Jeff Jardine

$2,000 breeds suspicious 'finder'

Juan Gonzales rolls his wheelchair to a lift on his new van Monday as Carole McFarlane of the Society for Handicapped Children and Adults and Robert Borman of Modesto Mobility Center look on.
Juan Gonzales rolls his wheelchair to a lift on his new van Monday as Carole McFarlane of the Society for Handicapped Children and Adults and Robert Borman of Modesto Mobility Center look on. Modesto Bee

From the e-mails and voice mails:

SMELLING A RAT -- Last week, Oakdale residents might have noticed rather large signs on the east side of town and beyond. They were placed by Tyler Hawkins, a 30-year-old general contractor who offered a $2,000 reward for the safe return of his beloved dog, Roxy.

Roxy is an 11-year-old Schipperke (pronounced skipper-key). It's a breed once used to kill rats and guard canal barges in Belgium. (There's a fact to remember if you're ever on "Jeopardy.")

The signs became the buzz of the town because of the size of the reward and the size of the signs. They certainly caught my eye. After all, just a couple of weeks ago I wrote a column about how druggies will turn in their criminal brethren for a measly $100 bounty, and here Hawkins was offering two grand for a dog.

Roxy, Hawkins said, dug her way out of the yard Sept. 5. Within an hour, he realized Roxy was gone and began searching the neighborhood and text-messaging friends.

He quickly hand wrote and posted "lost dog" fliers around the neighborhood. A day or so later, he found an automated phone-calling service, and paid $150 to reach 750 homes in the area with a message about the missing pooch. Still, no luck.

"I knew I needed to go bigger," he said.

So he ordered the 4-by-8-foot signs at a cost of about $600. He continued to look for the dog and received tremendous support from neighbors who joined in the hunt. They came up empty, though, and he simply had to wait for the reward to work its magic.

That happened Thursday, nearly a week after Roxy vanished.

"I got a call at 8 a.m.," Hawkins said. "He described my dog, and I was about 90 percent sure it was Roxy. But he wanted me to wait another day before I'd get her. And then he said, 'A $2,000 reward, right?' "

The man told Hawkins he was from the Bay Area and was headed to Black Oak Casino in Tuolumne City when he saw the dog wandering at Highway 108 and Atlas Road. He stopped to pick it up.

An hour later, the guy called again.

"He said, 'You said $2,000, right?' " Hawkins said. "Then he said he wanted cash only. Fine. I just want my dog back. He said he'd meet me at Mo's (Oasis Market) at Whitmore and Geer."

The meeting place raised Hawkins' suspicions. Why would a guy from the Bay Area want to meet him near Hughson? The guy's obsession with the reward money only added to his doubts.

"Every other person I talked to said, 'If I find your dog, I don't want any reward,' " Hawkins said.

He consulted with friends in law enforcement. They cautioned him about paying a reward to the caller who, by law, was obligated to return the dog to its rightful owner or take it to a pound. Hawkins' cop friends figured he was the target of an opportunist.

Fifteen minutes before the scheduled cur-for-cash exchange, the guy called Hawkins to say he was "stuck in Bay Area traffic" and that his wife would take his place to make the swap.

Acting on the advice of his law enforcement friends, Hawkins told the wife he wasn't going to pay her the full $2,000, and that a sheriff's deputy was on his way to question her. He also learned the couple lives in Hughson, not the Bay Area.

He was happy to get Roxy back.

"I gave her $500 and I threw in an extra $100 because she seemed like a nice lady," Hawkins said.

Hawkins and Roxy went home.

As he told the story to neighbors, Hawkins used the guy's name. A few of them recognized it: He's their gardener-landscaper. They suspect he grabbed the dog within minutes of its escape from Hawkins' yard a week earlier.

"The same guy," Hawkins said.

That explains why the guy sent his wife instead of making the doggie drop himself.

"He thought I might recognize him," Hawkins said.

Angry, Hawkins called him. "How could you do this?" he demanded.

The man denied stealing the dog, but immediately offered to give back the $600, Hawkins said.

"Why lie about everything, then?" Hawkins wondered.

They met later that day at the same place, Mo's Oasis Market. By coincidence, a sheriff's deputy happened to be at the intersection when the guy arrived. He saw the deputy and tried to drive away, but Hawkins cut him off and stopped him. The deputy questioned the opportunist and then let him go.

"I got my money back," Hawkins said. More important, he has Roxy back.

He gladly would have paid the $2,000, he said, to an honest finder. Instead, the owner -- not the dog -- smelled a rat.

BACK IN THE SADDLE AGAIN -- Seven weeks had passed since Juan Gonzales had wheels that were highway worthy. The quadriplegic's motorized wheelchair is suitable once he gets to Modesto Junior College or to the store. But to get there, he needed a bigger form of transportation. The 25-year-old Oakdale resident's customized minivan had been stolen while parked in front of his home Aug. 4. Manteca police found it stripped, dumped and torched in that city a few days later.

Monday, Gonzales -- paralyzed when he was thrown from a bull in 1998 -- became mobile once again. The Society for Handicapped Children and Adults recently received a full-sized van, had it retrofitted with hand controls and turned it over to Gonzales at the agency's office in downtown Modesto. Rob Borman of the Modesto Mobility Center donated and installed the hand controls.

GOLF WARS-- Modesto's Bob Davidson is about to win the ultimate long-drive contest by sending more than 20,000 golf balls and thousands of clubs 8,400 miles to the troops in Iraq. I wrote about Davidson's Operation Driving Range in my Sept. 4 column. A Sacramento TV station picked up on it and helped spread the word. Davidson's son, Robert Davidson Jr., is stationed in Iraq and asked his dad to collect and ship as much golf equipment as possible overseas. Makeshift driving ranges let military personnel blow off stress and steam by bashing golf balls, he said. Public courses, country clubs and individuals from Turlock to Sacramento have responded. Butch Coburn of Hughson Nut has offered to help crate the first wave of golf gear, which the Army will ship to Iraq.

As a way of saying thanks, the troops plan to fly flags over their bases and then send them to the country clubs, public courses and others who contribute to the effort.

To comment, click on the link with this column at Jeff Jardine's column appears

Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at or 578-2383.

Related stories from Modesto Bee