Bounty hunters will go to any length to catch a criminal, so long as they get paid. Whether it’s movies about the historic tales from the wild west, or cyborg-hunting in a futuristic universe, stories about bounty hunters have captivated audiences for hundreds of years. But not many people know that the true stories are equally as thrilling, and sometimes even better than fiction.
10. John of the Priests
In the 1500s, stories of a legendary bounty hunter called Seán na Sagart, or “John of the Priests,” circulated throughout the United Kingdom. Irish Catholic priests called him a demon of death, because they knew he would eventually come for them.
His real name was John Mullowney. As a young man, he spent most of his time partying and drinking. People say he was great fun to be around, but he had to steal in order to fund this lifestyle. He was eventually caught as a horse thief, and told that he would either need to face the gallows or become a priest hunter.
At the time, Queen Mary was a Protestant, and she wanted to get rid of the Catholic religion from her kingdom. Priests were given the option to obey the Queen and convert to Protestantism, but if they refused, they were either imprisoned or sentenced to death.
Mullowney agreed to take on the job, and his experience as a thief made him very good at taking people by surprise. Even though his reputation preceded him, no one actually knew what he looked like. He would often show up to the church for confession and stab the priest while in the small box. After killing dozens of priests, he was eventually caught and killed by a group of angry Catholics. But even after Mullowney’s death, the name “Seán na Sagart” was given to all priest hunters, because they wanted to continue his legacy.
9. The Dunn Brothers
In the 1800s, an outlaw named George Newcomb and a gang called the Wild Bunch were terrorizing citizens living in the Oklahoma Territory. Each of the gang members went by nicknames, like Newcomb’s alter-ego “Bitter Creek.” This made it that much harder for law enforcement to identify and arrest them.
The six Dunn siblings ran a boarding house, so they met travelers on a regular basis. There were five brothers, and one sister named Rose. The Dunns were willing to hide members of the Wild Bunch in exchange for a portion of the money they stole from their victims. Rose even began a romantic relationship with Newcomb. This friendship was a shallow one, though, because when the Dunns learned that there was a $5,000 bounty on Newcomb’s head, they didn’t hesitate to turn him in to the authorities.
They used Rose to distract him while the brothers waited, guns drawn on the second story window of their house. Newcomb was shot and killed, and the six siblings were able to share the bounty. Even though they were remembered for being the so-called hero bounty hunters who took down Newcomb, they still had a questionable reputation. The oldest brother, Bill Dunn, eventually died during a gun duel he had with the local sheriff.
8. Tom Tobin
In 1863, a Mexican gang of serial killers called the Espinosas were murdering travelers who went through the Colorado Territory. This was during the Civil War and the Great Plains Indian War, so the army and law enforcement didn’t exactly have time to track down these killers.
Tom Tobin was born to an Irish father and a Delaware Indian mother. He worked as a trapper, scout, and mountain guide at Bent’s Fort in Taos, New Mexico. He saw that there was a reward out for the Espinosas – wanted dead or alive. Tobin knew the wilderness so well he was the perfect man for the job, and he became a bounty hunter just so he could take down the serial killing Espinosas. He showed up at Fort Garland, Colorado with the three heads of the gang members in a burlap sack, and he received his reward. Tobin earned a reputation for himself, and became friends with the likes of other legends like Wild Bill Hickok. In time, they went on to take down more criminals together.
7. The Henneicke Column
We all know about the Holocaust, but not many people know that Hitler went so far as to hire bounty hunters to find Jewish people who fled Nazi-occupied territories. A group called the Henneicke Column were in the Netherlands, and they were paid $47.50 for every Jewish person they were able to capture and turn in to the Nazis.
As you might imagine, there were plenty of Nazi sympathizers who didn’t mind ruining the lives of Jewish people who were trying to start a new life. These bounty hunters made hunting Jews a full-time career, and it is estimated that they collectively turned in over 100,000 people.
6. Pat Garrett
Pat Garrett was a sheriff in Lincoln County, New Mexico. After the Civil War, the Garrett family farm was in a huge amount of debt. This desperate situation was enough for Garrett to risk his life going after some of the most dangerous bounties. When he heard that Billy the Kid had a $5,000 bounty on his head, he knew he needed to at least try to catch him.
Garrett spent three months tracking down the Kid. Once he knew where he lived, he hid in Billy’s bedroom in the dark. When Billy opened his bedroom door after a night of drinking, he was caught off guard, and shot. The bad news is the governor of New Mexico wanted him alive, so he could stand trial. When Garrett showed up with the corpse, the governor refused to give him the $5,000 reward. There was no way to prove that this man was actually the notorious outlaw. Even though he didn’t get the money, Garrett still became famous for his skills as a bounty hunter.
Soon after taking down Billy the Kid, Garrett became even more determined to go after tough criminals and earn bounties. Unfortunately, this new lifestyle only made him fall into more debt, and he began drinking heavily. He eventually decided it was time to sell his farm.
One of his friends, an assassin named Jim Miller, offered to buy the farm. The only trouble was that Garrett’s son had leased the fields to a goat farmer named Wayne Brazel. When Garrett tried to approach Brazel about breaking the lease so that he could sell his land to Miller, they got into an argument. They eventually decided that the three parties needed to all sit down together and discuss the situation like mature adults.
On his way to this meeting, Garrett was shot and killed, but no one was sure who did it. Miller was an assassin, after all. But Brazel was angry at him. Some historians even believed that his death could have been a conspiracy planned by local outlaws who wanted him out of the picture. In 2017, documents from the coroner were discovered, and revealed who actually killed Garrett. It was the goat farmer, Wayne Brazel, but the judge let him go after claiming he killed Garrett in self-defense.
5. Taylor v. Taintor
Back in the days of the Wild West, bounties were placed on outlaws’ heads by the governors of each state. Today, homicide detectives and the FBI are the ones looking out for America’s Most Wanted. But bounty hunters still exist, and they are hired by bail bondsmen.
In order to understand Taylor vs. Taintor, you need to know a little bit about how bail works in the United States. If someone is arrested for a crime, their friends and family have the option to come up with bail, which is a set amount of money in order to let them go free. If they don’t come up with the bail money, the accused has to stay in jail while they await trial, even if they are eventually found not guilty.
Family and friends are inclined to believe that their loved ones are innocent. So, if they can afford it, they will pay the full amount to a bail agent. They also have to sign away collateral on something valuable, like the deed to their house. This system is in place with the hope that the person accused of the crime knows that if they run, they are totally screwing over their loved ones. Unfortunately, there are plenty of criminals who try to run all the time, and never show up in court. Bail bondsmen hire bounty hunters to find these criminals, and force them to show up to trial. In exchange for their service, the bounty hunter receives 10-15% of the total bail amount.
This new system is only possible because of a court case from the 1800s called Taylor vs. Taintor. A criminal named Edward McGuire was committing crimes in multiple states. A bail bondsman in Connecticut had captured McGuire, and received an $8,000 bounty. But since McGuire had also committed crimes in Maine, he was extradited, and the bondsman was going to lose his $8,000. The issue had to go to court. In the end, the judge declared that as long as the bounty hunter was a civilian, he was allowed to conduct a citizen’s arrest in any jurisdiction, by any means necessary. This means that even today, modern-day bounty hunters can use any weapon they want, and bust into people’s homes, so long as it means bringing a criminal to court.
4. Ralph “Papa” Thorson
In the 1940s, a man named Ralph Thorson joined the Navy and went to college in hopes of becoming a doctor. He worked as a bartender for a part-time job, and this is how he met a bail bondsman. Once he learned about the work of a bounty hunter, it sparked Thorson’s sense of adventure, and he completely switched career paths. He began taking classes in criminology. He also learned skills like scuba diving, poker, and weaponry in order to be the best bounty hunter he could be.
He bought a house in North Hollywood, where he would bring criminals after he caught them for their bounty. Thorson was given the nickname “Papa” because he didn’t just hand men over to the police. He would counsel them, try to help them find jobs, and try to help these men get their act together.
Unfortunately, his kindness wasn’t enough to keep him alive. In 1991, someone planted a bomb in his car, and he was killed. After his death, his wife Dotti and his daughter Brandi took over the bounty hunting business. A man named Christopher Keane wrote a biography about Thorson’s life in 1976, and it became a best-seller. In 1980, a movie called The Hunter was made, starring Steve McQueen. Of course, they took a lot of liberties with his true story.
3. Domino Harvey
Domino Harvey was born in 1969 and grew up in London, where she attended an all girls boarding school. Her father, an actor named Laurence Harvey, was best known for his role in The Manchurian Candidate. Her mother, Paulene Stone, was a successful fashion model who appeared on the cover of British Vogue. After her father died, her mother moved them to Los Angeles so that she could pursue her modeling career.
Domino was a tomboy. She took judo classes as a girl, and cut her hair short a a teenager. Her mother encouraged her to pursue a career in modeling, but she hated it and became a firefighter instead. During this time, she had training in using firearms, but when she went to apply for a job at the Los Angeles Fire Department she was denied. She decided to take up a career in bounty hunting, instead. Her technique was to pose as a lost British tourist, and surprise the criminals when they least expected to get caught. She kept AK-47s in her apartment, and traveled the country searching for America’s Most Wanted.
Domino was one of the only female bounty hunters in the US, and the fact that she was the daughter of famous parents made her story all the more compelling, which is why her story started to get some attention. In 2005, Domino died of a drug overdose just a few months away from the premiere of the movie about her life, starring Keira Knightley. Apparently, Harvey was extremely unhappy about the liberties that they took with her life story. For one, they made her character straight, and she wasn’t. She was quoted saying that it felt like that had stolen her life from her. After her death, the producers of the movie Domino had to re-film the ending.
2. Duane “Dog” Chapman
In 1976, Duane Chapman was in his 20s, and he was in the car with his friend while they were trying to buy pot from a local drug dealer. His friend shot the dealer, and they sped away together. Chapman became complicit in the murder, and he had to serve five years in prison. Once he got out of jail, he discovered that leaving a life of crime was nearly impossible. The only way to make an honest living was to become a bounty hunter.
Chapman (or “Dog” as you no doubt know him) continues to dress like he’s a member of a biker gang so that he blends in with the people he is trying to capture. He keeps a warrant in his boot, and carries a fire hydrant-sized can of mace to take down bounty-jumpers. Not so long ago, a reality TV show called Dog The Bounty Hunter was made about his life, and he became a celebrity… for better or worse.
1. Michelle Gomez
A woman in Lockhart, Texas named Michelle Gomez stands at just 4-foot-11. If you were to meet her, you would probably never imagine that she is a specialized bounty hunter known as a “skip tracer.” She specializes in finding criminals who are exceptionally difficult to track. When she was just 10-years-old, she built her own PC from scratch, even down to the soldering. Now in her 40s, Gomez uses her research skills both online and in public records to find information about criminals and exploit it to the fullest extent.
For example, she once discovered that a high-up member of a Peruvian crime syndicate had an estranged wife. She was able to get the phone number of another gang member, and called pretending to be this wife, saying that she was pregnant and needed to find her husband. The trick led to her locating illegal machinery that had been smuggled into South America, and she passed on that tip to the FBI. But that’s an easy job for Michelle. She also hunts down white collar criminals who have stolen millions of dollars through crooked deals, even if it takes months of travel and research. Gomez is considered one of the world’s best bounty hunters.