THE TELL-TALE SUSPECT
Phoenix insurance agent and wheeler-dealer Dennis Chapman got away with murdering his mom for money--if his father, four siblings and the cops are to be believed.
Now, Chapman has been nailed in Oregon for pulling an impersonation stunt that has enraged military veterans.
Chapman always proclaimed his innocence in the shooting death of his self-made millionaire mother. (He accused one of his sisters of killing her.) He left Phoenix after the celebrated murder charge against him was dismissed in 1983 because of "insufficient evidence." A vicious probate battle over his murdered mom's $1 million insurance policy ensued with his siblings. They wound up splitting the pot, which one sister describes as "blood money." No one has been convicted of shooting Kay Chapman.
For the past few years in Bend, Oregon, Chapman has falsely claimed to have been a decorated and wounded Vietnam War hero, a member of the elite Navy SEAL team. Chapman used his status as a "war hero" to build a new life as a would-be entrepreneur and small-town celebrity. He detailed his alleged 'nam experiences to the local press and in numerous speeches. He also took a well-publicized trip to the Vietnam Memorial in D.C. with Bend war veterans.
"He doesn't know how to spell `Vietnam,'" says Chapman's father Sam, when told about the latest of his boy's exploits. "He wouldn't know if the i comes before the e."
Those wartime honors Chapman claimed he had earned? The Purple Heart, the Silver Star, the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the parachutist's wings? He was never in Vietnam and never earned those medals. Indeed, records show that Chapman was discharged from the Navy in 1970 as being "unsuitable for naval service." (Chapman could not be contacted for comment.)
Chapman's charade is reminiscent of former Arizona Republic-Phoenix Gazette publisher Duke Tully's phony claims several years ago of having been a decorated fighter pilot.
"I learned that the human body can take many times' more punishment than you and I think it can take," Chapman told the Bend Bulletin in a late-1987 article about his harrowing "experiences" in Vietnam.
Like Tully, Chapman appeared to ingratiate himself with superpatriotic veterans by swapping war stories with them.
Chapman's scam has rocked the central Oregon town of 20,000, according to resident Greg Walker, a former Green Beret who edits the periodical Fighting Knives there.
"We have a bunch of very angry veterans and citizens," says Walker. He is responsible for confirming with military officials that Chapman never was a Navy SEAL and never served in Vietnam. In the past several weeks, red-faced vets have booted Chapman out of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Order of the Purple Heart, and a Navy SEAL organization.
But Chapman didn't lie about everything. In that 1987 story in the Bend newspaper, he reminded readers of his financial-services business, "advising clients on estate planning and insurance." Chapman does have experience in that area.
In early 1983, Maricopa County prosecutors indicted Chapman, then 32, on a first-degree charge of shooting his mother, then dumping her body in a west Phoenix cotton field.
The alleged motive? Desperately, but secretly, strapped for money, Dennis Chapman had convinced his mother to buy a $1 million life-insurance policy and to list him as sole beneficiary.
The opportunity? Mother and son were painting the inside of one of her rental properties in northwest Phoenix on the morning she disappeared. Several days later, two teens discovered Kay Chapman's body. Covered with a drop cloth, the body had paint on its palms; clothes, wig and sneakers also were paint splattered.
Chapman spent four months in jail awaiting trial. But as his trial date approached, prosecutors say they were obliged to ask a superior court judge to dismiss the case. (It was scratched in such a way that it may someday be refiled. However, the chances of that, everyone with knowledge of the case agrees, are somewhere between slim and none.)
The prosecutors blamed sheriff's detectives Kay Lines and Leon Jesser for botching the case by misleading them about the statements of two potentially key alibi witnesses for Dennis Chapman. Says ex-prosecutor Mark Budoff, "What the officers had done had made it very difficult to prosecute." (Leon Jesser pleaded guilty years ago to a felony unrelated to the Chapman case and is in parts unknown. Kay Lines is now investigating the celebrated Don Bolles murder case for the Attorney General's Office.)
Dennis Chapman's former lawyer Mike Kimerer once called the case "one of the all-time Phoenix whodunits," adding, "Several people within the family had motives, including my client, but they had a real weak case on the facts. A life was lost and they haven't caught the right person yet."
Chapman's embittered family remains convinced he escaped the jaws of justice, in part because of his persuasive personality.
"That Dennis is so convincing, he could have blood on his hands and convince you it was Crayola," Sam Chapman's wife Geraldine said in an October 1987 New Times story about Kay Chapman's murder.
Greg Walker, the Oregon veteran who exposed Chapman's military charade, knew nothing about the murder case until recently. Walker has different reasons for being angry. "He used his invented military background to get himself jobs and to get himself looked at as something special in our town," Walker says. "In short, Dennis Chapman is your classic scumbag."
"He doesn't know how to spell `Vietnam,'" Dennis Chapman's father says when told about the latest of his boy's exploits.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.