Inside Duane Chapman’s New Reality TV Series: Dog the Bounty Hunter
Photos: Ronen Zilberman/A&E Network
One Friday last March, Duane Chapman, aka Dog the Bounty Hunter, stood in the Kona office of Da Kine Bail Bonds, listening intently as his son Leland described the afternoon’s quarry: a 27-year-old guy from the rural, ice-plagued town of Pahala with two fresh warrants out for his arrest.
Leland, who runs the Big Island branch of the Honolulu-based bail bonding agency, had posted $4,000 to free the guy from jail after he was arrested for a drug offense. But the guy kept missing his court dates, and the judge got fed up and issued the warrants. Dog planned to find the guy and haul him back to jail to protect Da Kine from forfeiting the bail to the court.
For Dog, who claims to have captured more than 6,000 fugitives in his 25 years of bounty hunting, this could have been just another day at the office. But as the microphone over his head and the lens in his face revealed, it wasn’t-Dog the Bounty Hunter, it turned out, had become Dog the Star of His Very Own Reality-TV Series.
Shot last spring and summer on O’ahu, Maui, Hawai’i and the Mainland, the series premiered Aug. 31 on The A&E Network.
Entitled Dog the Bounty Hunter, it features Dog and his wife, Beth Smith, as they go after wayward clients of their various bail-bonding agencies. The couple jointly own Da Kine Bail Bonds, and Beth solely owns several other bail companies in Colorado. Together the businesses generate ample demand for the services of a man who calls himself "The World’s Greatest Bounty Hunter," as well as plenty of fodder for his TV series. Also appearing in the show are Dog’s foot soldiers: his long-time bounty-hunting buddy, Tim Chapman (no relation), 38; his new-to-the-business nephew from Hilo, Justin Bihag, 21; and Leland, 25, one of his 12 children.
Tim and Justin flanked Dog as he leaned over the Pähala guy’s file and asked Leland questions, while Beth hovered nearby. All four men had sleeveless shirts, bulging biceps and crazy hairstyles, and all four steadfastly ignored the cameraman and boom-microphone operator shuffling around the desk.
More than just a tropically flavored vigilante version of Cops, the show aims to provide a true account of the life and work of Dog and Beth.
"We want people to feel they’ve walked in the shoes of these really extraordinary, larger-than-life people," said David Houts, one of the producers.
Houts and his cameras were shadowing Dog everywhere: at the gym, out to eat, seeing the dentist, at home getting the kids ready for school (Dog and Beth have three together).
Houts was also getting plenty of footage of Dog slapping handcuffs on skips, as a bail agency’s problem clients are known. And Houts was capturing Dog doing what he always does while driving his skips back to jail: encouraging them to turn their lives around. As both an ex-con and a former motivational speaker, Dog can whip out a mean inspirational talk on walking the straight and narrow.
To Houts’ amazement, all of the skips Dog had been catching were signing the release forms Houts handed them, granting permission to use their images for the show.
"It’s just one of those remarkable things that happen," said Houts, standing outside Da Kine’s office on the länai. "Everybody just expects to have their moment on TV."
During a break, Dog joined Houts in the sunshine and lit a cigarette. He wore a black muscle shirt beneath a black fishnet top, black bicycle gloves, black jeans and black snakeskin boots with silver tips. His signature blond hairdo, a well-tended pompadour-mullet hybrid, framed a ruddy, weathered face, which has clearly seen its share of flying fists.
He’s always known, he says, that he was destined for stardom. As a child he began practicing his autograph soon after he learned to write, certain that someday someone would want it. For most of his 50 years, good penmanship was about all he had to show for this dream. But Dog’s day did come, and now he’s hobnobbing with stars such as Ozzy Osbourne, who recently agreed to do the music for Dog’s show.
