The Tragedy Of Dog The Bounty Hunter Explained

In the early days of 2000s reality TV, one outspoken, unforgettable character entertained millions of viewers by bringing real, wanted criminals to justice — but Dog the Bounty Hunter arrived on the scene after surviving numerous tragedies. Dog, otherwise known as Duane Chapman, starred on several shows, notably A&E's "Dog the Bounty Hunter." Chapman relentlessly tracked down and apprehended a stunning number of bail jumpers, wanted criminals, and others in exchange for a cash reward. He also received a fair amount of hero worship from his viewers, who loved the gruff, no-nonsense, unfiltered musings of a man who had seen a lot of life and a lot of darkness.

Chapman's personal life, before "Dog the Bounty Hunter" was in production as well as during and after, was just as gritty and as fraught with peril, crime, and seediness as those of the people he brought to justice. The tangled life of Dog the Bounty Hunter is one characterized by tragedy, and here are the saddest and most difficult things the world's most famous manhunter ever had to endure.

His criminal past haunted him

At age 13, Duane Chapman quit school and joined a motorcycle gang. Chapman would eventually be convicted of robbery charges on 18 separate occasions. In the late '70s, he landed in prison on a first-degree murder charge. "My brothers — motorcycle gang members — and I pulled up to a house, [and] one of my brothers went in to score some pot," Chapman told "Profiles." He heard gunfire, and his friend returned to the car, shot. Chapman took him to a hospital, returned to the scene of the crime, and discovered that his friend Jerry Oliver had been shot, too, but seemed stable. Oliver died overnight, and a manhunt for Chapman ensued. Texas law at the time didn't allow for a reduced charge as an accessory, so Chapman was convicted of murder and served 18 months of a five-year prison sentence. Upon his release, he swore off crime. "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,'" Chapman recalled to The New York Times.

Chapman regrets the events that led to Oliver's death. "I should not have been there, that's that," Chapman told The Guardian in 2012 when the conviction disallowed him from entering the U.K. to participate in "Celebrity Big Brother."

The mother of his first and estranged child died by suicide

As a teenager in Colorado in the 1970s, Duane Chapman carried on a relationship with a woman named Debbie White. At the same time, Chapman dated LaFonda Sue Honeycutt, whom he'd later marry. After entering prison in 1977, he never saw White again, but he later learned of her death secondhand. "I heard Debbie committed suicide just before I got out of prison in 1979."

More than two decades later, Chapman received a phone call from White's mother, where he learned that White had been pregnant with his child the last time he saw her. After she gave birth, the child was placed in foster care and eventually adopted. Now an adult, Christopher Michael Hecht was in prison at the time Chapman learned of his existence, convicted of committing a hate crime. "After all these years, I finally discovered I have another son, and he's behind bars. It was more than I could bear," Chapman wrote in "You Can Run But You Can't Hide." "I knew what it felt like to be a young man who made foolish choices."

They reconnected after a jailhouse meeting, although Hecht would continue to face legal problems. In 2008, he was arrested for third-degree assault after a bar fight in Pueblo, Colorado, and in 2021, he was reportedly sentenced to a three-year prison term for a charge of menacing.

Life after prison included divorce and the death of a child

Duane Chapman's first marriage came in 1972 to LaFonda Sue Honeycutt. Their relationship, made tense over Chapman's infidelity and criminal exploits, ended in the late 1970s. During his stint at a Texas prison for murder, Chapman was visited by a process server, who presented the inmate with divorce papers. "LaFonda had fallen in love with Jim Darnell, one of my best friends. I was heartbroken," Chapman wrote in "You Can Run, But You Can't Hide."

Just after the end of his relationship with Honeycutt and upon his release from prison in 1979, Chapman attended a biker party in a Colorado motel and met a woman named Ann Tengell with whom he felt an instant mutual attraction. After they were intimate, Tengell informed Chapman that she was 17, and he was led to believe that what they'd just done was a crime, and thus a parole violation. In order to legally cover his tracks, Chapman proposed marriage. "I didn't love Ann. I married her out of desperation, to keep my freedom," he wrote in "You Can Run But You Can't Hide." Tengell became pregnant from her first sexual encounter with Chapman. The marriage quickly fell apart, and Chapman would join the list of stars who tragically lost their children. The baby the brief union would produce, a boy named Zebediah, died not long after his 1980 birth.

