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Woman aims to cut red-tape delays in tracing cellphones

Mary Michael blames her stolen dog's death on Verizon's policies.

September 03, 2008|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

It was 16 years ago and Mary Michael was going through hard times. She had three children, and her first marriage was collapsing.

That's when she met a winsome ball of fur at a Mission Viejo pet store, a little dog that seemed to smile and proved impossible to resist. She took her home and named her Rebel after Rod Stewart's "Rebel Heart."

The wolf-malamute mix proved a boon companion, comforting Michael in times of trouble and protecting her from harm even as the dog slowly became a cripple.

Then on Aug. 16, Michael and her husband, Craig, visited Riverside National Cemetery. They parked their Ford Excursion and left Rebel inside with the air conditioner running. Moments later, they saw a woman jump into the SUV and speed off, followed by another vehicle.

The Excursion was found the next day parked on a Moreno Valley street. Rebel was inside, beside an empty bowl of water. She had died of heat exhaustion. Three suspects were arrested.

A distraught Michael said Rebel would be alive today if Verizon had traced the cellphone she had left inside the car.

"They could have saved Rebel's life," she said Tuesday during a news conference outside Riverside County Superior Court. "It's my phone. It has GPS capability. We should be able to use it."

Michael, who is originally from London and lives in Hemet, has started a campaign to make such tracking easier. Many wireless companies now require warrants before tracing phones, but Michael argues that obtaining a warrant takes too long when a life hangs in the balance.

Verizon spokesman Ken Muche said state and federal privacy laws make it impossible to trace a phone without a court order. He said criminals and stalkers had impersonated customers in the past to try to find cellphone users.

"We work with law enforcement and will respond to requests from the court like subpoenas and warrants," Muche said. "We have a policy in place so our customer service people are not in a position of having to determine a person's identity."

Had Verizon traced the phone, it could have pinpointed the location to as close as 50 to 100 yards, he said.

That was cold comfort to Michael.

"If this had been done, Rebel would not have had to suffer, and we would not be going through the pain of losing her in this terrible way," she said. "I can't bear to think of what she went through during those last hours. I can't go there, it's too horrible."

Her husband wondered how tracing the phone could have been a problem in their case.

"There is no invasion of privacy because they are tracking our phone," he said.

Investigators arrested Gabriela Briones, 31, of Corona on suspicion of vehicle theft, forgery and animal cruelty. She told authorities she didn't know the dog was in the car. Michael said that was impossible because Rebel was barely a foot behind her in the back seat and would have been barking.

Another suspect, Rhett Hermanson, 18, of Corona, was arrested after authorities said he tried to pass checks taken from the Excursion. Michael Deharo, 27, also of Corona, was charged with helping steal the vehicle.

Immediately after witnessing the theft, the Michaels rushed into a Verizon store in Moreno Valley and tried unsuccessfully to persuade employees to track the phone. Then they called Verizon and were told about the warrant policy. A warrant, they argued in vain, would take hours to get, and by that time the phone would be dead.

As a last resort, Mary Michael's son sent text messages to the phone begging for the dog's release.

"We know that Rebel lived throughout the night and could have been saved," Michael said. A passerby saw the dog alive in the car the next day and called police. But by the time the call was made and police arrived, she had died.

Michael made a scrapbook of Rebel's life, from her youth as a fuzzy, bear cub-like pup to her last years, when she suffered from hip dysplasia. Rebel's hip, she said, had degenerated to the point she had difficulty walking. Michael spent two years at home taking care of Rebel as she became increasingly immobilized.

"She was my life," Michael said. "I remember times when I was feeling sorry for myself and lying on the bed, and Rebel would come and drop a piece of bread for me to eat."

She took the dog everywhere. When Rebel was young, Michael swaddled her in blankets and pushed her around the grocery store in a shopping cart. "She didn't deserve this," Michael said, kissing a photo of her dog. "I want my Rebel back. No one can replace her."

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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