"We just had a private lü’au with Ozzy’s family and my family at the Kähala Mandarin," Dog volunteered with undissembling enthusiasm. "We had a ball. I’ve been on The Sharon Osbourne Show, and we’re going to be on Ozzy and Sharon’s show because they filmed the lü’au. Sharon’s brother David is teaching me Hollywood style. It’s a completely different world. You gotta watch what you say. I can’t just say something off the wall. I’ve got to think before I say it, because a lot of lives could be influenced by my mouth. I’m a runneth-thy-mouth kind of guy, but now I have to choose my words carefully, you know, so not to offend anybody or any ethnical group."
While Dog has appeared on TV several times over the past decade, the turning point for his media persona came in the summer of 2003, when he captured fugitive rapist Andrew Luster, great-grandson of cosmetics magnate Max Factor and heir to the family fortune.
Duane “Dog” Chapman with Leland Chapman (far left) and Justin Bihag (center), in scenes from the upcoming reality show, Dog the Bounty Hunter.
Luster was accused of incapacitating women with the date-rape drug GHB, raping them and videotaping the assaults at his California beachside home. In one tape played during his trial, Luster can be seen having sex with an apparently unconscious woman and declaring to the camera, "That’s exactly what I like in my room-a passed out, beautiful girl." During a recess, Luster skipped town and disappeared. He was convicted in absentia and given a 124-year sentence.
Envisioning a hefty cut of Luster’s forfeited million-dollar bond, not to mention the gold mine in publicity such a high-profile grab would bring, Dog put himself on the case. He tracked Luster to Mexico, thanks to a tip from someone who saw Dog on Fox News taunting his target: "Run, Luster, run," Dog had said.
Dog, Leland and Tim found Luster leaving a Puerta Vallarta nightclub in the wee hours of the morning and pounced on him when he stopped at a taco stand for a late-night snack.
Luster was deported the next day and is now serving his time. But there was a hitch: bounty hunting is not legal in Mexico, and Dog and his entourage wound up behind bars themselves. When Dog got out on bail, he fled the country, where he is now a fugitive.
Dog said he left Mexico in fear for his life. "The Mexican government came and told us that there was some Luster money on the streets for a hit," Dog explained. "They came and told us ’We protected you for three weeks, and we can’t protect you any longer.’"
As if the sheer ignominy of jumping bail weren’t bad enough, the judge from the Luster trial then denied Dog the cut of the million-dollar bond he believed he was due. Still, the sensational case got Hollywood’s attention. Soon Dog was negotiating a television series with both CBS and A&E, ultimately signing a deal with the cable network to shoot 12 half-hour episodes. Six additional episodes were later added to the first season, and a second season was ordered.
As Dog smoked, he reflected on what it’s like to be a real-life television action hero.
"The nice thing is that with a lot of fugitives I’ve caught in the past, I’d think afterward ’I wish the cameras would have been there,’" he said. "Now I turn around and there they are!"
He snubbed out his cigarette and went back inside to resume the briefing. Then everyone broke for lunch.
On the short ride to the restaurant, Dog and Beth fielded at least a half- dozen calls from bail clients making their mandatory daily check-ins. They blew up at each other twice and made up immediately afterward, cooing like puppy-love-struck teenagers. Then, slipping a tape into the tape deck, they sang along with a Bob Seger song, "Shakedown."
Shake down, break down, take down
Everybody wants into the crowded light
Break down, take down, you’re busted
Let down your guard honey
Just about the time you’re thinkin’ it’s all right
Break down, take down, you’re busted
Dog Chapman and his wife, Beth Smith.
Dog and Beth always listen to music before setting out to capture someone, assigning each skip a theme song (Andrew Luster’s was Eminem’s "Lose Yourself").
"That’s our Tony Robbins training," said Beth, who wore black stilettos, denim shorts, a jeweled-handcuffs necklace and a big blond hairdo to rival her husband’s.
"Tony calls it getting in state," said Dog, gunning his SUV rental down Mamalahoa Highway. "You gotta be in state. Like a boxer. Music puts you instantly in state."
