Duane Chapman, sporting gold-tipped rattlesnake-skin boots, stepped out of his rental car and reached for the jangling cellular phone on his hip as if it were a pistol. “Hey,” he growled into the receiver, scanning a wind-swept Santa Monica street from behind dark sunglasses. “I’m in town.”
Chapman snapped the phone shut, lighted a cigarette and waited. He was tracking a man and needed a piece of information. He felt close. So close, in fact, that he believed the speculative venture he had embarked upon weeks earlier could soon turn into a lucrative score.
“I am going to catch him,” he said confidently. “I am going to bring him in.”
Chapman is a bounty hunter and these days his most desired, and elusive, quarry is fugitive rapist Andrew Luster, who skipped town three months ago during a break in his Ventura County Superior Court trial.
Chapman, 50, a leather-clad ex-con who answers to the name Dog, heard about the high-profile case and joined the hunt in hopes of collecting a percentage of Luster’s forfeited $1-million cash bail. But he is not the only hound on the trail.
For the last three months, state and federal authorities have pursued Luster, 39, a former self-employed investor and great-grandson of cosmetics founder Max Factor, after the wealthy scion snipped off an electronic monitoring bracelet and ran.
Eighteen days after Luster fled, jurors found him guilty on 86 criminal counts for drugging and raping three women at his Mussel Shoals beach house. He faces 124 years in state prison if apprehended.
“We are confident we will find him,” said Eric Nishimoto, a spokesman for the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, which is working with the FBI and district attorney’s office in the search. “The problem is, it takes time.”
Detectives have looked in several states, Mexico and the Caribbean, Nishimoto said, but progress has been slow because investigators have had to rely on assistance from other agencies, foreign and domestic, at a time when tracking suspected terrorists is the top priority.
Like the bounty hunter, law enforcement officers say they have uncovered a variety of clues in recent weeks and are waiting for additional information that could give away Luster’s location.
But they have also encountered a frustrating number of red herrings, wacky tips and dead-ends.
One memorable tip came from a drunken bar patron in Montana who called after Luster’s flight was featured on the television show “America’s Most Wanted.” Nishimoto, who was dispatched to Washington, D.C., to watch as the calls came in after the segment aired, said the patron insisted Luster was sitting in the bar.
“Even though we figured, ‘There’s no way,’ the FBI contacted the local police, who went out to the bar to check it out,” Nishimoto said. “A lot of [the leads] are goofy, but we have to check them anyway.”
The search for Luster began Jan. 4, a day after Behavioral Interventions, the company that provided electronic monitoring, noticed that the rape suspect had not returned to his Ocean Avenue home by the hour required under the terms of house arrest.
Investigators with the district attorney’s office and Sheriff’s Department obtained a warrant, kicked in the door and searched Luster’s house. Inside, they noticed that his dog, warm-weather clothes and a collection of Native American artifacts were gone, according to court records and testimony.
While searching for journals or papers indicating possible travel plans, investigators found torn bits of paper, which when pieced together revealed a handwritten personal resume and the names of several countries, including France, Spain, Morocco, Costa Rica and Mexico.
Investigators seized a stack of mail, an address book, cameras and two books, including one titled, “Costa Rica Traveler.”
A week later authorities located Luster’s dog at a family residence in Sonoma. Ten days after that, they found his green Toyota 4-Runner parked on San Vicente Boulevard in Santa Monica.
Nishimoto last week said investigators have attached “zero significance” to the travel book and torn note. He said investigators have obtained at least 25 additional search warrants for Luster’s bank accounts, cellular phone and online accounts and are still waiting for some of those documents to be turned over.
The warrants have been sealed by court order, but investigators have said the records returned so far indicate Luster’s flight was well planned, well financed and involved assistance from other people.
Chapman, the bounty hunter, believes Luster used a fake passport to flee the country, probably within days of leaving Ventura and before a federal warrant was issued for his arrest.
Based on his own investigation -- which has included reviewing phone records and talking to Luster’s friends and relatives -- Chapman also believes Luster may have had plastic surgery and may be getting money from outside sources.
“He is somewhere he thinks the U.S. can’t extradite him,” Chapman said, discussing the search last week during a spin through Southern California.
Chapman, who lives in Hawaii, believes he will be the first to find Luster based on his experience and contacts with people who he said have been unable or unwilling to talk to detectives.
Chapman said he started bounty hunting in 1979. He said it is a career he got into by accident after being paroled from a Texas prison where he served 18 months of a five-year sentence.
Chapman said he was one of several members of a Texas motorcycle gang imprisoned in connection with the fatal shooting of a man they were trying to buy marijuana from. Chapman said he was not present when the shooting occurred.
After his parole, Chapman said, a judge challenged him to bring back a bail jumper. Chapman says he did just that.
Today, Chapman and his longtime partner, Beth Smith, live on the Oahu coast and own two bail-bond companies in Hawaii and Colorado. A tough-talking buxom blond in 4-inch heels and hot-pink fingernails, Smith is the yin to Chapman’s yang. She runs the business. He catches the fugitives. And if one gives him any trouble, she says, “he will make their life a living hell.”
Chapman’s typical prey is a bond jumper wanted on a forgery, burglary or assault charge, and captures usually yield a few thousand dollars, he said. “There is not a lot of money in this,” he said. But bringing in Luster could change that.
When Luster ran, he forfeited $1 million cash, which would become the property of the county if he does not return and have the bail exonerated. If Chapman captures Luster, he intends to petition the court for 15% of the money, or $150,000, plus about $20,000 in costs. He concedes it is a huge risk, but one he is willing to take.
Chapman’s motives are varied. In addition to the potential payout, the bounty hunter has come to believe that Luster did not receive a fair sentence. Chapman hopes to bring Luster in before April 21, the deadline to file a notice of appeal. Luster could lose his right to challenge the conviction if he remains a fugitive.
“Andrew Luster is running for his life,” Chapman said. “If he gets caught, his life is over. And he knows it.”
Chapman admits he used to haul fugitives back across the border from Mexico in the trunk of his car. But he said he now follows extradition rules and will work with law enforcement if he locates Luster outside the country.
As for law enforcement, Ventura County prosecutors and sheriff’s officials are aware that Chapman is pursing Luster and have talked with him about the case. While some suspect Chapman is simply a glory hound, they also wish him luck.
“I applaud his efforts,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Tony Wold, who prosecuted Luster. “All we want is [Luster] back in custody.”