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Bounty Hunter to Be Tried

Mexican judge says prosecution of the man who captured fugitive should deter others.

June 27, 2003|Daniel Hernandez and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

PUERTO VALLARTA, Mexico — A judge ruled Thursday that bounty hunter Duane "Dog" Chapman must stand trial for unlawfully detaining escaped rapist Andrew Luster, saying he hoped the prosecution would dissuade other Americans from hunting fugitives in Mexico.

"This should serve as [a precedent] to avoid having foreigners come here" without regard for Mexican laws, said Jalisco state Judge Jose de Jesus Pineda, before ordering Chapman, his 25-year-old son, Leland, and his 38-year-old brother, Tim, to stand trial.

Chapman, 50, insisted that he and his cohorts were working on the side of justice when they nabbed Luster last week and had benefited the people of Mexico by apprehending the rapist.

"Someone had to stand up to the plate and we decided to do it," Chapman said in an interview after the hearing. "This is [a] ... rapist, taken down.... Lots of Mexican girls can sleep safely tonight."

Chapman, addressing reporters at a beachside resort, said his current troubles would not end his self-described career as the "world's best bounty hunter."

"I will do it again. We've been doing this for 30 years. That's how I fed [my] babies," Chapman said, wearing a white tunic, black jeans and gilded-toe snakeskin cowboy boots.

Then, as his eyes began to tear, Chapman said: "We stand for justice."

All three men have been released on bail but must remain in Puerto Vallarta while their cases are resolved. Two other men who were with the Chapmans when they tackled Luster at a taco stand -- actor/producer Boris Krutonog, 41, and cameraman Jeff Sells, 35 -- were ordered released when Pineda ruled that they were media professionals and not bounty hunters.

While the charge carries a maximum potential penalty of four years' imprisonment, it is unlikely that Chapman and his companions will see the inside of another Mexican jail cell, as they did for four nights after their arrest. In the Mexican system, defendants convicted of minor crimes, which include unlawful detainment, can opt out of jail time if they pay a hefty fine, prosecutors said. Chapman's lawyer said the defendants would do just that if convicted.

At Thursday's hearing, Pineda dismissed additional charges of criminal conspiracy against all five men -- an action that angered prosecutors. Puerto Vallarta Dist. Atty. Marco Roberto Juarez said he believed that all five men should face trial on both charges. He said he would appeal the judge's decision to the Jalisco State Supreme Court.

"They need to understand that they have to respect the laws of Mexico," Juarez said. "I'm sure he's done this before in this country, because of the way he worked, how he maneuvered."

In an interview in his office, Pineda said the men will be required to report to the court every Monday for the duration of the trial. "The nature of the crime isn't serious, they simply have to report here every week," Pineda said.

The trial, he said, should last two to three months.

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 at his Mussel Shoals beach house and forfeited $1-million bond in January during a break in his trial in Ventura County, where he was charged with drugging and raping three women. He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 124 years in prison.

Chapman tracked down the fugitive last week with the help of an American couple living in Mexico. He then tackled Luster in the early morning, drawing the attention of local authorities and resulting in the arrest of the five men as well as Luster.

Luster's capture hadn't gone off quite as planned, Chapman said Thursday.

"We're not proud of how we did what we did, but we're proud of what we did," Chapman said. "We didn't want this to happen. Now we have to go through this."

Luster was deported to the United States last week and immediately began serving his prison sentence.

At the Chapman family home in Hawaii, the bounty hunter's business partner and longtime companion, Beth Smith, insisted Thursday that Chapman should be praised, not prosecuted.

"I think it is disgraceful," Smith said. "I think it is disgraceful that they are treating him like a criminal. He has dedicated an entire life to the justice system, bringing fugitives back from all over the place. And now he has grabbed somebody that nobody else could get, and now he is a criminal?"

Now, she said the family must live with the uncertainly.

"I'm devastated. His children are devastated," Smith said. "There is a lot of crying and sobbing and screaming."

In Puerto Vallarta, the Chapmans said they are trying to hold it together. Tim Chapman said: "This is a beautiful country. I love it here, but I'd like to go home, of course. I miss my wife."

As he was ending his interview and returning to his room, Duane Chapman tossed a parting quip to reporters.

"This is a terrible way to learn Spanish, but I tell you, we're learning."

Hernandez reported from Mexico and Morin from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Tracy Wilson in Ventura County contributed to this report.

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