Dog’s relationship with self-help guru Tony Robbins goes back to the early 1980s. He recalls a friend telling him, "’You gotta meet this guy, Dog. He talks just like you, only he uses better words.’" They met, and Robbins was so impressed with the story of bad Dog gone good that he included it in his book, Awaken the Giant Within. He also invited Dog to join the stable of inspirational speakers touring with him.
"It was Norman Schwarzkopf, the Jarvik heart lady, Kathy Buckley, the deaf comedian, and me," Dog said.
When Dog toured Hawai’i with Robbins in 1989, he fell in love with the place. "I heard all these new words for the first time, like mana and ’aina and aloha. My mom was half Native American, and those Hawaiian ideas really meant something to me," he said. He and Beth came to stay in 1991.
In the lobby of the restaurant, Dog and Beth converged with the posse and the TV crew. A cook, who popped out of the kitchen to size up the large party, recognized Dog from the news coverage of his Mexican misadventure.
"Hey, I saw you in jail in Mexico," the cook said. "You did the right thing."
"Thank you, my brother," Dog said warmly.
At the table, Dog ordered a cheeseburger, then stepped out to the street to smoke and talk about his early years: He was a happy, spoiled little baby boomer raised in Denver and Phoenix and weaned on 1950s TV Westerns, such as The Lone Ranger, Sky King, and-this one’s a biggie-The Bounty Hunter, starring Steve McQueen.
"TV had a huge influence on me," Dog said. "I always dressed up like the hero. I wore like the Lone Ranger mask and the Lone Ranger gloves. I never wanted to be the bad guy as a kid. I was always the guy who fought the guy who screwed people around."
Beth and Dog in the Da Kine Bail Bonds office. right Justin Bihag, Dog Chapman and Leland Chapman.
In addition to the crime-fighting values he soaked up in front of the tube, his mother, an Assembly of God preacher, filled him with the evangelical Christian fervor. Nonetheless, in his teens, Dog veered from the path of Truth, Justice and Eternal Life to become a prolific juvenile offender. At the age of 16 he ran off with a motorcycle gang called the Devil’s Disciples, extending his criminal range from Arizona to Chicago. At age 22, his years of biker mayhem ended abruptly when a marijuana buy went bad and one of his Disciple brethren fired a shotgun at a man’s chest. Dog was convicted as an accessory to murder and sentenced to five years in a Texas penitentiary.
When he emerged from prison on parole 18 months later, he swore he would stay out of trouble. Before he knew it, though, he was standing before a judge again, this time for the unpaid child support that had accrued while he was locked up. The judge offered him an unusual deal: Catch a certain bail jumper, and the judge would make one of the child support payments himself. Dog caught the guy and delivered him to the judge, tied up with Dog’s own belt.
The judge came up with a few more assignments, and Dog soon realized that bounty hunting was a good fit: "Bounty hunters are like bikers and cops, all rolled up into one," as he puts it.
After lunch, Dog and his entourage set off for Pähala in a three-vehicle rental-car convoy. Leland’s informant had spotted the skip’s truck parked at his parents’ house for the past few days, so there was a good chance he’d be there. If he was, it was anyone’s guess as to whether he would fight, run or go back to jail willingly.
Holding down the tail end of the convoy was a minivan driven by Russian-born Boris Krutonog, another of the show’s producers. Krutonog is also an actor who’s appeared in movies such as The Italian Job and The Hunt for Red October. Back in the mid-1990s, when his acting career was bogged down in bit parts on TV shows, he decided to branch off into producing. He bought a stack of books to prepare himself, and the first one he cracked was Awaken the Giant Within, where he discovered Dog.
That’s a great American hero right there, he thought.
Krutonog found Dog, bought the rights to his life story and became, as he describes himself, "Dog’s consigliere to Hollywood." He’s brokered most of Dog’s TV appearances, which have included America’s Most Wanted, At Large With Geraldo Rivera and even Hollywood Squares.
In his decade-long association with Dog, he has found both personal and professional fulfillment. He’s also experienced a personal low: Mexican jail, where he sat with Dog, Leland, Tim and a cameraman at the end of the Luster affair.
