I am staying in a house in Houston with all of the comforts of Texan suburban living: a pantry full of Oreos, potato chips, and canned foods. In the garage there is an original Model-T, still running, a Volkswagon Bug, two vintage motorcycles, and an original Jeep Wrangler. Here I can truly embrace Americana, eating hamburgers, karaoke singing to country music, and sipping moonshine at night.
The house is more like a large estate/farm that is home to several animals, including a donkey, an oversized pot-bellied pig named Jimmy Dean, a found mutt named Duke, and, Josie, a sweet-faced English bulldog with a snore that rumbles like the Model-T.
One morning my aunt comes into the room, looking like she had been up all night crying, “Is Josie with you?” she asks tearfully. She scans the room quickly without waiting for an answer, “She’s been gone since last night.”
Bulldogs are not trained for survival. They don’t run. They perch like paralyzed football players. They struggle as though every breath is their last. We all had our theories about what happened to Josie. She could be in the woods, ravaged by wolves, wandered herself into sleep, or sold on the bulldog black market. The house was still and everyone was restless. While my aunt and her son ran out to post ”Missing Bulldog” pictures, I stayed at home waiting for a ransom call.
Within minutes, the next door neighbor, Todd, rings the door holding a cup of coffee, wanting to help. He happens to be a local K-9 cop with a $13,000 scent tracking dog, mostly trained to find narcotics and human remains. Todd stands tall with long legs, like a gazelle, looking like they were made for chasing criminals.
Believing that the dog was stolen, he explains, “You never know whose gonna be comin through… we gotta whole lotta skipjacks around here.” Inspired by his use of the word, “skipjack,” I had to look it up. It sounds fitting in the context, but the only definition I could find was a definition of tuna or some kind of fisherman, although to Todd’s credit, “skipjack” seems like the perfect word for someone who would steal a family pet.
Todd decided to take a peripheral survey of the property, which happened to be through deep ravines, wire fences, and several miles through the woods; not necessarily the trek taken by a barely breathing inbred dog. When we approach a turn in the trail he crouches down, his bent legs stabling him like pillars, as he is sifting through dirt and examining the ground.
“I think we got something here. Looks like the pine needles have been moved.”
I look down and see nothing but the random scattering of leaves.
“Here we may have an animal trail,” he pauses, “But I guess it could be any animal.” He runs his hands over the dirt and continues on.
After climbing up out of the ravine, he looks up into the sky, “Hate to say it, but you gotta look for vultures too. That’s the sign of a dead body, right there.” I look up and see only blue sky and a few clouds. Ted is shielding his face with one hand and peering in every direction, looking for signs, and in the first 48 hours, anything would do.
In New Orleans, I traveled with a U.S. Marshal who was stationed to investigate homicides after Katrina. I was a little envious of his chase stories. Federal officers cross statelines and borders. My friend, “The Marshal” spends most of his time doing stake-outs (there is a pair of binoculars and a high-zoom lense camera in the front seat) and he always stashes a rifle in the back seat. I saw some footage of him busting down doors in Texas. He pulled out bodies from the Katrina wreckage and filed reports with the feds. My brief encounter with law enforcement involves boring lawyerly experiences: reading over documents and police reports or talking to public defenders (who never know what really happened anyway). While we are on the bulldog search, Todd gives me some insight into real-life local police practices:
His take on probable cause: “Sometimes when I am off work, I’ll bring the dog out to the mall and just let him sniff out the cars.”
“That’s not exactly probable cause, is it?”
“Well, yeah, but then I follow them and find some other reason to pull them over.”
Witness protection: “Last week some guy called in to tell us where he was going to blow his brains out. He gave us the GPS coordinates so that all we had to do was show up and let the dog loose. Thank god the dog didn’t pounce or I would have had to explain why there were post-mortem puncture wounds all over a suicide victim.”
Preserving the crime scene: “Cops fuck it up all the time. Last week, we walked into a double homicide and one of the victims was still holding the gun. My partner walked up and took the gun out of his hand before we were like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ and he said, ‘Securing the weapon.’ And these two bodies were laying there looking like they were dead for days. So we had to swipe his hands for gun powder because his finger prints are all over the weapon. What a dumbass. Now we have to rule him out as a suspect.”
After several hours on the search with Todd, we returned home empty handed. I waited back at the house, hoping for a call that Josie had turned up and just needed a ride home. Around 5:00, my aunt and her son return home with Josie slowly making her way back inside. Apparently, they had been hanging the sign when a truck full of Mexicans pulled up and asked if the picture in the poster was their dog.
They motioned, “We have her. Follow us–we keep her at home.”
Uncertain whether she should trust the band, she followed them through winding streets into the Texas thick. It was worth the risk when the dog came swaggering out of barn, a little dehydrated but ultimately unscathed. My aunt had to turn over a reward to collect the dog who had been ostensibly held hostage for 24 hours. Her tags had been removed and we still don’t know if it was an honest mistake. Too bad they never made a ransom call or I would have been able to answer the line, put a trace on it and perform some actual police recovery duties.
All in all, I got to learn some intensive investigation techniques. And in true U.S. Marshal fashion: When in doubt, blame the Mexicans.