By John Balson @JJBalson

A MOTHER-OF-FOUR who overcame cancer is now hunting America’s most dangerous criminals - to pay off an $800,000 medical debt

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Videographer / director: Ruaridh Connellan
Producer: John Balson, Nick Johnson
Editor: Marcus Cooper

Mean streets: Shanda Zapata patrolling an alley in Denver with an AR15 assault rifle for protection

Former waitress Shanda Zapata, 35, turned to bounty hunting three years ago after overcoming the killer disease for the second time.

The self-confessed soccer mom spends her spare hours capturing fearsome fugitives, including members of motorcycle gangs and the Mexican Mafia.

But with 10 per cent of $1m bounties on offer - the risk is worth the reward.

She said: “I have been shot at, lunged at with a knife, attacked by pit bulls and even had drug dealers throw needles at me like darts.

Aiming high: Shanda targets fugitives across the USA in a bid to earn potentially lucrative bounties

"You never know what is going to be behind that door when you kick it down. Everyday could be your last. 

“It’s a nerve-racking job. You kiss your children not knowing whether that will be the last time you see them or not. 

“But if someone threatens my life then I won’t hesitate to shoot. And it won’t be to injure - it will be to to kill.

“I hope my children are proud of what their mother is doing. I’m trying to be a strong role-model for them and to show that you can be whatever you want to be.

“I overcame cancer twice. I was cut open. I worried I’d never recover. I’ve lost everything in my life and now been left with a huge debt. But now I’m out here hunting some of America’s most dangerous criminals and making something of myself.”

Shanda, who is 5ft 8in and of Lithuanian and Brazilian descent, carries a ferocious arsenal of weapons when tracking a target.

Brood: Shanda with her children Skyler, 17, Keeley, 11, Journey, nine, and Dominic, five

These include AR15 and AK47 assault rifles, a Smith & Wesson pistol with custom grip, Kevlar body-armour, bear spray and military boots for kicking down doors.

She is also trained in several martial arts including Krav Maga, which is used by the Israeli military, and Brazilian jiu jitsu.

Sometimes she takes the feminine approach by wearing figure-hugging clothing to show off her surgically enhanced ‘twins' to tempt fugitives out of bars and into cuffs. 

She said: “Once in a while I get to dress up and meet somebody in a bar or a hotel and have a few drinks.

Firepower: Shanda carries a ferocious arsenal of weapons when tracking a target, including assault rifles

"Then once they are outside we will take them down. It’s pretty satisfying."

“Ninety per cent of the time we are in combat mode and I like to keep it like that.  

“It’s tough being a woman in this job and you don’t want to show any weaknesses. You have to train ten times harder than the guys and you are constantly having to prove yourself.

“When a suspect is cornered they will look for what they perceive to be the easiest way out - and that’s usually me. That means I have to be ready at all times.”

The biggest bounty she has claimed so far was a $200,000 bond relating to a man accused of murdering a child, for which her team received $20,000.

She is trained in several martial arts including Krav Maga, which is used by the Israeli military, and Brazilian jiu jitsu

Her unorthodox lifestyle means she often spends days at a time away from her four children Skyler, 17, Keeley, 11, Journey, nine, and Dominic, five - leaving them in the care of her sister.

Skyler, who hopes to join the armed forces, appreciates the danger his mother puts herself in but says he is proud of her achievements

He said: “I know how well-trained she is and has been around SWAT teams and has police backup at all times. But you definitely do worry sometimes.”

Her unusual career has given Shanda something of a reputation in her quiet community.

“I am well known in this neighbourhood as being a bounty hunter. There are not too many blonde women walking around with guns,” she said.

She is trained in several martial arts including Krav Maga, which is used by the Israeli military, and Brazilian jiu jitsu

“There are definitely two sides to me. When I’m at home I wear long dresses, with my hair pulled back and wear make up. 

“I like to make sure I spend as much time with my children as possible and always aim to have a home-cooked meal for them at least once a day.

“After that - as soon as I put the vest on - I’m a different person.”

Bounty hunters, or bail recovery agents as they are known, are a point of controversy in the USA.

Laws vary but most can enter a fugitive's private property without a warrant in order to execute an arrest.

Survivor: Shanda has survived cancer twice but says she was left with a huge medical bill
Shanda estimates that she was left with a medical bill of $800,000

And depending on the state they may not even have to be registered or licensed - or even trained.

Shanda, who worked at big-bust theme bar Hooters for nine years and has been married twice, turned to bounty hunting three years ago.

This came after she was left crippled by debt owed for cancer treatment.

At 19 she was diagnosed with colon cancer and had to have a section of her bowel cut out - as well as undergoing gruelling radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

Locked and loaded: The self-confessed soccer mom spends her spare days capturing feared fugitives

She said: “Six months after I gave birth they found out I had four grapefruit-sized tumours. I had to undergo emergency surgery. I was in a bad way. A pastor even came in and read me my last rights. But thankfully I pulled through."

At the time she was covered by her mother’s health insurance.

But 12 years later Shanda was devastated to discover the cancer had returned and she needed to undergo further treatment - this time uncovered by healthcare.

With 10 pills for the chemotherapy treatment costing between $10,000-15,000, she was soon swimming in debt, she says.

She claims three hospitals are now attempting to sue her for the costs. 

If she does not find the money soon she will need to declare bankruptcy.

Her furore into bounty hunting began with a six-week training course, run by renowned bounty hunter, Brett Almy.

This taught her the relevant law and basic combat training before she finally took the plunge by picking up a bounty from her local bail bondsman.

“On my first bounty I was really nervous. It’s like having butterflies in your stomach - times 100,” said Shanda, who grew up in Denver and whose father is serving a life-sentence for murder.

“He was a guy tied to the Mexican Mafia and was wanted for drug trafficking and failure to appear in court. 

"We were in a small apartment in a 12-story block for hours waiting for him to show up. It was used for cooking drugs and we were told he would be there at some point. There were six of us waiting for him.

Bounty hunters, or bail recovery agents as they are known, are controversial in the USA, with laws varying across the country

“When he finally knocked on the door we rushed him but he got loose and ran down the halls and into an old elevator shaft. He had a gun in his hand. I ran down the stairs and found his girlfriend in their car but he’d gone a different direction and escaped.

“Denver police picked him up later in a bar. He was worth $100,000 so it was frustrating. But it gave me a taste for the job.”

She added: “I have had meth addicts pull guns on me and I’ve had gang-members pull guns on me. I’ve even had a 16-year-old fire at me and even a grandmother fire at me.

“The adrenaline you get from this job can sometimes make you sick to your stomach.”

Shanda who is licensed to work across the US save for three states, has travelled up to 1000 miles across the country for higher-value targets, 

She often works in tandem with other bounty hunters before splitting the rewards.

She is still a long way from paying off her debt but is not quitting just yet - and is even looking at competing as an MMA fighter for cash prizes.

“I chose this job because I get to help people and sort of be a bad ass,” she said.

“When I put a child molester away, it feels great. It makes me feel that bit stronger that I can do this for my community.

“I make me feel that while, yes, I am female - I am strong. I am capable. And I can put dangerous people away."