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By W. Knox Richardson

Oahu-based Duane “Dog” Chapman is a walking, talking contradiction as his freewheeling, tough-guy outlaw image belies an enormously big heart. Sporting his trademark, uh, hairdo and his eccentric gangland get-ups, this unabashed self-promoting bounty hunter seeks love more than money and shares his territorial-style aloha like Cupid on Ecstasy. He doesn’t carry a gun and before handing off his captures, he offers them counseling, compassion and a cigarette. But that is Dog today. He wasn’t always such a nice guy.

“When you look at a bounty hunter, you say ‘This is a good guy, or could be a good guy, but you also know this guy’s got a past.” Chapman said. “And that image fits perfectly with me, because I really, really, honestly, am a good guy, but I do have a past.”

As a youth, Chapman was a bad seed. He was a practicing criminal, but, thankfully, one might say, he wasn’t very good at it, being arrested nearly 20 times for robbery. Most everyone knows that Chapman was rightly or wrongly convicted of accessory to murder. He involved himself with sorts of people who carried guns, sought out trouble, and generally found it. He was present at a drug deal gone bad when a man was killed. Under the Texas felony-murder rule, he was lumped in with others and sent up the river. He served his time and in the process found God and became — in the vernacular of the Wild West — a good guy, minus the white hat.

Dog now practices a trade he first discovered as a child, watching Steve McQueen in episodes of “Wanted: Dead or Alive” and Clayton Moore in “The Lone Ranger,” while perfecting his take-down moves in front of a mirror.

“‘Who was that masked stranger,’ I’d ask myself. That’s who I wanted to be,” Chapman said. Nowadays, he tells anyone who will listen he is the best in the business, or at least the most famous of all those who track down fugitives from the law and bring them to justice. He claims more than 6,000 arrests in 25 years and, without a doubt, is the most visible member of his chosen profession.

Fast forward to today. Dog the Bounty Hunter is a bigger-than-life star, the lead cast member in the hit A&E reality TV series of the same name. Just last month, the series debuted in its third season as the cable network’s No. 1 rated program for the second year in a row. The show has propelled Chapman, along with his soon-to-be wife and business partner Beth Smith, and his co-hunters and family, to world-class celebrity status rivaling that of major movie stars, politicians and potentates. At the same time, Dog is far more accessible to fans than most any other celebrity as the world-famous bounty hunter from Hawaii.

“I travel a lot on the mainland and I met ‘the people,’” Chapman said. “I go to K-Mart, right, and Wal-Mart, Target, and then Nordstrom, so I go to all places. And, in each, people come up to me and ask, ‘Hey, Dog, is Hawaii really like that (on the show)? Or ‘Hey, Dog, is Hawaii now in the United States? Can you find United States doctors there?”

But even the great Dog wasn’t sure about Hawaii and the spirit of aloha when he first arrived for a visit in 1989. At the time, Chapman was a speaker for Tony Robbins’ exclusive motivational “Mastery” program, representing someone “bad gone good.”

“Of course, I’d seen the Elvis Presley movies,” Chapman offered. “When I got off the plane and everyone was putting a lei on you, I asked a girl what aloha meant and she said it meant love, hello and goodbye. And then when I was with Tony Robbins for dinner, this brown-skinned guy was serving food and said, ‘Here, brother, take this.’ Brother? After the dinner was over, I met with him and he told me about Hawaiian words, and the history of Hawaii, about Captain Cook and all that happened and I was intrigued.

“After 10 days with Tony Robbins, I called my mother, who was watching my kid, and said, ‘Mom, I just found paradise and we’re moving here,’ and she said, ‘Son, I know you don’t drink, but are you drunk?’” Within a couple years, Chapman had established himself as the most successful bounty hunter in Hawaii. In 1991, he moved his aging parents over from the mainland and they all lived in the Waipuna apartments in Waikiki. Later, he moved them to the Big Island near Kailua-Kona. Now, living here for more than 15 years, Dog considers himself and his family kama‘aina, and doubts he’ll ever move back to the mainland.

“I would never raise my kids on the mainland,” he said. “I feel my children are the most important things in my life and I feel that they are very safe in Hawaii – in school, coming home from school, going out to the bowling alley at night or going to the beach. Being in L.A., just driving by different places we see crime happening constantly. You don’t see that in Hawaii, brother.”

But there is crime in Hawaii, sadly enough. Chapman is on a personal crusade to end the plague of crystal methamphetamine or “ice.” He sees Hawaii crime in different terms than on the mainland, and even though Hawaii is a small state, his job is made much tougher by the omnipresent family-oriented culture.

