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Bounty Hunter Faces Judgment in Mexico

American who captured fugitive rapist Andrew Luster could get four years in prison.

June 26, 2003|Daniel Hernandez and Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico — Duane Lee "Dog" Chapman -- a hero to some in the United States for being the can-do bounty hunter who beat the FBI to fugitive rapist Andrew Luster -- faces a judge here today on charges that could send him to prison for more than four years.

In the court of Mexican opinion, the actions of Chapman and four associates charged alongside the self-proclaimed "world's best" at his job are seen as violations of national sovereignty. The men could join a growing list of Americans who serve sentences in foreign jails for acts viewed by local officials as vigilante justice.

Mexican authorities argue the only way to keep order is to send a strong signal of the repercussions to anyone thinking of trying the same.

Marco Roberto Juarez, the Puerto Vallarta district attorney who will present the state's case today, said he understands the sympathy for Chapman felt among his fans in the United States, but said "the law is the law."

"The problem is that what they did is not legal here," Juarez said Wednesday. "It could be, if they had let the authorities know. [But] I wouldn't be able to go to the United States to look for a Mexican delinquent and not announce myself to the authorities. They'd throw me in San Quentin."

Juarez said he has not decided whether to seek the maximum sentence for Chapman, 50, his son Leland Chapman, 25, his brother Tim Chapman, 38, actor and television producer Boris Krutonog, 41, and cameraman Jeff Sells, 35.

The men were charged Friday with criminal association and illegal deprivation of liberty and have been out on bail. Under Mexican law, prison sentences range from one to four years for criminal association and one month to four years for depriving Luster of his liberty.

The matter of bounty hunting on Mexican soil has been the subject of intense feeling for more than a decade, brought to the forefront by the 1990 kidnapping of a Mexican citizen wanted in the United States for keeping alive a Drug Enforcement Administration agent during his torture by drug dealers.

The mutilated body of Enrique Camarena Salazar was found several weeks after his abduction in Mexico in February 1985.

In an operation run by a DEA operative, Dr. Humberto Alvarez Machain was abducted from Guadalajara, Mexico, and flown back to the United States to face trial for his alleged role in Camarena's slaying.

The capture, carried out by a team of Mexicans working with the DEA informant, created an international incident. Mexican authorities demanded the extradition of a DEA agent involved, a request refused by the United States.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually heard the Alvarez case. It considered the question of whether a fugitive captured illegally could still be forced to face trial.

In a 6-3 ruling, the justices decided in 1992 that the U.S. government could kidnap individuals on foreign soil and prosecute despite objections from that nation.

The decision alarmed Canadian and Mexican leaders, despite assurances from federal agencies that their policy was to work within existing international treaties, not to support foreign kidnappings.

Since then, numerous bounty hunters who have crossed into Canada or Mexico have been convicted of kidnapping and served time.

"The thing about it is bounty hunters have no immunity from prosecution if they go into another country and try to kidnap somebody," said Paul Hoffman, Alvarez's lead attorney, who successfully argued this month in federal appeals court for his client's right to sue the U.S. government for damages in his kidnapping.

Alvarez was acquitted of murder charges in 1992.

"The basic principle is that sovereign states have the right to control who comes into their country and what they do in it," Hoffman said.

Chapman had boasted to reporters since April that he would be the one to find Luster, the great-grandson of cosmetics legend Max Factor. Luster fled house arrest and forfeited $1-million bond in January during a break in his trial, where he was charged with drugging and raping three women.

Chapman tracked the fugitive last week with the help of an American couple living in Mexico. He then tackled Luster outside a taco stand in Puerto Vallarta in the early morning, drawing the attention of local authorities, and resulting in the arrests of the five men.

Juarez said local prosecutors believe it was not the first time Chapman had come to the region to search for fugitives.

And when Chapman and his crew were first caught, Juarez said, they smiled for news photographers and acted like heroes. To Mexican law enforcement officials, he said, they gave off the air that "they would be free quickly."

As it became increasingly clear that Chapman wasn't getting out of their hands soon, his manner with officials has become more serious.

"When we took them to the penitentiary, I saw him and he was near tears," Juarez said.

Chapman's case has been front-page news in the local papers here. In one tabloid, El Sol, a screaming headline read, "All Five Are Charged!"

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