow themselves to be photographed.

And, by the end of the first evening, one student has been Maced, others are peeling off clothes to display tattoos and everyone is singing the Marine Corps hymn.

*

The seminar has convened Friday afternoon in a conference room by the motel pool. Burton begins with an overview of the 1872 Supreme Court decision that allows private citizens to arrest people who jump bail, then moves into subsequent annoying legal developments. Such as the one about shooting at an unarmed fleeing fugitive. It makes the person easier to catch, but it happens to be illegal.

A better way to subdue suspects, he suggests, is Chemical Mace. For a demonstration, Burton introduces John Ludvigson, Mr. Tear-Gas of the Newport Beach Police Department. After explaining the history of Mace (ancient Chinese warriors burned vats of oil and cayenne peppers outside walled cities before invading), Ludvigson recruits a volunteer from the audience and spritzes him in the parking lot.

As the human guinea pig's eyes, throat and sinuses saute, he appears easily arrestable. But Mace turns out to have at least two drawbacks: First, it doesn't always work. Second, some brands contain an alcohol-based aerosol which, if used in conjunction with a Taser gun, could "light the prisoner up like a Roman candle," Ludvigson says. Sadly, under current law, setting a suspect ablaze is frowned upon by authorities.

But other methods are available, Burton says, from consulting astrological charts to impersonating a rabbi. Details, however, must wait until Saturday. It's late and Burton has an appointment down the block.

The group adjourns to O'Billy Bob's bar, which Burton is christening "the official bounty hunters saloon of the West Coast."

It's a good choice. Owned by Bill Pollock, a towering ex-Navy SEAL, the bar's walls are decked with autographed pictures of Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, Watergate conspirator Liddy and the Santa Barbara sheriff's bomb squad.

A banner hangs from the ceiling: "Welcome Bounty Hunters!" But when Burton's entourage arrives, the bar looks more like a gathering of the Worldwide Wrestling Federation: Regular patrons disappear amid a mass of bulging biceps, flowing manes and rings the size of avocado pits.

As a fake Frank Sinatra sings "New York, New York" on the saloon's karaoke system, the group is joined by what might best be described as bounty-hunter groupies--a knot of women who latch onto Burton, a Santa Barbarian before he moved to Florida. Also in the crowd: a former state Assembly candidate, a onetime local beauty queen who became an NRA sharpshooter, and a helicopter pilot from the aborted hostage-rescue attempt of Jimmy Carter's presidency.

Things get really strange, however, when the group moves down the street to the Cattlemen's Restaurant and Saloon--and continues its consumption of distilled and fermented liquids. In one corner, two Marines from the class begin arm wrestling and later remove their shirts to show off tattoos. In another, Ludvigson and several human repo men practice chokeholds on each other.

Burton, clutching a beer, says "this is the wildest class I've ever had," then leads everyone in a sluggish chorus of: "From the halls of Montezuma/to the shores of Tripoli. . ."

Student Rich Kluck, meanwhile, is still laughing about the guy who volunteered for the hit of pepper Mace earlier in the evening: "He should consider another profession. If he'll let someone gas him to see what it feels like, he'll probably let somebody shoot him or stab him to see what that feels like, too. . . . He must be nuts."

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