"Dog is the poet-warrior," Krutonog said. "He floats in a different dimension-the dimension of spirituality and soul and beauty. He has not been blocked by his time in prison or the world he works in. It’s a rough business-you’re constantly surrounded by people who lie and cheat-but he hasn’t grown cold because of it. In a certain aspect, he never really grew up."
Beth and Dog in the Da Kine Bail Bonds office.
The convoy stops beneath a canopy of trees outside Pähala, and the cameras record Dog and his posse donning bullet-proof vests, grabbing handcuffs, shackles and giant canisters of pepper spray, their only weapons. Beth changes from high heels to sneakers. Mosquitoes swarm the group, and Dog fires a burst of pepper spray to scatter them, sending his entourage scattering and cursing, as well. A few people drive by, eyeballing the strange assembly, but nobody looks inclined to stop and inquire. Once everyone has geared up, the convoy sets off.
Krutonog’s minivan rolls in front of the skip’s house just a Beth approaches the guy’s parents, eating chicken and rice from paper plates in their driveway. As she casually inquires about the skip, Dog and his posse creep down the street as stealthily as four big haole guys with crazy haircuts, Kevlar vests and a TV crew can manage.
At first the guy’s father says he hadn’t seen his son for a month, but once Dog appears he says that his son is at a nearby home, offering to lead the way. The guy’s mother suddenly starts wailing, "They’re going to kill him, they’re going to kill him!"
The father shushes her, then leads Dog to a house two lots away. One cameraman follows Dog and the other, accompanied by Houts with the boom microphone., cuts through the side yard of the next-door neighbor’s house.
When the cameras and bounty hunters are out of sight, the skip slips out of the next-door neighbor’s house and tries to sneak off.
But he isn’t quite sneaky enough.
"Stay right there!" Beth shouts.
The skip suddenly finds himself trapped in the front yard between Justin and Beth.
"Get down on the ground!" Beth yells, index finger extended and thumb raised, as though she held a play gun.
Houts and his cameraman rush out of the backyard. Beth continues ordering the guy to the ground and Justin threatens to pound him out if he doesn’t comply.
"Get down on the ground!" Beth yells, brandishing her finger gun.
The camera pans back and forth between her and the guy, who looks like he’s about to make a break for it.
Justin Bihag, Dog Chapman and Leland Chapman.
"Get down on the ground!"
Finally, the skip sinks to his knees, then flops onto his belly in the grass.
Dog and the others come tearing into the front yard. Dog kneels on the guy’s back and cuffs him. The father, still carrying his plate of chicken and rice, walks over shaking his head.
Dog loads the guy into the SUV and drives him to the Ka’ü police station. "This is the first day of the rest of your life," he tells him on the way. Once the skip is in police custody, Houts went in with the release form, which the skip signs without question.
Out in the parking lot, the bounty hunters celebrate and provide post-game wrap-up for the cameras. "We’re cleaning up Hawai’i slowly every day," Dog concludes.
A Kona resident named Shanna, who’s waiting at the police station to recover stolen property, lets her pet Chihuahua-silky mix out of the bag she carries him in and playfully orders him to attack Dog. Dog drops to the ground and hams it up with the animal. "Dog on dog," he says.
Dog doesn’t recognize Shanna, but she knows him. Some 20 years earlier he had bailed her daughter out of jail; more recently Leland had bailed out her son. She had followed Dog’s Mexico exploits with keen interest, and she has even pointed him out to her son as a model of what he could do with his life.
"He looks like a rascal on TV, but in real life he’s so polite," she says. "And his wife, she’s just so sweet."
Krutonog hangs in the background, trying to stay out of the shots. He’s happy with how things had gone today: an exciting bust and good TV. He is feeling optimistic about Dog the Bounty Hunter. The show has potential, he says, to help troubled people lead better lives.
"The hope is that the show will appeal to people who are walking that line between being good and being bad-that people will see that you can do the right thing, that you can have a family and have a happy life," Krutonog said. "And yes, that you can even have a television show."