FTV: Dog the Bounty Hunter
Having recently read You Can Run But You Can’t Hide (by Duane “Dog” Chapman with Laura Morton – 2007 Hyperion), I couldn’t help but notice the things that Dog Chapman and I have in common. We are both male and were born in 1953. That is it. When his Dog the Bounty Hunter show was in its first run on the A&E channel (2004 to 2012), it was the one reality TV show on at the time that sucked me in, yet I knew little about Duane “Dog” Chapman. I had seen him once on a late night talk show with either David Letterman or Jay Leno (perhaps both) and my impression of him then was, “he must radiate an ‘I am a tough guy’ aura.” The interviewer was clearly intimidated by him. After being asked a question, Dog would simply look at the host (okay, a look from Dog does resemble a ‘glare’) which would illicite nervous laughter from both the host and the audience, but Dog never gave any hint that he was amused. If ‘tough guy looks’ could be bottled, “Dog” Chapman would make the perfect source material to make that magic elixir.
After Dog the Bounty Hunter ran its course, Dog and his wife Beth jumped to CMT for a short run of Dog and Beth: On the Hunt (2012 to 2013). They returned to A&E for a special in 2017 that followed Beth Chapman’s battle with throat cancer (Dog and Beth: The Fight of Their Lives). Since then, they have been conspicuously absent from just about all media outlets. The You Can Run book ends during the third season of Dog the Bounty Hunter, so it took some doing to find out what is new with the Chapman clan. The history Dog supplies about his life up to his first experiences with reality TV could be printed into a self help manual called ‘Don’t Try This At Home’.
Duane Lee Chapman was born in Denver, Colorado on February 3, 1953. The oldest of four children (he has two sisters and a brother), Chapman speaks frankly in his book about his father’s ‘tough love’ way of disciplining him. His mother was deeply involved in the Assembly of God church and he remembers the importance religion played in his early years, especially helping her each summer at Sister Jensen’s Mission in New Mexico . Small in stature, he was bullied in school for being part Native American (his great-grandmother’s name was Cochise and hailed from the Chiricahua-Apache tribe). His Bible toting ways made him a minority but being half Native American got him beat up. He collected his fair share of bumps and bruises from being backhanded by his dad (Wesley by name, nicknamed ‘Flash’ for his fast hands when he boxed) and from fighting at school. His dad did teach him how to box, fish and hunt, but Duane soon grew tired of school, dropping out after seventh grade. As he tells it, “Listening to those kids [call me derogatory names] made my skin crawl. A mighty rush of blood consumed every inch of my body each time those kids taunted or teased me. Sometimes I felt angry, other times ashamed. I knew I didn’t have anything to feel bad about, but it wasn’t easy to take.”
Without school to fill up his time, he set out to become a street punk and one of the first like-minded kids he met on the street introduced him to huffing glue. As the young Duane dabbled in more and more addictive behaviors, his religious upbringing fell to the wayside. He learned what he recalls as, “a thousand ways to break the law,” and supported himself and his habits by stealing anything that wasn’t nailed down. He lied about being underage to become a ‘Prospect’ of the Devil’s Disciples motorcycle gang and continued his rough and tumble ways. Never one to keep his mouth shut when he probably should have, Chapman was bounced out of the Disciples and then allowed to return, but only if he started the grueling ninety day ‘Prospect’ period again.
He made a name for himself while he was a Disciple: being young and small, Chapman made sure he partied, fought, and lived a life of crime harder than any other biker in the gang. They paid for their lavish bikes and hard partying ways by rolling hippies for their drugs and cash, at least until they tried to rip off a radicalized group who were armed to the teeth. It wouldn’t be the last time that Dog Chapman literally dodged a bullet. It was also during this phase that Dog met his first wife, LaFonda.
He eventually left the Disciples but it wasn’t a pleasant parting. Dog escaped with his life only because he was forced to play the ‘Hey, I am underage’ card, something he previously tried to cover up by being the wildest, craziest biker in the gang. Chapman never returned to the gang lifestyle, but he continued to associate with bikers and identify with the biker lifestyle making his attempts to live a more ‘normal’ life extremely difficult. He married LaFonda but continued robbing and stealing to support them. Chapman’s lengthy rap sheet got him classified 1-F for the Vietnam era military draft. Determined to get a fresh start, the newly weds moved to Plainview, Illinois where Duane tried his hand at running a backhoe, making a living by digging septic fields and graves. Chasing women was always one of Dog’s weaknesses (remember, I said LaFonda was his first wife) and he foolishly continued his wild ways even after they were married. LaFonda left him and returned to her home town of Pampa, Texas. Duane soon followed her to Texas and were he would find his life making another radical change. Chapman tried (and failed) at other honest jobs: he couldn’t hack killing cattle at a slaughterhouse and his fear of heights washed him out of the tree trimming business. Desperate to find a job he could stick with, he followed up on a want ad his wife found in the paper: Dog Chapman would become a Bison Vacuum Cleaner salesman. It turned out that Duane “Dog” Chapman was a born salesman and made a decent living selling door to door. The only problem was he had a wife and two children at home to support with his door to door selling job, but he continued living the biker’s life on the side. He had made a promise to God that he wouldn’t join a gang again (and he kept his word by staying away from his previous life of crime), but apparently he hadn’t included the biker lifestyle in his prayer.
