Domino Harvey: Life and Death in LA

The inspiration for a major new movie, Domino Harvey was the daughter of a film-star who abandoned modelling to become a gun-toting bounty hunter. This week, the 35-year-old was found dead in her bath. Andrew Gumbel tells her extraordinary story
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The Independent US

The offspring of Laurence Harvey, once one of the world's most recognisable film stars, and the former Vogue fashion model Paulene Stone, Domino travelled about as far as she could from the world of Hampstead parties and posh boarding schools that she knew growing up.

She worked as a DJ, a farm hand, a fire fighter and, over the past ten years, as a bounty hunter tracking down bail-skippers in some of Los Angeles' most disreputable neighbourhoods. Domino's life was so surprising, and so seemingly fabulous, that it has just been turned into a major Hollywood movie, with Keira Knightley doing the honours as the archetypal public school girl gone bad – very, very bad.

But the same elements that attracted the regular attentions of the downmarket newspapers – her rebelliousness, her restless quest for every more improbable pursuits, her periodic problems with drugs – also coloured her life with the unmistakable tinge of sadness. In one of the only interviews she ever gave, she talked about her unhappy childhood and her sense as a teenager that life, without some radical change in direction, appeared to her to be meaningless.

And so the trajectory carried her to her gruesomely squalid end at the age of 35 in the bathroom of her home in West Hollywood, where she was found dead, presumed drowned, on Monday night. She was in big trouble with the law, having been caught up in a multi-state federal drug sting. And she was, by all accounts, far from happy that Tony Scott, the flashy British director, and New Line cinema had decided to turn her life into a breathless action movie.

The Los Angeles coroner's office has yet to pronounce on an exact cause of death, although early reports from the paramedics suggest at least a suspicion that drugs were involved. Some of the more lurid press coverage has hinted at the use of a firearm, but that particular detail appears to have been invented.

What is certain is that the prospects for her immediate future looked grim. Last month, she was arrested at her West Hollywood home at the request of the Drug Enforcement Administration office in Gulfport, Mississippi. The rap sheet mentioned numerous charges including conspiracy to distribute drugs, crossing state lines for unlawful activity and having property used in or obtained through criminal activity.

Elisa Fernandez, a federal prosecutor, said last month that she had been further charged with possession of 500g of methamphetamine – commonly known as speed or ice – as well as intent to distribute 50g of the drug. She was also charged with intent to distribute 11 doses of the addictive painkiller oxycodone. It appears that her arrest was part of a broader sweep against the methamphetamine trade, one of the most lucrative parts of the illegal drugs business because meth is cheap and easy to make and even easier to become addicted to.

At an initial hearing in federal court in Los Angeles, bail was set at $1m, including a $300,000 cash deposit. A second hearing had been set in Mississippi last week, but it was not immediately clear if that date was honoured or postponed.

It was not immediately clear whether she was still working as a bounty hunter at the time of her death, or whether she had dropped that line of work as she had so many others before it. The last indirect word of her to surface in the press came from her mother, who told a Sunday newspaper in April that her daughter was "not happy" with the way the Tony Scott-Keira Knightley film was working out. "She is a recluse and she wants absolutely nothing to do with the film or anyone who has anything to do with it," she said. Paulene Stone was believed to be on her way to California yesterday.

Domino was born in 1970 under less than ideal circumstances, the result of an extramarital affair. Her father, the star of such films as The Manchurian Candidate and Room at the Top, did not leave his second wife to be with Paulene Stone and Paulene's daughter Sophie (from a previous marriage of her own) until Domino was two, and then died of stomach cancer less than a year later.

She was a tomboy right from the get-go. As she said in her only long press interview, with the Mail on Sunday in 1994: "When I was two, dad bought me dungarees in every size. I was a tomboy who wanted to play only with Action Men. If I was given dolls I cut their hair and pulled their heads off."

