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California and the West

Anger Rises Over Killing of Dog

Outrage: Since an infuriated driver flung her pet into oncoming traffic in San Jose, a woman has been inundated with letters from strangers offering help in finding the culprit.

March 10, 2000|SAM BRUCHEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN FRANCISCO — Sara McBurnett never imagined how her life would change after she told police that another motorist had reached into her car and hurled her 18-pound lap dog into oncoming traffic near San Jose's airport.

In the furor that erupted, the Nevada real estate agent has appeared on the "Today Show" and CNN, been interviewed by reporters from as far away as Australia and been deluged with letters from strangers offering cash to help find the killer of Leo, her beloved bichon frise.

On Thursday, McBurnett and a witness to the attack returned to San Jose to help police with a new composite drawing of the assailant. Police said the witness also was asked to review two Department of Motor Vehicles mug shots, but didn't identify Leo's attacker.

"His death symbolizes the insanity of random acts of violence and the devastation they can cause," said McBurnett, 38, who watched her 10-year companion run down by a van. "People just can't believe anyone would want to harm a creature so sweet and absolutely innocent."

San Jose police can't believe the outpouring of public outrage over the dog's death or the $50,000 in reward money donated to find the mystery driver with Virginia license plates who snatched Leo from McBurnett's lap.

And the furor continues. There's a Leo Web site, which has received more than 50,000 hits in recent weeks. A flurry of Internet chat rooms devoted to the subject. A coast-to-coast police investigation.

"I've never seen a response like this one before, not with missing children, even kidnapping cases," said San Jose Police Officer Rubens Dalaison. "There are a lot of kind-hearted people. But you wish all cases got this much attention."

Police sent a description of the suspect--said to be a slender white male in his 20s or 30s with a goatee and driving a dark sport utility vehicle--to the Motor Vehicle Department and received photos this week of two motorists. Investigators also plan to work with authorities in Virginia, Dalaison said.

He said McBurnett, who lives near Lake Tahoe, was asked to help Thursday with a more detailed composite drawing of the suspect and was not shown any mugs. Investigators want to wait until they have more solid leads on the motorist before showing her any pictures, Dalaison said.

"At this point, he could be anywhere," Dalaison said. "We don't know if he's in Virginia or California. It's really a toss up."

The story has consumed Northern California talk radio in recent weeks. KGO, an AM station with more than 1 million listeners, received 800 faxes and e-mails within one hour after first airing the story earlier this month.

"I told our listeners I'd kick in $500, thinking whoever knows this slimeball would probably sell him out if enough money were offered," said Ronn Owens, a KGO host, who owns his own bichon frise. "In about 20 seconds people were calling to donate money. I've not seen this kind of response since the O.J. days."

'I'm surprised by people who think it's taking away from cases involving children," said Phyllis Shaffer of Santa Clara, who heard the KGO broadcast and plans to donate $100 to the reward fund. "As if giving to one cause would prevent giving to another."

Brian Coleman, a Virginia dog owner, heard about the case in a chat room and has been avidly checking for updates daily.

"People lose pets all the time, but this was shocking because it was so unexpected and so unnecessary," said Coleman, a 38-year-old waiter.

By Thursday, a posting on the Leo Web site (www.interstice.com/leo) was asking people to delay sending more reward money and to instead make contributions in Leo's memory to local humane societies or charities. The site was established by a friend of McBurnett's.

McBurnett said she is weary of the spotlight since the Feb. 11 attack and plans to turn away future interview requests.

"I've told my story," said McBurnett, who is looking forward to returning to her real estate job and planning a "Be Kind to Animals Week" in her hometown of Incline Village (population 10,000).

She already has a new bichon frise, named Stormy, and is thinking about getting a German shepherd, just to be safe.

"Hopefully all this attention will pass soon," she said, "I lost the dog who was my best friend, but I'm tired of being the center of the storm."

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