When the vacuum job bottomed out, he worked for a time driving truck. On the night of September 16, 1976, he ignored his wife’s plea to not go out on the town with the boys. One thing lead to another and Dog ended up being charged with murder one without ever firing a weapon. Chapman happened to be with four of his drinking buddies when one of them shot and killed an old friend of Dog’s during a botched drug buy. In Texas, being with someone who commits a crime means one will be charged just as if they had committed the crime. Dog Chapman was sentenced to five years of hard time. Imagine the scenes from the most brutal prison movie you have ever watched and it will pale by comparison to Chapman’s story of being in the Texas penitentiary system. He learned how to survive but along the way, LaFonda divorced Dog and ran away with his best friend. By the time he was released (he served 18 months), he was confused, angry, and ready to hunt down his former wife and best friend (and not to wish them a long and happy life).
Chapman’s mother and father took him in. Sensing his anger toward his ex, his mother reminded him that, “God has given you everything; His house, His Son, His Heaven, every blessing and angels, but he won’t give you His Vengeance.” To help her son get his balance, she introduced him to a local Kirby Vacuum Cleaner salesman. Once he got back into the saddle, Dog Chapman was again the supersalesman. He was named ‘salesman of the year’, only to find that the company had been sold. The new CEO had a son, and the son was a good friend of one Jim Darnell – the man Dog’s first wife divorced him for. Boom – no salesman of the year award and no job with Kirby after the new CEO ‘somehow’ found out about Chapman’s prison record. Dog’s life resembled a dance we used to call ‘The Politician’ (one step forward, two steps back, one to the side) and every time hit bottom, he would (eventually) turn to prayer, asking God to show him the path to follow. Like many people of faith, Dog would wander from his path of righteousness, only to be reminded again and again that “God had a plan for me”.
The seed that turned Dog into a bounty hunter was planted back at the Huntsville prison. Dog tackled a distraught prisoner who made a break for it after being told that his mother had died. One of the guards praised the effort with, “Good job, bounty hunter.” The fast talking ‘salesman Dog’ had to explain to the rest of the inmates that the guards would have shot the runner had he not taken him down. Rather than getting a beat down for ‘helping’ the guards, Dog found his stature raised with the other prisoners dropping tokens of esteem (like extra smokes) outside his cell. He actually got his first bounty hunting experience on the outside when an understanding judge made an unusual arrangement for Dog to cover his back child care payments. The judge held up a picture of a wanted bail jumper and told Dog, “If you bring him in, I will apply the bond to your payments and you won’t go to jail for refusing to pay.” Dog played off his street smarts, nabbed the runner and discovered that not only was it a monetarily beneficial arrangement, he also enjoyed the chase.
There were ups and downs in his personal life (wives two, three, and four plus adding more children to his growing brood), more business troubles, and more wavering faith episodes than seems normal for one lifetime. When he finally went into the bail bondsman / bounty hunter business with his latest girlfriend (and future wife #5), the more familiar ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ Chapman image began to emerge. Before he became a reality show fixture, Duane had one more pit to fall into. His fourth wife introduced him to crack and had future wife Beth not intervened, Dog would not have survived long enough to become the more familiar ‘Dog’.
After being pulled back from the brink by Beth, Dog Chapman found himself starting over for the umpteenth time in his life. Life’s road to that point had taken Duane Lee Chapman over more hills and dips than a rollercoaster. He had been a street rat, Devil’s Disciple, vacuum salesman, manual laborer, convict, an ex-con, vacuum salesman (part two), a successful business owner (bail bondsman and bounty hunter), a motivational speaker (working with Tony Robbins), and the owner of a failing business. He was circling the drain faster and faster as a crack addict and it was only a matter of time unless someone tossed him a lifeline. In Dog’s mind, God did him one better and sent him an angel named Beth.
In Part 2 of Dog the Bounty Hunter, we will examine how chasing fame turned into a double edged sword for Duane Lee “Dog” Chapman.
Top Piece Video: The Clash with their take on the classic Bobby Fuller Four track, I Fought the Law