By the age of ten, she was fighting boys. By the time she hit puberty, her mother had married Peter Morton, the owner of the Hard Rock Café chain, and was living in the United States. She, meanwhile, was dispatched to one boarding school after another – she was thrown out of four of them before she finished.

On leaving school, she took up modelling, for the Ford agency, but hated it. "I was so unhappy, trying to be someone I wasn't," she said. "When I was modelling they were trying to manipulate me. I realised I would never be able to take orders from idiots."

So she didn't. She sold T-shirts in the now defunct Kensington Market, ran a nightclub and dabbled in acting. In 1989, she flew to southern California, where her mother and stepfather lived. Rather than spend long in their Beverly Hills mansion, however, she headed to the mountains outside San Diego where she worked as a ranch hand, developing her growing fascination for the outdoors, and for fearsome weaponry.

As a firefighter in San Diego she became known as Dagger Bailey's – Dagger because the ten-inch hunting knife she habitually wore on her belt, and Bailey's after the name of her favourite drink.

The liquor and the weapons might have suggested a future as a private eye. Bounty hunter was, essentially, a more startling and more dangerous variant on the same theme. According to her co-workers, her favourite way of working was to play on her unassuming appearance and her British accent to fool people into gaining access to their homes and the fugitives hidden there.

Frequently, she would go into a nightclub and sweet-talk a suspect into coming outside where her colleagues would be lying in wait. Once she masqueraded as a charity worker. On another occasion, she told a mother that her wanted son had won the lottery.

Most of her work took her into Los Angeles' most notorious neighbourhoods – South Central, where the riots of 1992 started, and Compton, birthplace of gangsta rap. She told the press she never went anywhere without her 9mm Beretta pistol and her knife. The cupboards in her home were filled with daggers, Samurai swords and butterfly knives. "This is not a job which comes with a good health plan," she noted wryly.

Her boss at the Celes King Bail Bond Agency, Ed Martinez, remarked: "There's no woman I know who's got more balls."

Startling and dangerous her job may have been, but it seems doubtful it earned her a particularly lucrative living. By 1997, Domino sold her life story to Tony Scott and used the proceeds – said to have been around £26,000 – to check herself into a drug rehab clinic.

The film has been a saga all its own. First it was going to star Sharon Stone. Then it was postponed. Then Tony Scott ordered up a new script, from Richard Kelly, director of the underground sleeper hit Donnie Darko.

Originally Domino – as it is being called – was slated for US release in August. But when the film's real-life subject was arrested on drugs charges last month, Mr Scott went back into the editing room and the release date was put back until November. What will happen to the film now is anybody's guess.

It is not, by all outward appearances, exactly faithful to the real story of Domino, nor is could it be called a work of penetrating psychological incisiveness. The trailer opens with the disclaimed "based on a true story, sort of..." and rapidly descends into a crass series of montages with Ms Knightley wielding fierce semi-automatics under each arm and affecting a voice that is pure Roedean, kicking in doors and opening fire. "Heads you live," purrs the voiceover, "tails you die."

That tagline may now seem excruciatingly flip, as may the entire film. It certainly betrays what we know about the real Domino, who came across in her 1994 interview as several degrees more cautious about firearms than her on-screen incarnation. "I don't view weapons as objects of power or death, merely tools for life," she said. "I have never had to use my gun on a raid."

Working as a bounty hunter for a bail bondsman is not usually regarded as a glamorous job – most of the work is tedious as well as dangerous, often focussing on tracking down petty criminals from poor neighbourhoods wanted on drugs-related charges. For a woman with a history of problems with narcotics, it's not an especially healthy environment to be swirling around.

Asked what the attraction was, she answered: "I guess I'm addicted to it. It's more of a thrill than working nine-to-five. If I was doing this for the money I'd have stopped a long time ago. The real satisfaction is putting the sleazebags in jail."

The way things ended up, Domino herself may well have turned into one of her own "sleazebags" – a person down on her luck who wound up on the wrong side of the law. And now her sad, strange existence is all over.

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