“It’s easier to find people in the mainland than it is on Hawaii. People may know each other in Hawaii, many are related and it’s harder to turn in a friend or a relative. Where on the mainland, they get turned in faster. In Hawaii, with the mixture of cultures, a lot of people look alike to a lot of people.” In an upcoming episode of his show, Dog tracks down a fugitive who had been on the run in Hawaii for more than 18 months.

“He left Hawaii for Santa Barbara (Calif.) on a Friday and by Wednesday we had him in custody.” But just finding the bad guys isn’t the only difference.

“You know, I’m little dog in Hawaii,” he laughed, “but I am Big Bad Dog on the mainland. I will be walking with some guy here (in Hawaii) and someone will ask, ‘Hey, is Dog your lunch?’ The guys are tougher here, they are bigger, and they hit harder than in LA. In L.A., the bad guys are chronic — if they do 10 push ups, they’d have a massive coronary. In Hawaii, even the maniacs are still in shape.”

“When I make an arrest on the mainland, people ask, ‘Dog, why don’t you carry a gun?’ I tell them we do it Hawaiian style, skin on skin. Hawaiians are tough, brah. They like to throw down.”

Chapman’s mother was half Native American and an evangelical preacher who taught scripture to Navajos on the reservations in New Mexico. He credits her with his spiritual side and his dad, a former navy welder, for his personal strength. His mother’s influence permeates his being to this day. Many stories have portrayed Chapman as a born-again Christian, but Dog takes exception to that label.

“I am not Jewish or Christian or whatever. I am just a believer. I believe in the scriptures. I believe in the bible. If I make a mistake, I repent, like constantly. But I don’t know if I can be labeled a certain faith. The Christians get mad at me because I say, ‘Freeze, Mother F——,’ but I tell them that yelling ‘Freeze in the name of Jesus’ just doesn’t work. So I don’t want to embarrass anyone.”

In 1994, Chapman’s mother passed away and is buried in Hilo “because that is where she wanted to be. She said I want to go from one paradise to the next.” He was hit hard by her passing and easily admits how close he was to her.

“I always had my mother with me, you know, always,” he revealed of himself. “I lost my best friend in the whole world. If it hadn’t been for Hawaii, I would have lost it all.

“When my mom died, I almost slipped back into the criminal world. I was so negative. I was saying, ‘Where’s my mommy.’ I just couldn’t believe it.”

Chapman then said that for years he had known Beth Smith, the daughter of a mid-western baseball professional and a leading Colorado bail bonds professional herself, taking up the trade after first meeting Chapman.

“I had known Beth and then I reached out. I said there was this one girl I know who loves me. So I went back to the mainland for a year and hooked up with her because I just had to have the love. I had dated Beth for many years — for 16 years we’ve known each other and are coming up on 10 years of living together,” Chapman said. Plans are now in the works for a May 20 wedding on Big Island. Stay tuned.

But is Dog a good role model for Hawaiian youth?

“Oh, my god. Listen,” Chapman lamented. “I am trying to quit smoking now and it is the hardest thing in the world for me. I really wish I never had started. And I’ve got to quit because of kids. They’re looking at me. It’s incredible. People are watching me all over the world. You talk about being on parole or probation or whatever — I am on it all. And what if I slip and fall? I don’t want them to slip and fall, too. I am trying as hard as I can but I am human.
“I don’t want to ever let Hawaii down.”

What’s left for the Dog?

“I haven’t met our governor because I’m like…how can I say this: You know how first impressions are everything? Well, I walk up to people and they call the police. Oh, my god, you’re the guy my mother always told me about. But after they get to know me, it’s okay,” Chapman quipped. “In the political world, I am a little bit dangerous. Do we like him, or do we not? I think after I retire I may not be seen as a liability.”

Chapman says his personal heroes are judges, police and lawyers, especially those who go on into elective politics, perhaps an odd mix for ex-felon.

“Senators and congressmen have all this knowledge but they really don’t know what is going on in the criminal justice system. I tell them, look, “ice” is an epidemic. If we treat it like the bubonic plague, we’ll get rid of it. And that intrigues them. I love to meet those people, just to sit down and talk to them.

“I’d like to have a lot of money and be very comfortable, and then maybe run for some kind of office,” Chapman declared. “I’d like to be comfortable because I wouldn’t want to have to steal from my constituents so I could really be helping people. And then there would be no doubt, even in my own mind, as to whether I would take a shady deal or not for a couple ‘mil’ because I’m already set. As I have helped people get fugitives off the street, I think I as get older I’d like to help with (making) laws.

“People, tell me like the old days, lucky we live Hawaii, brother. And you know what? We sure are, especially after I spend a couple weeks on the mainland, and then like today, my god, let’s get home.”

July 2015