Duane Chapman's daughter died just before his wedding

Duane Chapman and the former Beth Smith were a couple on-screen and off for many years before they decided to get married in Hawaii in 2006. What should have been a happy event was overshadowed by tragedy and loss. On May 19, 2006, the night before Chapman's wedding, his daughter, Barbara Chapman, died in Fairbanks, Alaska. According to reports by state troopers, Barbara was the passenger in an SUV driven by a friend, who lost control of the vehicle, causing it to depart from the road, collide with trees, and flip upside down. An investigation revealed that the SUV was stolen, and that Barbara and her associate had also attempted to book a hotel room using a stolen credit card.

Alaskan authorities were able to locate Chapman and inform him of his daughter's death at the age of 23 on the morning of May 20, a few hours before he was set to walk down the aisle. After talking with the officiant, Chapman decided to carry on with the wedding and told relatives and guests about Barbara's death at the reception, which became an impromptu and somber celebration of life.

He took his grandson out of an abusive situation

Duane Chapman's daughter, Barbara, died in 2006, leaving behind a son to be raised by his father, Travis Mimms Sr. After various disputes, Chapman and Mimms filed for mutual temporary restraining orders against one another in 2011, and the ongoing legal matter reached a Hawaii courtroom after Mimms was accused of excessively and violently disciplining his 9-year-old son. A neighbor captured an audio recording of Mimms yelling profanities at the child and then striking him as many as 13 times. Mimms admitted that after his son misbehaved at school and stole $100, he'd used a belt to deliver physical punishment; his attorney argued that only three to five slaps had actually occurred, and that the tape had been altered.

"I know Travis Sr. loves his son, and I know it's very difficult to be a single parent at such a young age, but I love my grandson and only want what's best for him," Chapman said in a written court filing (via Hawaii News Now), asking for temporary custody of the child so that Mimms could attend parenting classes. "To hear the audiotape of my grandson being abused was torture." Chapman was granted temporary custody of Travis Mimms Jr.; Mimms Sr. didn't back down, and was later heard on audio leaked to a tabloid denying any and all claims of child abuse and threatening to hurt the neighbors who had recorded him hitting his child.

He reportedly raised one child amidst addiction and abuse

Duane Chapman fathered 12 children, and the home life he provided for some of his offspring was reportedly traumatic and damaging. One daughter, Lyssa Chapman (born to wife number three, Lyssa Rae Brittain), became pregnant at 14. Lyssa and her daughter lived in a trailer owned by her mother; too young to receive any government assistance, she paid the $500 rent via babysitting while still using drugs. This all happened in the early 2000s, and she was unable to ask her father for help. By then he was an increasingly prominent public figure thanks to "Dog the Bounty Hunter," and he had allegedly distanced himself from Lyssa after she falsely accused him of sexually assaulting her when she was 11 years old. 

"Because of my accusations against him I really felt he thought I was a threat. Everything he had built he didn't want me to hurt," Lyssa told Fox News. She later withdrew the rape accusation, claiming instead that she had been assaulted by one of Chapman's friends. "It was a horrible life that I never wanted to go back to, living with him and Beth and the fighting and the drugs," she added.

After a 2011 arrest for disturbing the peace, Lyssa Chapman estranged herself from her mother and reconnected with her father, whom she forgives for his past transgressions due to his personal problems. "I feel like at the time he did the best he could do. He was really addicted to drugs and really couldn't get off of them."

Dog the Bounty Hunter was imprisoned for being a bounty hunter

Duane Chapman has been involved in several high-profile manhunts, including the search for Brian Laundrie in the wake of Gabrielle Petito's murder in 2021. Among the most famous fugitives Dog the Bounty Hunter has caught: Andrew Luster, heir to the Max Factor makeup fortune. In January 2003, a court in Ventura, California, found Luster guilty of more than 80 criminal counts, most related to sexual assault, along with some drug and weapons charges. The jury voted on Luster's case in absentia, because the defendant had fled the United States during a pause in the trial and after posting $1 million bail.

In June 2003, Luster was apprehended in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, by a bounty hunter team led by Duane "Dog" Chapman, months before he'd make his reality TV debut on the odd careers series "Take This Job." While Luster would be extradited back to the U.S. to begin serving a prison sentence initially set at 124 years, Chapman and his associates remained wanted by authorities in Mexico, where bounty hunting is legally viewed as akin to kidnapping. In 2006, after he'd become a TV star on "Dog the Bounty Hunter," Chapman was apprehended in Hawaii and charged with illegal detention and conspiracy for his role in tracking down Luster. "You see what the American government is doing to us? They throw us in jail," Chapman said during his hearing (via NBC's Today). Facing extradition, trial, and imprisonment in Mexico, Chapman found himself free of legal issues in 2007 when a judge decided that prosecutors had waited too long to start legal proceedings.

