By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
A few months ago, a Shar-Pei escaped from his north Phoenix backyard and wandered to a nearby apartment complex on Shangri-La Road. The friendly dog trotted up to a woman named Vickie Back, and she fed him a snack and a bowl of water. No dummy, he stuck around Back's apartment.
But the cream-color, 3-year-old male bore no tags. Back says she called the Arizona Humane Society and walked him around her neighborhood several times, but couldn't locate the owner. Several days passed. Then, on the afternoon of March 6, a dog groomer named Bonnie Baker spotted the Shar-Pei in Vickie Back's front yard. She was sure it was Hooch, a valuable dog that belonged to her friend Sandy Cummings.
A happy ending? Hardly.
What happened in the next several hours has even seasoned veterans of the criminal justice system shaking their heads and wagging their tongues. There was a hostage situationÏif you believe the Phoenix police. And because of Hooch, Vickie Back, a 35-year-old single mother of four, may wind up in prison. This shaggy-dog story even includes the Proverbial Shaggy-haired Stranger-if you believe Vickie Back.
Things got dicey, everyone agrees, when 19-year-old Sandy Cummings came by Vickie Back's house to retrieve the dog.
I showed her my dog's registration, and that's when it started," says Cummings. She grabbed the papers out of my hand and said, `These are mighty pretty papers, but they don't mean nothing. I'm not giving you this dog.'"
The papers included a recent vaccination certificate for a Shar-Pei named Hooch, and a registration form issued by the Chinese Shar-Pei Club of America.
Back's version: A lady in another apartment told me these people had a past history of claiming dogs, and I was suspicious. Other people had told me they owned the dog, too, not just that girl. And another guy had said he took care of the dog when it escaped some other time."
Sandy Cummings went home and called police. Officers Edward Smith and Debra Laman headed to Shangri-La Road to check it out. Smith questioned Vickie Back, who repeated what she had told Sandy Cummings.
According to Officer Smith, Back also said that, moments earlier, an unknown white male" had taken Hooch from her front porch. It was the same guy who had previously taken care of the wandering dog, she claimed. Hmmm. The Proverbial Shaggy-haired Stranger?
Smith asked Back if he could search her apartment. She said no.
The police left, but they had a plan, according to Sandy Cummings: They said it wasn't against the law for us to stay on the sidewalk and try to get a picture of the dog. We brought out a tape recorder, too. We were going to stay out there all night if we had to."
Hours passed, and a crowd started to form on the street outside Vickie Back's apartment. It was getting nasty," admits Bonnie Baker. All we wanted was Hooch and it would have ended."
Vickie Back eventually telephoned the police to complain about the restless crowd outside her door. Officer Smith and another Phoenix cop returned to Shangri-La. Back told them the unknown guy hadn't returned yet with Hooch.
They told me, `If you produce the dog right now, we won't take you to jail,'" Back says the officers replied. They put me in the cop car and they told me my kids were going to the foster home. And they found out I had been in trouble before."
The trouble she refers to is a mid-1980s felony conviction that involved about $2,000 in bad checks. Vickie Back is still on probation for that crime until she completes restitution.
As Back sat in the police car, a neighbor of hers named Ronnie Hensley went into her apartment, as an officer watched, ostensibly to check on Back's young children. According to a police report, Hensley emerged with Hooch.
Hensley, however, tells New Times a far different tale: I swear to God on the Bible that I didn't carry that dog out the door. I hate dogs. I found it around the side of the apartment." (If he hated dogs so much, why did he...oh, never mind.)
Officer Smith took Hooch from Hensley, but the police didn't turn the dog over to Sandy Cummings just like that. There was more police work to be done on this collar. This is how Officer Smith described it in his report:
I held [Hooch] by the collar on the sidewalk and had Sandy walk away approximately 25 feet. I held the dog and turned his head so he could not see Sandy and asked her to call the dog in a normal voice. At that time, Sandy stated, `Hooch, come here,' and the dog perked its ears, turned its head toward Sandy and attempted to pull away from me. I released him at that time and he ran to her freely without further prompting."
To complete the test, Officer Smith asked Sandy to call him by a different name, at which time he did not respond."
Case almost closed.
Cummings was allowed to take Hooch home.
What happened to Vickie Back? It was off to jail on charges of theft and giving false information to police. She was booked in lieu of a $3,500 bond and spent the night behind bars.
We didn't want her arrested over a dumb dog," says dog groomer Bonnie Baker, whose sharp eyes first spotted her friend's lost Shar-Pei. This is hard to understand. I love dogs, but I'm not going to go to jail over one of them. We figured if she loves animals so much, maybe they should make her do some community service work at the Humane Society."
But justice isn't necessarily humane. Vickie Back is scheduled for trial in Superior Court this summer. Because Hooch has been valued at more than $1,000, this case has been classified as a major felony.
Back expresses surprise anyone would doubt her story that Hooch was not in her apartment when the cops showed up. She says a prosecutor recently offered her a plea bargain to a misdemeanor. She rejected it, Back says, even though she may face prison time because of her felony history. (Her next court appearance is a pretrial hearing scheduled for June 3.)
I have walked a straight line for years," Back says. I am very proud of myself and how well I've done. I'm not going to cop to something I didn't do. I can understand where those people are coming from. They think I stole their dog, but I didn't steal their dog. And the cops are wrong, too."
Hooch hasn't escaped recently. We're keeping a good eye on him," says Sandy Cummings as Hooch hovers nearby around six puppies he sired.
Over at Vickie Back's, a friendly pit bull is sleeping on the kitchen floor. Your new dog, a visitor asks?
No," she says. This guy I know brought him by yesterday, said he was a stray that had been wandering around Mesa. I don't want to keep him because he's got someone out there who's missing him. But I'll take care of him until I can find his owner."
Vickie Back swears she sees the irony.