INDIANAPOLIS - Police said they are pursuing criminal charges against an Indianapolis couple for keeping a lost dog away from its rightful owner, even after discovering a microchip that identified the dog as belonging to someone else.
"I had a lot of sleepless nights, just wondering what happened to her and where she could be," said Tasha Hartman, whose 6-year-old miniature dachshund Cinderella vanished from her back yard last month.
Hartman said an emotional roller-coaster unfolded because of a microchip that was implanted under the dog's skin to identify her as the owner. Police said a couple claimed her dog as their own after saying they found it wandering on a street near Hartman's home.
"Our hopes were when we micro chipped the dogs that if our dogs were ever lost, they wouldn't be lost long," said Hartman.
Hartman told Scripps sister station WRTV Investigators that she received an email on Nov. 13, from the company through which she registered the dog's microchip, informing her that the chip had been scanned at a veterinary clinic in Kokomo on Oct. 31, a week after the dog vanished from her yard.
She then called that facility, the Jefferson Road Animal Hospital in Kokomo, but she told police that the staff refused to tell her anything about the couple who had brought her dog into their facility.
"I asked if there was anything that they could do to help me contact this individual since they hadn't contacted me themselves yet, and they said unfortunately, due to client confidentiality and the fact that -- they said this exactly -- that the person presented the dog as their own, they legally could not provide me with their contact information," Hartman said.
Hartman then called police in hopes that they could get that information from the vet's office.
"That's when I was like, 'Oh gosh, someone actually has her, and even worse, someone has her and apparently doesn't want to give her back,'" said Hartman.
The initial Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department officer assigned to her case called her within an hour, she said, but after contacting the couple, he told her it was not a police matter and she would have to sue the couple in small claims court.
She said that officer closed the case because she had no proof that the dog was stolen, and because the people who found the dog convinced the officer that they had made a good faith effort to find the dog's true owner.
"I immediately thought ill intent that the person isn't intending to give it back," Hartman said.
The WRTV Investigators then obtained a copy of the police report and contacted Hartman, prompting her case to be reopened by IMPD officers assigned to the Indianapolis Animal Care and Control bureau.
Animal control's Deputy Director of Enforcement Marcus Brown said that original officer was apparently not aware of a city law that requires anyone who finds an animal to follow certain procedures before it can be claimed. If those procedures are not followed and someone keeps an animal after finding a microchip with an owner's information, he said the finder can be arrested on theft charges.
"It could have worked a lot smoother, and it wouldn't have had to go on as far as it did," said Brown.
He said officers contacted the couple who had scanned the microchip on the dog, and they refused to return the dog. He said they claimed to be entitled to the dog because they had rescued it from the streets.
"There was a crime that was committed here at the point in time when you were notified that the animal belonged to someone else," he said.
Marion County ordinance requires anyone who finds a dog or cat to take that animal within 48 hours to a facility that can scan for any microchip. Someone can claim the pet as their own only after 30 days have passed.
Police said the couple initially claimed that they had knocked on doors in hopes of finding the dog's owner near the spot where they found it. Plus, after the microchip was scanned by their veterinarian in Kokomo, police said they claimed to have knocked on the door of the registered owner, who disavowed any knowledge of such a dog.
Hartman said no one knocked on her door.
Brown and other officers said they advised the couple that they could face arrest, prompting the couple to agree to return the dog earlier this week.
Staff stood by at the Animal Care and Control facility, and Hartman arrived with her husband and baby on Tuesday in hopes of being reunited with their dog.
No one showed, and the dog was not returned, prompting Hartman to leave the city pound in tears.
Police said they continued trying to persuade the couple to return the dog but met even more resistance, despite the couple acknowledging that they were aware that the microchip showed that the dog had an owner.
"It's a little frustrating. I think this has become a lot bigger of an issue than it had to be," said Brown.
A second meeting was arranged for Thursday morning, and television cameras were rolling as the couple showed up at the city pound with the missing
The couple appeared to be holding a white bag full of bedding and food as they walked into the pound with their criminal defense attorney, John Razumich of Indianapolis.
When approached by reporters, Razumich confirmed that his clients had just returned the dog in question.
When asked why they kept the dog in spite of the microchip and the repeated calls from police, he called the case "a tragedy of" circumstances or events.
Razumich blamed "confusion" over whether criminal laws or civil laws applied in the case, a reference to the original police officer who said no crime had been committed.
He said that when his clients contacted him, he quickly arranged the return of the dog "through the appropriate channels." He said the entire process simply "took a few extra days" for his clients to verify which laws applied to them and exactly what they should do.
He said he planned to represent the couple, whom he declined to identify, if criminal charges are filed.
Brown and other officers at the Animal Care and Control office said they were in the process of filing felony theft charges since the value of the pure-bred dog was listed at $500.
"It's not over," Brown said "We're going to regroup. We're going to sit down (and) put all our evidence together."
Moments after the couple walked into the dog pound building, they were seen leaving with nothing in their hands.
Animal control workers said the couple offered to leave the food and bedding they had brought with them so that the rightful owner could use them, but pound workers told them it was not needed and asked the lawyer to take all the items away.
Hartman arrived minutes later and burst into tears as she was reunited with Cinderella inside the animal control office.
"I wasn't sure whether this day would ever come, baby girl," she said as the dog licked her face.
She told the WRTV Investigators, "It's been happy one minute and crying the next, and now it's just happy and crying.
"I felt so hopeless for so long, and now it's just all come together for me and for our family. She's a missing member and she's back."
Police said the couple who found the dog had been calling it by the name "Cinnamon." They said the couple apparently discovered the microchip while trying to obtain vaccinations from their veterinarian.
Brown said city law currently does not impose a requirement on veterinary clinics or any other rescue shelters to notify a rightful owner when a microchip is discovered.
He said common sense and decency should dictate that any such clinic notifies the rightful owner, but he said this case will prompt his office to push for changes in the law that would require it.
The owner of Jefferson Road Animal Hospital, Dr. Robert Mason, did not respond to a request for comment. Police are not accusing him or his staff of any wrongdoing.
Police and animal control workers declined to identify the couple who returned the dog, saying it was still an ongoing criminal investigation.