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Duane ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ Chapman is hunting alone

  • TRENT DAVIS BAILEY/THE NEW YORK TIMES / 2019
                                Dog the Bounty Hunter at his home in Castle Rock, Colo. “I need the attention. I wake up every day and say, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the baddest bounty hunter of them all?,’” he said. “I need love.”

    TRENT DAVIS BAILEY/THE NEW YORK TIMES / 2019

    Dog the Bounty Hunter at his home in Castle Rock, Colo. “I need the attention. I wake up every day and say, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the baddest bounty hunter of them all?,’” he said. “I need love.”

  • TRENT DAVIS BAILEY/THE NEW YORK TIMES / 2019
                                Dog the Bounty Hunter at his home in Castle Rock, Colo. “I need the attention. I wake up every day and say, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the baddest bounty hunter of them all?,’” he said. “I need love.”

    TRENT DAVIS BAILEY/THE NEW YORK TIMES / 2019

    Dog the Bounty Hunter at his home in Castle Rock, Colo. “I need the attention. I wake up every day and say, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the baddest bounty hunter of them all?,’” he said. “I need love.”

PINE, COLO. >> In September, three months after the death of his wife, Dog the Bounty Hunter was angling under the Colorado sun at a trout pond in the backwoods of the Rocky Mountains.

The pond was close enough to the highway that trucks mashing down Route 285 would roll down their windows to yell his name. To each passerby, he flashed the shaka.

Dog says he has 12 children, 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He also says he has had four wives, been convicted of robbery 18 times and captured 10,000 fugitives. And he claims God promised to make him famous.

“I need the attention. I wake up every day and say, ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the baddest bounty hunter of them all?,’” he said, with a conspiratorial arched eyebrow before turning serious: “I need love.”

With the pompadour-mullet, jailhouse tats and beet-red tanned skin — lots of it — the only thing missing is the theme song.

Families pulled their minivans over and ran out to greet him. A woman with a graying ponytail and vodka on her breath sidled up as well. “I just want to say I’m praying for you and Beth,” she said, as if consoling an old friend.

Dog squirted fake cheese onto a Triscuit and ate it, then lit another menthol Marlboro and eyed a pickup truck creeping into the parking lot. It’s not all love, he said: “I’m tested once a week, guys looking to see how tough the Dog is. That’s what the Taser is for.”

Behind his wraparound Oakley sunglasses, his blue eyes are marked by deep circles. A cloud of nervous energy comes and goes like a storm. He is 66 and alone for the first time in decades. He is now also without a television contract.

“This is the big moment,” he said, when asked what’s next. “That’s the big question.”

Suddenly, there was a strike on the line. But when Dog lifted his rod from the water, the hook was bare.

The next bite wouldn’t be until hours later, after a Safeway run for supermarket sushi. Back at the lake, Dog finally caught a foot-long trout. Blowing minty smoke, he cackled and reached into the shopping bag. “Want a piece of my spider roll?” he asked, and grinned.

Back in 2004, Duane Chapman, known as Dog, hot-wired a reality revolution with “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” Riding shotgun with his family of bickering bounty hunters, many of whom had done time themselves, viewers were pulled along on fugitive chases as Dog led his crew in pursuit of those who had broken the terms of their bail agreements.

The popular show, broadcast on A&E, spurred what was called a wave of “redneck reality,” bringing America hit shows like “Duck Dynasty” and “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” It lasted eight seasons.

Spinoffs and three years on Country Music Channel followed, but nothing matched his success at A&E. Last year, he returned to television once again with “Dog’s Most Wanted,” on WGN America. In it, Dog and Beth Chapman continued to chase fugitives.

This time, she had a diagnosis of throat cancer. So the show became about her last days riding with “Big Poppa,” as she called him. She tried chemotherapy multiple times and quit. “I want to die in my boots,” she said in the first episode. In June, as shown in the season finale, at age 51, she did.

“Beth was adamant, she wanted everything filmed,” said Matt Asmus, the showrunner. “If anyone wanted the camera turned off, it was Dog.”

Throughout the season, as Beth Chapman loses hair and weight, Dog and his posse continue to slice through the heartland, quoting the good book and catching crooks. But as she begins to slip away, falling into a coma before being taken off life support, Dog’s grip on reality becomes more tenuous in his grief.

“I don’t want to live,” he says after her death, eyeing her pill bottles. The season’s end shows a broken man — the opposite of the hero that Dog spent years building on screen.

After Beth Chapman’s death, Dog had a pulmonary embolism. Testosterone supplements had thickened his blood, Dog suspects. He checked himself out of the hospital against advice, pushing “an orderly up against a wall because he wouldn’t let me leave,” he said. “They couldn’t stop me.”

Dr. Mehmet Oz, the doctor and TV personality, flew to Colorado for an intervention.

“Does Dog want to live or not?” Dr. Oz told me. “Dog told me a dream where Beth said, ‘Big Daddy, what took you so long? Maybe she’s waiting, what am I living for?’”

Dog said he has now been chewing ice cubes to lose weight. His 5-foot-7 frame is down to 187 pounds. He is smoking only two packs a day, placing disposable filters on his cigarettes.

But sunblock and quitting tanning salons aren’t happening; neither are prescription glasses. Eating and sleeping well are still issues for him — so is gout — and what he really wants to do is write another book, this one about Beth Chapman, he said. And he has plans for a new show.

He is working on a pardon from the state of Texas, which could help him realize a boyhood dream: becoming Sheriff Dog. (In 1976, a failed drug deal led to Dog’s murder conviction. Dog says he didn’t pull the trigger — he was in the car — but, according to Texas law, he was an accessory.) He would be a real sheriff, in a real town that needs cleaning up, he said.

