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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 October 2005, 23:03 GMT 00:03 UK
When hunting people is a career
By Chris Summers
BBC News Website

Keira Knightley stars as bounty hunter Domino Harvey
Keira Knightley stars as bounty hunter Domino Harvey

A film based on a privileged British woman who gave up modelling to be a bounty hunter opens this weekend. Her story may be unusual, but in the US hunting fugitives is big business.

The film Domino chronicles the life of female bounty hunter Domino Harvey, played in the film by Keira Knightley.

The daughter of 1950s matinee idol Laurence Harvey, Domino spent several years working in tough South Central Los Angeles, targeting small-time drug addicts and dealers.

Yet it was drugs that were also her downfall - the former model died of an overdose in June, aged 35, and never got to see her own biopic.

Her story is an extraordinary one, the fact she was a woman adding to the intrigue.

"It is pretty rare. They are out there, I know a few, but it's really a man's job," said Billy Wells, executive director of the US Professional Bail Bond Investigators Association.

'Dangerous job'

Los Angeles based Zeke Unger, a technical adviser on the film, is one of the thousands of bounty hunters working in the United States.

Duane 'Dog' Chapman
Bounty hunter Duane Chapman now has his own TV show

"I travel all over the country hunting fugitives and it can be a very dangerous job," he said.

"You never know if you are going home at the end of the night."

Mr Unger trained Knightley and co-stars Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez and advised director Tony Scott on how to make scenes look realistic.

He told the BBC News Website: "Keira loved it. She loved the adrenaline rush she got from the training. She said her heart was jumping like crazy when she was breaking doors down."

The existence of American bounty hunters comes down to big differences between the bail systems in the US and the UK, where bail is granted by a court and it is left to the police to find someone if they fail to turn up for trial.

In most US states - apart from in murder cases - suspects are freed from custody on the posting of a bail bond, the cost of which depends on the severity of the offence and the risk of absconding.

In most cases relatives put up collateral - cash or property - which can be forfeited if the person vanishes.

The real Domino Harvey
Born in London on 7 August 1969, the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey and his supermodel wife Paulene Stone
Ran a London nightclub, worked as a ranch-hand in California and as a firefighter near the Mexican border
In 1993 she gave up modelling to work as a bounty hunter for a Los Angeles bail bonds firm
In June 2005, while awaiting trial accused of dealing in amphetamines, she died of a drug overdose

Last month, for example, John Gotti Jr, the son of the late New York mafia boss, was released on a $7m bail bond.

Bonds are provided by a bail bondsman, who is effectively gambling on the defendant turning up at court.

A premium is charged for each bond, which is where the bail bond firms make their profits.

If the defendant goes missing the bondsman stands to lose his money, which is where the bounty hunter comes in. He, or she, is given the task of finding the miscreant and bringing them back.

'No bounty'

There are 14,000 bail bondsmen in the US and thousands of bounty hunters.

It's a game of cat and mouse and usually when you catch them they give up pretty easy
Billy Wells
Bounty hunter

Mr Wells said: "Everybody wants to be a bounty hunter until they find out what it involves.

"They think it's glamorous, but you often have to spend hours on surveillance and at the end of the day if you don't get your man you don't get paid. No body, no bounty."

Mr Wells, who is based in San Antonio, Texas, said that in most cases fugitives can be found "in their favourite bar, or at their girlfriend's apartment".

"It's a game of cat and mouse and usually when you catch them they give up pretty easy."

Andrew Luster
Max Factor heir Andrew Luster jumped bail in 2003 despite a $1m bond

But some fugitives are serious about not getting caught. In January 2003 Andrew Luster, the heir to the Max Factor cosmetics fortune, skipped a $1m bail bond midway through his rape trial in Santa Monica, California.

He was tracked down to Mexico by a Hawaii-based bounty hunter called Duane "Dog" Chapman.

But a Mexican police swoop led to Luster being sent back to California - where he was later convicted and jailed for 124 years - and Chapman being charged with detaining Luster illegally.

Ironically Chapman later jumped bail himself and fled back to Hawaii, where he now hosts a reality TV show on the A&E network.

Squeaky clean

The last big screen depiction of the industry was in Quentin Tarantino's Jackie Brown, in which Robert Forster played the decent and respectable bail bondsman, Max Cherry.

But bail bondsmen are often considered not to be quite so squeaky clean.

Keira Knightley with co-stars Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez
Knightley with co-stars Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez

An investigation has been launched in California by the FBI amid fears that unscrupulous bail bondsmen, who failed to secure proper collateral when posting bonds, may have cost taxpayers up to $150m.

Meanwhile in Louisiana the FBI's Operation Wrinkled Robe has unearthed evidence of corruption in the bail bonds system.

Earlier this year Judge Alan Green was convicted of mail fraud in connection to payments made by a New Orleans bail bonds firm.

It is a tough business and many bail bondsmen and bounty hunters are either former police officers or ex-servicemen.

Domino Harvey, with her upbringing in an English boarding school, was quite the exception.

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19 Jun 03 |  Americas
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19 Sep 02 |  Business

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