A Dog Gets His Day

Duane Chapman makes his TV debut.

Bounty hunter Duane "Dog" Chapman slips out the front door of his office, which is across the street from Sloan Lake Park, dodges the cars speeding down Sheridan Boulevard and rescues a fellow dog, a large black poodle named Copper. Lost for hours, Copper had roamed onto the street.

When he returns, leading the large animal, one of his employees, Benji (seriously), calls the owner of the animal to pick him up: "Hi, my bounty hunter just collected a dog with your name on it. Well, he almost got hit about seven times..."

Then, Mathilde Bittner, a Los Angeles cable television producer, lowers her camera. "Can you do it again?" she asks. She didn't get the shot. Benji grabs the phone and pretends to make the call one more time.

Just off-camera, Dog stands quietly and smokes. The rescue was an unplanned accident, but good fortune, both for the poodle and the man. Clad in his standard long leather trench coat, black silver-capped boots and black bicycle gloves, with his weathered skin and long unruly blond hair, Chapman looks like he belongs on TV.

Today, as it turns out, he is.

Bittner is in town filming a segment for a program called The Secret World Of... that airs Saturdays on The Learning Channel. Each episode takes viewers inside a world they know little about. Chapman will be profiled on "The Secret World of Bounty Hunters" along with several of his colleagues. After the two-day Denver shoot, Bittner is off to Arkansas to profile a female bounty hunter, then back to L.A. to follow another bounty hunter around, and finally to Sacramento for the final shoot. The episode should air in June.

Bittner found Chapman after reading a series of novels by Janet Evanovich about a New Jersey detective named Stephanie Plum. She ran into Evanovich at a conference and asked her how she'd done her research. Evanovich mentioned Chapman as one of the bounty hunters she'd run into. Bittner and Chapman spoke in January, met in February, and started shooting in March.

"I thought he was a great character," Bittner says, "a great personality. A bounty hunter with heart."

And one with a growing profile. Dog, a master of self-promotion, has been talking about being a star for years, and now he has deals in the works for both a reality-based television program -- à la Cops and a Walker, Texas Ranger-style action drama ("A Row on the Row," August 11, 1999). It's an impressive turnaround for a former Devil's Disciples motorcycle-gang member who once spent time in a Texas prison on an accessory-to-murder charge (a charge he says was unfounded).

But in Hollywood, maybe more than anywhere else, talk is cheap, which may be why an interview last week -- proof that one of his dreams was finally coming true -- intimidated him. Despite bagging some 6,000 fugitives over the years, the camera and the questions about his work, his life, his fears and frustrations made the hunter feel like the hunted. Later on when his girlfriend, Beth Barmore, was interviewed, the old pro got a little teary-eyed. The same when his son, Christopher, explained how much he admired his father. (With a white muscle shirt, close-cropped blond-brown hair and beard, the junior Chapman is the spitting image of his old man, down to his own leather jacket and black steel-tipped boots that lace up a good portion of his legs.)

Of course, a little misty-eye usually plays well for the cameras. Though there was some excitement during the two-day shoot -- the arrest of a local basketball coach and a near accident when the crew filmed Chapman and his son jogging down the street, jumping into their Jeep Cherokee and pulling out in front of an oncoming truck -- for the most part the filming was routine, consisting of mundane exchanges with clerks about mug shots and suspects' addresses (followed always by a CU intern rushing in after each shot with release forms), and long shots of Chapman and Barmore striding seriously down Denver's halls of power.

The afternoon goes pretty smoothly until Dog and Barmore enter the office of the clerk of District Court Judge Frank Martinez, whom Bittner had planned to interview. Dog re-emerges a moment later, clearly frustrated. "They didn't tell him. He's in trial." The clerk is angry, too. "I put the mail in his box," he insists, then heads off the hall carrying a large stack of papers.

They have more luck on the fifth floor with the Denver Sheriff's Department. As Chapman and Barmore try to coax someone into being interviewed for the show, other DSD personnel walk by and ask what's going on. News of the TLC program profiling the famous Dog Chapman draws a frown from officer Shane Grannum, who is part of a two-man crew that has captured 500 fugitives in the last two years -- a similar line of work as Dog.

"I ain't never heard of this fool," Grannum says.

Neither has Deputy Sheriff Doug Samsow, who says for the cameras, "I do not envy the job of a bounty hunter. They probably don't have the capacity for backup," and then, after he has signed his release, comments, "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit."

 
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