Of course, it could be filmed. “I think it’d be a hit,” he said.

At the Fort, an old adobe restaurant with thick bison steaks, Dog’s wolf ringtone kept howling as his publicist called repeatedly. It was the first day of the president’s impeachment inquiry but what was on his mind was TMZ, which was showing an advance clip of Dog’s appearance on Dr. Oz’s show with the headline “Ticking Time Bomb.”

“Ticking time bomb,” Dog repeated while on the phone with his bounty hunting partner David Robinson, discussing plans to hunt down a fugitive from Hawaii. “Biggest bond I’ve ever written,” he said, picking at his quail.

Dog said he would have to pay $1.5 million if he couldn’t catch the person accused of dealing drugs, who had fled to California.

He needs the money, he said. “I’m broke,” he said. Years of medical bills and being the patriarch of a sprawling family took a heavy toll. If he doesn’t get his man, he said, the bank will take his Colorado home.

“I can go,” Dog told his partner. “I’m three hours away, David. Just got a blood clot, that’s all.”

“You’re on the medication, right?” Robinson said.

“Yeah,” Dog said. “TMZ burned me tonight, I’m on my last leg.”

“How’d they find out?” Robinson said.

“Rats,” Dog said. “We live in a rat world — ask Trump.”

Dog will not say who he voted for, but he did attend President Donald Trump’s inauguration. He said it did not matter to him who is in the White House. “I feel an allegiance,” he said. “I think Michelle Obama would make a great president.”

His other political opinions include: Teachers should be armed to protect students, and he is open to same-sex marriage and freedom of religion — he wears a skullcap for Shabbat dinners with Marty Singer, an entertainment lawyer.

“I rarely socialize with my clients,” said Singer, who calls Dog a great friend and “as honest as they come — sometimes too honest.”

Singer is also worried.

“Dog’s very lonely,” said Amy Weiss, Dog’s manager at Brillstein Entertainment. “I was there at many points in the hospital with him and it was very difficult. He’s lost, but he knows he must go on and provide for his family.”

“The irony is,” Oz said, “he’s a man who everyone relies on for advice. He was crutching so much on Beth — how are you going to show up in your own life?”

When Dog’s mother died in 1995, he spent a year smoking crack, he said. Then he sobered up and started dating Beth. They had met in 1986 when he posted her bond after she shoplifted a lemon.

They finally married in 2006 — we saw it in Season 3 of “Dog the Bounty Hunter.” Drama became a Chapman family industry. There were public family disputes and IRS fines for back taxes.

On the eve of the wedding, Dog’s daughter Barbara died in a stolen car in Alaska. Months later, marshals stormed his Hawaii home, leading Dog out in handcuffs — a result of a Mexican extradition case against him, eventually thrown out.

The drama with the most enduring impact began when his son Tucker sold recordings to the National Enquirer of Dog using a racist slur. Friends like Snoop Dogg and pastor Tim Storey stuck by him, but his book “You Can Run but You Can’t Hide” was pulled from stores. Licensing deals crashed. A&E put his show on hiatus. Dog apologized on Larry King and Sean Hannity.

With the distance of a dozen years, Dog is quick to explain that he came up in the jail system. “I thought I had a pass,” he said, repeating a claim that his mother is Native American. “It was a word I grew up using. I was wrong.”

“I’ll never be forgiven for that one,” he said. “Some people form an opinion of me that I can’t change, but you’ve talked to me and I’m not a racist.” He listed the charities and churches he has visited across the country and said he himself was a poster-boy image of second chances. “That’s something nobody wants to talk about, people just want to focus on the negatives,” he said.

The movement opposing bail as part of a predatory prison funnel system that disproportionately affects the poor and people of color has strengthened in the last decade. Meanwhile, in early 2016, Beth Chapman was elected president of the Professional Bail Agents Association, which opposes bail and bond reform.

Dog agreed that the American legal system is particularly hard on black people. “Things could change for the better,” he said, adding that committing crimes is a choice but that nonviolent offenders should not be forced to post bond.

“I am the prime example of the system: The bail bond system, the legal system, of crime,” he said. “I’m a second chance. Guys who don’t have job hopes when they get out, why do you think they go back to what they were doing before they were convicted? If I can change, anyone can. But it’s going to be a lot harder now without Beth, that’s for sure.”

At a P.F. Chang’s the next day, dressed in a deerskin shirt and knee-high moccasins, Dog laid out his strategy for his newest fugitive’s bond. “Because of my health, Beth’s passing, I’m going to get an extension. I have to catch the bastard.” He laughed. “I love it.”

(The judge, acknowledging his health issues, would grant the extension. The pressure would be off, for now. But the house was still on the line. Even with no cameras rolling, he still had work to do.)

“I got out of prison Feb. 6, 1979. That’s 40 years,” Dog said. “They said, ‘You can’t even get a driver’s license, you’ll have nothing.’ I looked in the mirror to shave and heard my dad saying, ‘Burn your birth certificate, I wish you were never born.’ I said: ‘I’m going to change and be the best at whatever I do in the world.’”

A woman came up and asked for a photo. Dog lowered his sunglasses for the selfie as the check came with a tray of fortune cookies. “You’re not allowed to choose your own fortune,” the waiter said.

Dog ignored the rules and then read his fortune: “You will pass a big upcoming test.” He laughed hard, before coughing. His face got redder and redder, but then he smiled. “I better,” he said.

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