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Truth, justice, and Boston Dawna’s way

An outlandish but celebrated crime stopper is bringing her act home

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By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / December 12, 2010

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VENICE, Calif. — She inhales cigarettes and exhales F-bombs. She keeps her smokes and her cellphone in her bra, so she can get to them quickly. There was a time when she carried real handcuffs, but she has busted so many bad guys — and lost so many handcuffs — that she started buying novelty ones in bulk from a sex-toy store. The criminals never noticed.

“That’s because,’’ she likes to say, “criminals are [expletive] dumb.’’

Her real name is Donna Chaet, but she hasn’t answered to that name since she was a teenager in Brookline. In Venice, where she had lived for the past 39 years, everyone knew her as Boston Dawna, a name given to her by Jerry Buss, the owner of the Lakers. (The spelling is hers, to make sure “people [expletive] said it right.’’)

She became a legend in this famously eccentric beachfront community of Los Angeles, where everyone seems to be permanently tan or permanently stoned, but the basis for her fame is a source of some disagreement.

“All I did was neighborhood watch,’’ she says, “to an extreme level.’’

Her enemies, and there are many, say she was an out-of-control vigilante. The LA media refer to her simply as “the Batman of Venice Beach.’’

What she did was go out at night, alone on her bicycle, with a police scanner, and look for trouble.

“You know how people have gaydar?’’ she says. “I have burglardar.’’

She would usually be wearing sweats; if not, she’d be in a nightgown. Her only weapon was her mouth, and it was lethal. The Los Angeles Police Department credits the 59-year-old with catching hundreds of miscreants, from public drunks to public enemies, and threw her a huge going-away party when she left town.

That’s right. Boston Dawna has left Venice. She got fed up with the city bureaucracy and the West Coast mentality — “everyone in LA is a [expletive] [expletive],’’ she says — and told them all where they could go.

Then she went home.

Boston Dawna is back in Boston. And she says she’s going to pick up her act in Boston for the same reason she did it back in LA — because she can’t help herself.

“Some people drink and do drugs. I chase criminals,’’ she said as she walked around Boston recently, chain-smoking and getting reacquainted with the city (she was born in Hull and grew up in Brookline). “There’s no greater high than catching a crook.’’

Boston Dawna gets involved. It’s that simple, she says. If she sees something, she says something. If you’re up to funny business, she makes it her business. She is fearless. One bad guy punched her and broke six of her teeth; another shot at her when she was chasing a stolen car in her ’78 Buick. She kept chasing.

Many think she’s crazy; an LA police sergeant gave her a license plate frame that read “Definitely 5150’’ (the California code for those with a dangerous mental disorder).

But Boston Dawna thinks the people who are crazy are the ones who look the other way.

“A lot of times, people would call Boston Dawna before they called 911,’’ said O’Neil Carter, a retired LAPD lieutenant. “She’d get to the calls before the police, and I’d have to call her in and explain to her that when the police come, don’t start barking orders, don’t get in their faces. I love you, but shut up.’’

Dawna got in a lot of people’s faces in Los Angeles, from politicians to street thugs to the homeless. She saved her harshest criticism for police, though she is, at heart, a huge supporter of law enforcement. On Thanksgiving and Christmas for decades, she opened her doors and cooked round-the-clock to feed those on-duty; when a Venice officer was killed in the line of duty 12 years ago, she showed up at the station with a car full of McDonald’s food.

“If you’re a lazy police officer, she’s going to get in your face and demand action,’’ said Peggy Thusing, the LAPD’s senior lead officer for Venice Beach and a close friend of Dawna. “Some looked at that as being too aggressive or wanting to play police. I just thought she was amazing.’’

James Craig, a former LAPD captain who is now the police chief in Portland, Maine, said that for all Dawna’s rough edges, communities need people like her who are willing to stand up and fight. “To be honest, I kind of wish I had a Boston Dawna in Portland,’’ he said.