He was targeted by death threats

It's Duane "Dog" Chapman's profession to bring fugitives back to the criminal justice system, so he's likely made a lot of enemies in his decades of work as a bounty hunter. In 2012, he and his family were the subject of a series of particularly violent death threats. "I'm going to murder you. I'm going to come to Hawaii and murder you and your family in cold blood," the first threat, sent via email in April 2012, read (via RadarOnline). "You are next on my list and are the bane of society." Two days later, a similar email full of specific and violent threats arrived, followed by another the next day. "Your children looked nice today. As previously state, I have a rather nasty vendetta against you and your family," read the third and final message, along with some threats involving the sexual assault and murder of Chapman's family.

The Chapmans reported the messages to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which launched an investigation out of a field office in Hawaii, where Duane and Beth Chapman lived at the time. No arrests were ever announced in relation to the case.

Beth Chapman died of cancer

After the death of his mother in 1995, Duane Chapman coped with substance abuse, developing an addiction to crack cocaine. He then reconnected with Beth Smith, a decade after they met in 1986 when he was her bail bondsman on a shoplifting charge. Chapman found sobriety, and he and Smith became romantic and bounty-hunting partners, co-starring on "Dog the Bounty Hunter" and marrying in 2006.

Beth Chapman was diagnosed with throat cancer just before production began on the WGN America reality series "Dog's Most Wanted." What was supposed to be a revival of "Dog the Bounty Hunter" became a sad and poignant document of the Chapmans' final days together, as well as Beth Chapman's process of treating and accepting her terminal illness. "Beth was adamant, she wanted everything filmed," showrunner Matt Asmus told The New York Times. After attempting chemotherapy on multiple occasions, Beth decided against pursuing the physically difficult cancer-treatment regimen. As "Dog's Most Wanted" wore on, she lost weight and hair, and her health noticeably declined. In June 2019, Beth Chapman delivered loving final words to her husband, Dog, and after falling into a coma and being taken off of life support, she died at age 51.

Duane Chapman was diagnosed with a potentially fatal heart ailment

In September 2019, less than three months after the death of Beth Chapman, Duane "Dog" Chapman experienced chest pains and difficulty breathing. He was briefly hospitalized in Colorado before refusing further treatment and heading back home. "It feels much better now. And I'm going through some psychological things right now too, so that doesn't help," Chapman told Colorado TV station Fox31. "I think, basically, I had a broken heart."

Weeks later, Chapman's friend, television host Dr. Mehmet Oz, arranged for an intervention and the medical tests that Dog had skipped. Oz's diagnosis: a pulmonary embolism, a blockage in the arteries that serve the lungs which can lead to a fatal loss of oxygen. Chapman believes that the embolism was caused by his use of testosterone supplements, which may have dangerously thickened his blood. When doctors in Colorado had attempted to address the issue, he'd refused treatment, and aggressively. He admitted to shoving "an orderly up against a wall because he wouldn't let me leave," he told The New York Times. "They couldn't stop me."

Also diagnosed with gout, Chapman experienced suicidal ideation following the death of his wife. "Dog told me a dream where Beth said, 'Big Daddy, what took you so long? Maybe she's waiting, what am I living for?'" Oz recalled. After the medical episode, Chapman decided to take better care of himself, losing weight and cutting down on his smoking habit.

His close associate died suddenly

Duane Chapman's most recent reality TV series, "Dog and Beth: On the Hunt," which ran from 2013 to 2015, and 2019's single-season "Dog's Most Wanted," added a new cast member and cohort to the justice-serving crew: David Robinson. Assisting with bounty hunter work both for the benefit of the cameras and when shows weren't in production, Robinson served as Chapman's "right-hand man of many years," as the star told TMZ in December 2022. That was right around the time when Robinson died suddenly at home. After losing consciousness during a Zoom call in his dining room, Robinson couldn't be revived. Medical personnel arrived and were unable to save Robinson, who died in the arms of his wife, Brooke.

Purported to have been stricken by a stroke or cardiac event, Robinson's autopsy later showed that he died from undiagnosed critical coronary artery disease. Robinson was 50 years old. "Until we meet again, brother," Chapman said.

If you or anyone you know is struggling or in crisis, may be the victim of child abuse, needs help with addiction issues, or has been a victim of sexual assault, contact the relevant resources below: