Duane Chapman, the blond-mulleted focus of a series of American television shows who more famously refers to himself as “Dog the Bounty Hunter”, has recently embarked on a new hunt. No, it’s not for Trump’s tax returns (which could possibly be useful), or for the Holy Grail. What Chapman is searching for has a first and last name: Brian Laundrie.
Laundrie, a Florida man who has been missing for weeks and who is wanted in connection with the death of Gabby Petito, has piqued the interest of a nation on the edge of their seats. Last week, a federal arrest warrant was issued for Laundrie, just days after the body of his fiancée was found in Wyoming. Despite a rigorous search of the surroundings where Petito’s body emerged, Laundrie has remained missing. Whether he is responsible for Petito’s death — and, in fact, whether or not he is even alive — remains an unsolved mystery.
Duane Chapman knows a thing or two about murder. In 1976, the current bounty hunter became a felon, when he was convicted of first-degree murder in Texas for killing Jerry Oliver in a drug deal gone bad. Of the five years to which Chapman was sentenced, he served a mere 18 months. By 2003, he had risen to fame for capturing the heir to the Max Factor cosmetics fortune, Andrew Luster, who had fled the country amid a rape trial.
In some ways, Chapman’s history as a capturer of men on the run — paired with his own knowledge of the criminal mind, born of experience — makes him an appropriate candidate for the Laundrie task. Chapman has experience with troubled people, knowledge of their pathology, and entrée into the underbelly of American crime.
But in reality, Chapman’s efforts have contributed nothing to this case, save for unmatched sensationalism. The case of Gabby Petito is still fresh, the details murky. Not a single soul on earth, except for the person responsible for her killing, knows what happened on the day of Petito’s Wyoming death. Her family is grieving. The parents of Brian Laundrie are likely grieving, too.
The tradition of leaning into American tragedy for fame is not unprecedented. Perhaps it’s what draws people to the gnarled stories of serial killers. Perhaps it’s what impassions the Dateline viewers among us. These stories, after all, are interesting. Such mysteries, shrouded in the darkest of human impulses, make us wonder if we aren’t capable of the worst acts of man against man ourselves. They make us wonder if we, too, could fall victim to love-turned-hate. They make us consider how precarious life is, which can feel like a thrill.
The fact that we find such dramas compelling, though, is not reason enough to continue to milk them for monetary gain. Although it’s possible that a man like Chapman holds genuine interest and concern when it comes to the life and death of Gabby Petito, the reality is stark: a man who has made a living off of the misfortunes of others, set to the backdrop of the blue-glowing television, is no moral authority on this prematurely extinguished life.
Is Chapman to blame, or are we, for following his made-for-TV journey? Whatever the case, the harm is fact. Not a single one of us knows of Brian Laundrie’s whereabouts, but we also know of neither his innocence nor his guilt. The implication that Chapman does is no more than an invention. He’s playing to an audience, and the audience, as always, is rapt.
There are a host of other mysteries Chapman could put his mind to without simply hitching his wagon to the latest case making big news. If he wanted to use his position as a crowbar, opening stuck doors, Chapman could just as easily dig into the disappearances of Indigenous women whose tales hardly ever make the nightly news and many of whom went missing in the exact same place as Petito. That, truly, would be a service to the public.
The kindest act of Duane Chapman would not be the moribund discovery of a dead-or-alive Brian Laundrie. It would be, instead, to let this case be.