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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM ALICE, TEXAS

Mayor dogged by puppy theft charges

The official admits to hiding her neighbors' Shih Tzu after telling them it had died. The owners have sued.

December 23, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

ALICE, TEXAS — Politicians have been known to pull some doggone dirty tricks, but can it get more low-down than puppy theft?

That's the question people in this Texas brush country town are asking now that their mayor has admitted -- without a smidgen of remorse -- that for months she's been harboring Puddles, her neighbors' cuddly Shih Tzu.

At first, Mayor Grace Saenz-Lopez lied to the family, telling its members that the dog had died while they were vacationing. Now she's refusing to return the pooch, which she calls Panchito.

She argues that the dog's owners have forsaken the right to keep such a tender animal because they failed to shower him with loving care when he was ill and needed them most. That's triggered a bizarre custody battle that has both sides howling for sympathy.

"I'll tell you what: Let's drop that dog in the middle of the courtroom and see who it goes to first," the mayor's attorney, Homero Canales, barked in a fit of bravado. "You want a dog? Take care of it. These people were more interested in going on vacation than caring for a dog that looked like it was about to die."

The Puddles-Panchito feud started last summer, when Rudy Gutierrez and Shelly Cavazos asked Saenz-Lopez to dog-sit their sickly black-and-white pup while they took their four children to an amusement park. Puddles had gotten trapped under their home weeks earlier, and by the time he emerged, he had been ravaged by fleas. He was deathly ill when the family decided to go away, Gutierrez and Cavazos admit.

After one day, the mayor called them with terrible news: Puddles was dead.

"We broke the news to the kids on the way home, and they cried," said Cavazos, 37. "Everyone was very upset."

The news was easy to believe, given the dog's condition -- but by small-town happenstance the family learned it was a lie.

On Halloween, Cavazos' aunt went to a local groomer to scout a potential breeding partner for her Shih Tzu; she was struck by the male dog's uncanny resemblance to Puddles.

Then it hit her: It was Puddles.

"I asked who the owner was, and the groomer said Grace Lopez," the aunt, Sylvia Trevino, recalled.

The news that the mayor had faked a dog's death and then hid it set tongues wagging in this town of 19,000 people about 45 minutes west of Corpus Christi, where the motto is "Alice is buena gente." Translation: "Alice is good people."

Few seem to be buying the mayor's sad-dog story. A pack of protesters hounded her during a council meeting this month, carrying signs comparing her to Cruella De Vil, the villain in Disney's "101 Dalmatians." The story made the front page of the Alice Echo News-Journal.

With Internet polls showing Saenz-Lopez in the doghouse with voters, she dropped out of a race this fall for county tax collector, citing health reasons. Still, she has no regrets -- if she must choose between politics and Panchito, Panchito easily wins, her attorney said.

The mayor, who is said to be in her early 60s, did not respond to requests for comment.

Gutierrez, who says Saenz-Lopez refused to return his phone calls, filed a police report last month accusing the mayor of dog theft.

Authorities initially considered criminal charges, but Jim Wells County Atty. Jesusa Sanchez-Vera declared it a civil matter. So this month, Gutierrez and Cavazos filed a civil lawsuit against the mayor, not only demanding the return of Puddles but also seeking attorney's fees and unspecified financial compensation for the emotional trauma they say they have endured.

While police and prosecutors discussed what to do, the dog remained at Linda's Grooming and Rooming for weeks, placing Linda Brandt in the middle of an uncomfortable spat between families she's known for years. Eventually, she gave the dog to Saenz-Lopez, who's well-known for rescuing stray pets and finding them good homes. But Brandt admits she's still not sure who should have Puddles -- or is it Panchito?

"She does a lot of good," Brandt said of the mayor. "She did wrong, and she knows it. She should have just told them, 'I fell in love with this little dog. Can I please keep it?' "

The mayor clearly has sympathizers, but few here believe she has a legal leg to stand on -- and she's become a source of civic shame.

"Now it's a statewide joke: You're from Alice? Your mayor steals dogs," said Ana Perez, a seamstress at the Wedding Lace bridal shop on Main Street.

Perez said she's known the mayor for years and voted for her. But as the owner of two Shih Tzus named Sparky and Lucky, Perez thinks the mayor had no right to take other people's dog, no matter how poorly they treated it.

Predictably, the mayor's political opponents have sought to magnify Puppygate.

Gutierrez said a prominent businessman recently showed up at his doorstep with a box of Krispy Kreme doughnuts, looking to talk. The man said the mayor was a bully who had to be stopped, and he tried to hand Gutierrez an envelope stuffed with $100 bills.

"He wanted me to hire the best lawyer possible," Gutierrez said, laughing. "We passed that envelope back and forth for like 10 minutes, and he finally left. A lot of people want a piece of this because they've got something to gain."

Just as predictably, the mayor's supporters have portrayed her as a Robin Hood for mistreated canines.

One morning last month mysterious newsletters appeared on lawns all over Alice. The headline on the unsigned front-page article blared, "A dog challenging the heart and soul of Alice, Texas!"

It accused the mayor's supporters of abandoning her and remarked that a person sometimes finds that friends can become traitors.

"But Mayor Saenz-Lopez has learned one thing in life -- that she now has one absolutely unselfish friend in this world -- the one that will never desert her, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous," the article said.

It didn't explain who that was, but everyone in Alice knew.

miguel.bustillo@latimes.com

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