Dawna followed a brother to Los Angeles when she was just 19, and wound up staying, but kept her hard edge and accent. Which is the reason many wondered why, of all places, she chose Venice, with its laid-back mentality and ethos of tolerance.

“The Venice vibe has always been about love and understanding and everyone living together,’’ said Mary Alice Crowe, the manager at the Hinano Café. “But her prejudices were pretty obvious. Her philosophy is that everyone is homeless because they want to be homeless. We butted heads on that all the time.’’

Yet even her enemies acknowledge the positives she brought to the community.

“She did good,’’ said Tommy Rogers, one of her regular busts — “my dirtbags,’’ she likes to call them. He was found sleeping between the two Dumpsters in the spot he has called home for five years (exactly where Dawna told a reporter he would be).

“Go ask the residents and they’ll tell you, she’s done good,’’ said Rogers, who first met Dawna almost two decades ago when she fingered him to police for drinking in public; he’ll never forget receiving his fine and seeing the words “verified by Boston Dawna’’ on the ticket.

After years of daily fighting and conflict, Dawna began to ask herself why she lived in Venice — which she likes to describe as “where the debris meets the sea’’ — and decided she had had enough.

“This city will exhaust somebody that cares to fix it,’’ Thusing said. “I know. I’ve tried. When she told me she was leaving, the first thing I told her was I wish I could go with you.’’

In September, Dawna packed up her parrot, Elwood (who does Richard Pryor routines), and headed back East, settling, for now, in an apartment in Quincy. She’s already warily watching a nearby house. “I can’t figure it out,’’ she says, “I think it’s a drug house.’’

She’s looking for work. She’s a hairdresser by profession. Her business card says, “Cuts hair by day and crime by night.’’

Dawna insists she’s never going back to Los Angeles, at least not permanently. But she may be heading back there soon for a brief period; a reality television producer wants to make a show about her.

On a recent Saturday night in Boston, Dawna agreed to take a Globe reporter for a walk around downtown, ostensibly to demonstrate how she worked back in Los Angeles. The simulation didn’t last long.

When a group of scalpers in an alley on Washington Street tried to sell her theater tickets, she plowed right into them, scanner in hand, and interrogated them so aggressively that the three men panicked.

“We were just kidding,’’ one of them said, backing away.

In Downtown Crossing, she stopped a cop to ask where she might find some criminals. He told her to go home.

She didn’t, and continued on to Faneuil Hall, where she found one bad guy — at least bad in her eyes.

A boy of about 7 was doing a bit of informal street-performing. As Dawna approached, he was drumming on a hydrant; a cup with a couple bucks in it was near his feet.

“You should be in bed,’’ she barked at the kid. “What time do you go to bed?’’

“Eight,’’ the boy replied with a smile.

“It’s 9:30,’’ she barked back.

“Yeah,’’ he said, smiling. “But it’s the weekend!’’

Dawna stomped away. “How is it that nobody cares?’’ she said, and gestured at a man sitting a few steps behind the boy. “He’s playing drums while his father sits on his [expletive] [expletive] collecting money.’’

She called the police. Several times.

“I’ve got a 7-year-old who needs a cop,’’ she screamed into the phone, and eventually a cruiser came to investigate. But not before Dawna had gone over and given the father a piece of her mind, which set the boy off, wailing, clinging to his father as if shielding him from Dawna.

Boston police questioned the father, then came over to Dawna to tell her to back off.

“You had no right to approach that man,’’ an officer told her.

“I can do whatever the hell I want,’’ she replied.

As she walked away, she wasn’t thrilled with the police response, but she was satisfied that she had accomplished something. “The father will be afraid to bring him back,’’ she said.

When asked whether she hadn’t gotten involved in business that didn’t involve her, if the father was perhaps just overly indulgent of an outgoing child, if she hadn’t put a good family through a big headache — the police said the family would now be investigated by Department of Children and Families — Dawna was unapologetic.

“I’d rather call the cops and be wrong, than look on the news in two weeks and see that kid dead,’’ she said.

You can’t save the world, Boston Dawna likes to say. “But you can [expletive] try.’’

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com.

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