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'Dog' Known for Fetching Fugitives

June 19, 2003|Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writer

He's an ex-felon turned muscle-shirted, leather-pants-wearing, born-again Christian bounty hunter. The motto of his Honolulu-based company: "From 18 to 80 Blind crippled or Crazy If they can't walk or crawl we'll Drag Em Back."

Duane Lee Chapman, 50, attempted to do just that to fugitive convicted rapist Andrew Luster early Wednesday morning on a street in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The raucous capture, made even as Chapman urged his girlfriend via cell phone to alert U.S. authorities that he got their man, brought Mexican police to the scene. All participants were tossed into the local jail.

Chapman had headed south of the border a week ago for a shot at a share of the $1-million bail forfeited when Luster bolted from house arrest in Ventura County during his trial in January. Now Chapman may face charges of kidnapping, having nabbed his target in a country where bounty hunting is illegal. He is also getting the cold shoulder from U.S. authorities, who said they have no plans to help him get out of jail or award him any of the forfeited bail.

Whatever the outcome, Wednesday's episode is sure to add to Chapman's lore. After all, five months ago he vowed he would track down Luster. The great-grandson of pioneering Hollywood makeup artist Max Factor, Luster, 39, had eluded federal authorities since jumping bond during a break in his trial on charges of drugging and raping three women.

"I am going to catch him," Chapman told The Times in April. "I am going to bring him in."

In a career that spans more than two decades, Chapman claims 6,000 captures and calls himself "the world's greatest bounty hunter." He says his nickname, Dog, stands for God in reverse.

Chapman says he first worked as a bounty hunter in 1979 after serving 18 months of a five-year sentence in Texas. A leader in a motorcycle gang called the Devil's Disciples, he was convicted for his role in a fatal shooting that took place during a drug deal.

When Chapman was fresh out of jail and owing child support, a judge said he would make a payment toward the debt if Chapman could bring back a fugitive authorities were seeking.

Chapman found his man and was hooked.

When he decided to hunt for Luster this spring, Chapman said that if he succeeded he would ask for $150,000 as a reward plus $20,000 in expenses.

A burly man, with long blond curls and a face like a bloodhound, Chapman found Luster hiding out at a motel.

In May, someone identified only as k.g.ventura posted a missive on Chapman's Web site message board, at

"He is very smart and is hiding somewhere deep but close to the surf!!!!!" said the person, who claimed to know Luster. "He is addicted to the surf remember that!!!!"

Other tipsters had reported Luster sightings from Arkansas to Mexico to Costa Rica to a brothel in Thailand.

Federal authorities said Wednesday the tip that led to Luster's discovery came from an American couple who met Luster on vacation in Puerto Vallarta but only recognized him after returning home and seeing his picture on television. Although the couple shared the information with the FBI, they told Chapman first, authorities said, giving him a jump.

The capture was accomplished with Mace, handcuffs and the help of one of Chapman's 12 children, as well as his brother and agent, said Beth Smith, his longtime partner.

Not known for being media-shy, Chapman also had a cameraman along for the ride. All the men were taken into custody by Mexican police after wrestling Luster into a van and attempting to speed away.

Smith said they have spent tens of thousands of dollars in their search for Luster.

"I think his actions are beyond what I can condone. He was out there apprehending him on his own ... " said Ralph Boelter, assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles division.

Boelter did not thank Chapman, though he credited a long list of people with helping the investigation.

"We will not be acting on his behalf and we will not be assisting him," he said.

Those who have known "Dog" for years say the operation was typical of a man known for his showboat ways.

"If he caught Luster, he's good," said Hawaii Deputy Sheriff Tommy Cayetano, who tracks his state's most wanted criminals for the U.S. Marshals Service fugitive task force. "Everybody was hunting him. It ain't like the marshals got there first."

Cayetano chuckled as he recalled an incident not long after he met Chapman, who moved to Hawaii in the early 1990s. Chapman and some of his employees got in a brawl with a bond jumper that brought local police to the scene.

"All hell broke loose," Cayetano said. "He called me to vouch to the beat cops for who he was."

It is the type of bravado, he said, that many in the law enforcement community do not appreciate.

And although expressing admiration that Chapman made good on his boast, Cayetano said he wasn't shocked to find him in trouble with authorities.

"I was laughing when I told my wife what had happened," he said. "I can give him credit for finding [Luster], but Duane, too bad you're locked up now."

Times staff writers Tracy Wilson and Catherine Saillant contributed to this report.

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