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Bondage & Domination

Denver's bail bondsmen are good at getting other people out of trouble--and themselves into it.

Bounty hunter Duane "Dog" Chapman may be about to retire, but he still looks like a Hell's Angel. His hair is long and blond, and his teeth look like they've been regularly kicked out and then put back in place. His upper canines are as big as fangs, and his skin looks ruddy and sunburned. He wears a leather trench coat and cycling gloves, and he's unfailingly polite to the judges, sheriff's deputies, attorneys and criminals he encounters at Denver's City and County Building.

"From [age] 16 to 22, I broke the law," says Dog, who once pulled a hitch in a Texas prison on an accessory-to-murder charge he still insists was a bum rap. "From '79 to '98, I did not. I had to try both to know for sure."

Now Dog, who's parlayed his colorful past into a burgeoning career as a motivational speaker, has come back home to help his sister, Jolene Martinez, a bail bondsman who toils on Bail Bond Row among the melange of row houses that sit in the shadow of the Denver County Jail. Fanning out for a block north and east of the intersection of Delaware Street and 13th Avenue, this is where the friends and family members of accused criminals come to get the bail bonds that will spring their loved ones.

Martinez opened an office on the row in June and started charging a 10 percent commission on the bonds she wrote. Her neighbors charged 15. They didn't like being undercut and asked her to stop charging below them. She refused. That's when the feud started.

For months, says Martinez, her neighbors verbally harassed her about her signs. But things really got interesting when Dog returned in September. Now the fight on the row has kicked into furious, full-out farce.

"Everybody down there has tried to get along with her," insists rival bondsman Gary Glennon, the proprietor of Around the Clock Bail Bonds. "But as long as Dog is around, she's not going to make much progress. He is the problem. He's pretty good at leveling threats. Just about everyone I know he's given threats to."

This, after all, is Bail Bond Row--home to a panoply of personalities on both sides of the law. This is where, one recent day, an African exchange student busted for drugs tries to explain that in his country hashish is legal; where men just released from jail get into fights with the women who put them in and then got them out; and where bounty hunter Chapman hobnobs with a Hollywood screenwriter in the hope of immortalizing his life story on the big screen. In other words, the seriocomic paranoia on display should be taken with a measure of sympathy--and a grain of salt.

"It's a colorful industry," says John Chanin, an attorney for Martinez. "What might not fly in our law office is part and parcel here. The context is part of the business."

On one side of the war sit Chapman and Martinez. On the other sit the most prominent names in and around Bail Bond Row: Gary Glennon, Mary Ellen Pollack, Dave Widhalm Sr. and his son, Dave "D.J." Widhalm Jr., Mark Spensieri and half a dozen others.

The wild card in the battle is Alice Barmore, a former 15-percenter who switched sides midway through the dispute after she struck up a romance with Dog. Apart from those two romantics, there hasn't been much love lost on the Row.

The trouble started this past June, when Martinez rented an office on the Row at 1305 Delaware Street. Within days, she says, the Pollack family, which owned bond businesses on either side of her, accused her of stealing their walk-in clients right off their porches.

"They said I was worse than a street slut, right to my face," Martinez says. "I didn't know these people. They didn't care until I moved downtown. I didn't realize they had such a power play."

Martinez certainly doesn't look like a woman who might go to war with a block full of competitors. She has the anxious air of a high-school teacher on the first day of class, even as she discusses her enemies' tongue-in-cheek vows to toss Molotov cocktails through her windows. Recently, a mysterious photographer was seen covertly snapping pictures of her place. If it seems like she's overreacting, she says, she has her reasons. In a well-publicized case from the 1980s, Denver bondsman Paul Carpenter was convicted of criminal solicitation when he tried to hire a hitman to kill fellow bondsman George Lucero.

Attorney Chanin doesn't believe there are any hitmen waiting in the wings this time around. Neither does Denver Police detective Jim Wattles, who, at Dog's behest, has been looking into the long line of accusations and threats--even though Dog is the one who seems to keep getting in trouble. "You have to stand back and scratch your head at the pettiness," Wattles says.

Of course, this is the Row, so anything is possible. "You have to take a hard look at the people you're dealing with," says the detective. "People do crazy things when they can't put food on the table."

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