An English bulldog puppy who thought he was headed to a new home was instead nabbed at gunpoint, dog-napped to a different state and held in a zipped-up suitcase during a three-hour standoff with police.
The unlikely saga of Harpo the puppy came to a happy ending, however, thanks to the quick thinking of his owners, Pat and Jim Steele, a retired couple in Oregon who breed and sell bulldog puppies as a part-time hobby.
The Steeles, who have raised bulldogs for all their 33-year marriage, began receiving calls last week from a man who wanted to buy a puppy.
"He called three times on Friday and sounded like he was trying to disguise his voice," Pat Steele, 62, said by phone today. "He had a restricted number and that was a red flag to us but he used a name and when we checked the name online, it came up clean."
The Steeles arranged to meet the man later that afternoon in the parking lot of a shopping center near their Oregon City home with Harpo and another puppy, Rambo.
"Our kids had told us a long time ago that they were very uncomfortable with the fact that we invited people into our homes to look at puppies and told us to only meet people in public places in daylight," Steele, a mother of seven, said. "We did all of that. We thought we were in the right place but it was the wrong time, obviously."
About 20 minutes into their meeting, the man said he needed to get the $4,000 payment for Harpo and Rambo from his car. When he returned to the Steeles' car, he had no money but a gun that he pointed right at Jim's head with a demand that the couple turn over their cellphones, wallets and both dogs.
"My husband turned to him and said, 'You're not going to kill me,' and grabbed his wrist and turned it so the gun was pointed at the windshield and not us," Steele said. "The man grabbed Harpo and he reached back for Rambo but I laid over him. I figured if I was going to die, I might as well save the puppy."
The suspect fled with the 9-pound Harpo but the Steeles had a key piece of evidence, the license plate number from his car that Steele told her husband to write down because she had a gut feeling something wasn't right.
Armed with that information, police tracked the suspect to nearby Vancouver, Wash., roughly 25 miles from Oregon City, where the search continued.
The next day the couple, who were both unharmed in the robbery, gave police an even bigger tip, an address from a phone call they received.
"We got a call from a blocked number so I didn't answer," Steele said. "The person called again and said, 'Don't hang up. I know where your dog is,' and gave an address."
That person, who has not been publicly identified, was right on the money. The tip led police to a Vancouver apartment occupied by suspect Jajuane Etheridge, 23.
Because the alleged crime involved a gun, Vancouver police sent in a SWAT team to deliver a search warrant. After a three-hour standoff, Etheridge surrendered. Police found Harpo inside the apartment, zipped up in a suitcase but unharmed, Sgt. Adam Phillips from the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office confirmed to the Los Angeles Times.
"He was packed up to go, where I don't know," Steele said. "He was dehydrated but he was OK. He evidently had a diet of color crayons while he was there because we saw them in living color."
Etheridge reportedly had a prior criminal record and was booked in connection to possession of stolen property. Authorities are also reportedly looking for a second suspect in the case. Phone calls placed to the Clackamas County and Vancouver police departments were not returned.
Harpo is now safely back at home with the Steeles, where he will stay for at least the near future.
"I couldn't think of selling him right now," Steele said. "People are calling and asking but I've told them I couldn't deal with that right now. I think it would be too traumatic for him too."
The Steeles, who have 18 adult bulldogs and breed about three litters a year, also plan to keep up their hobby, despite the scare.
"We're not going to go away because of it," Steele said. "We've never had a problem before and we've met some of the nicest families through bulldogs."