The first time I met him, Tim Ruzzo was saddled with a large briefcase stuffed to near bursting with documents about his dog. Like a magician pulling an endless handkerchief out of his pocket, Ruzzo retrieved adoption papers, legal documents and news articles about other people like him—people who had had their dogs stolen.
He was obsessed.
It was early December, and I had reached out to him in response to an online blast he sent to the Weekly’s Facebook page. It directed me to a website he had created, entitled “Find Johanne the Beagle.” Active since August, the site posted and reposted the same stark flier every day. “STOLEN BEAGLE DOG,” it read, above a photo of a Beagle standing on a tile floor. “Johanne. Male. 3 years old. #1561554 (tattoo under right ear). Please call the owner Tim.” It listed Ruzzo’s phone number.
A few weeks after that, things got heart wrenching. “I love Johanne more than anything,” he posted. “Since the day I adopted him until he was taken, he and I spent every day together. He is my best buddy. I miss him more than I can express. Not knowing where he is has paralyzed me with worry and anxiety.”
It quickly became clear that Ruzzo was clearly not the kind of dog owner who tacks a few fliers around the neighborhood and hopes for the best. But little did anyone know this one-man campaign would turn into a beast of its own—a wild tempest of red tape, tangled legal proceedings and online communications with an ever-growing web of allies, enemies and pranksters, innumerable sleepless nights, and increasingly obsessive thinking and behavior. It would cost those involved their jobs, their time and even their sanity.
“It’s driven me crazy,” Ruzzo said flatly when we met in December, during the most intense days of the search. He was not exaggerating.
Ruzzo’s troubles started last January. After bouncing around different living arrangements for several months, he discovered that he could make decent money selling prescription painkillers over the online marketplace Craigslist. It took only three weeks before he got caught selling to an undercover police officer.
“It was stupid, stupid,” he says. He is stocky, and wears his jet black hair spiked up, betraying the gentleness that comes through from talking with him.
He didn’t expect to be selling the drugs for long, he says. He was just trying to scrape together enough money to rent a place for him and his dog to live in.
The night he got arrested, he was on the way home from the dog park with Johanne, and his friend Amanda Shepherd. The police officers left Johanne with Shepherd, who immediately brought the dog to their mutual friend Emily Kay, who runs Puppy Breath boutique in downtown Santa Cruz, and who Ruzzo and Johanne stayed with off and on before the arrest. Kay then gave Johanne to a friend of hers, Alex Rudzinski, who kept him for two weeks before creating yet another link in the chain—she gave him to friends of hers, a family who renamed him Howard and claimed him as their own, for good.
During his arrest, as he was shuffled from one person to the next, Ruzzo says he asked them all what had happened to his dog. No one would tell him.
But once he heard what had happened, Ruzzo says he pleaded with his father from behind the glass at Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas to get on Facebook and contact Rudzinski, whom Ruzzo had never met before. But his father, who is not technologically savvy, just made a few dead-end phone calls to Shepherd and Kay and then gave up the hunt. “He told me, ‘Emily [Kay] says you don’t deserve a dog anymore, and if you talk real nice to [Rudzinski] when you get out, maybe you’ll get him back,” Ruzzo remembers. “I’m like, what? What kind of friends would do this?”
I found Emily Kay behind the counter of the Puppy Breath Boutique in downtown Santa Cruz in early January. She was playing Fiona Apple over the sound system and making pastel drawings of dogs between greeting customers. She has a calm demeanor, and coos at all the dogs that people bring in, offering them free biscuits. When she heard the reason for my visit, she sighed and shook her head. She and Ruzzo are no longer on speaking terms.
She denies saying anything about Ruzzo needing to “talk nice” to Rudzinski in order to get his dog back, and maintains she never spoke to Ruzzo’s dad. “I don’t have his number, and he doesn’t have mine.”
In fact, Kay claims Ruzzo’s dad never made any sort of attempt to get Johanne back. When Shepherd showed up with the dog, the two believed it was their responsibility to figure something out. “We didn’t know how long he was going to be in jail. It was just well, I don’t have a place to be keeping this Beagle, Amanda doesn’t have a place to be keeping this Beagle, it’s not either one of our responsibilities, it was rainy middle of January, lets find this dog a new home,” says Kay.
Kay says that during the time Ruzzo stayed with her off and on before the arrest he was a terrible owner, usually “passed out on drugs somewhere” and leaving Johanne with her for weeks on end. Ruzzo owns up to some of this, but insists he made sure to see his dog every day.
Ruzzo is well aware that he messed up. He knows that none of this would have happened if he hadn’t gotten arrested. But the question this case would ultimately come down to in the courts was: does that change whether or not he is Johanne’s rightful owner?
“I feel like I kind of let him down by getting arrested,” he says. “But I don’t feel like that should mean I don’t get to have him anymore.”
The first thing Ruzzo did when he got out of jail, in July of 2013, was send a Facebook message to Rudzinski, thanking her for watching his dog while he was in jail, and asking to set up a time to see Johanne. He never heard back. After a few weeks of texting, calling and sending her online messages, Ruzzo decided to take legal action.
Over the course of the five months between when he was released from jail and when I met him, Ruzzo had filed two police reports (to which he received no response); paid a lawyer $500 to write a cease-and-desist type letter to Rudzinski (she did not reply); held two civil standbys at Rudzinski’s house, in which county sheriffs accompanied him and inspected the premises for signs of Johanne (there were none); opened a case with the Santa Clara County Dispute Resolution Program for mediation (Rudzinski and Kay failed to show up to mediation); and filed a case in small claims court, which he later closed in order to file a case with the superior court (small claims can only award money, not the stolen property itself). The superior court case is still pending.
The fault for some of this can be traced back to the San Jose Police Department. When I asked them what their protocol is in a situation like this, they said it would be “permissible to release the dog at the arrestee’s request to another party.”
Ruzzo insists that if his protocol had been followed he would have had his father pick up Johanne. As it happened, the police released Johanne to Shepherd without informing Ruzzo, and he was left wondering what happened to his dog. Shepherd’s phone line was disconnected when I attempted to reach her for this story, but according to the police report, she told them she was Ruzzo’s girlfriend (Ruzzo denies this) and that she would take care of the dog.
Christine Garcia, a Bay Area animal rights attorney who advised Ruzzo on the steps he needed to take to eventually get his dog back, says this was a big mistake on the part of the police. “As with any other property, you don’t just give it to anybody who is hanging around and standing by. You take the animal into custody and give the owner the chance to make arrangements.”
But what was done was done. And Ruzzo knew he was the only one who would be able to put in the time and energy needed to get his dog back. To that end Garcia says his perseverance was unmatched. She’s had people bug her for free legal advice before, but never with quite the same intensity as Ruzzo. “He’s amazing. He would write to me and write to me and write to me and finally I’d be like, OK—do this. Usually people that want their animal back, with one blow or two blows they’ll say, ‘Oh, I guess this isn’t going to happen.’ He kept getting up and going back in there with something else.”
Ruzzo turned to the Internet, creating a Facebook page entitled, “Find Johanne the Beagle” that at one point had a documented reach of 15,000 people.
He spent “easily hundreds of hours” on Facebook, he says. “I posted on every dog forum, every dog page, every yoga page because [Rudzinski] is involved in that scene, every—anything. People thought I was using some kind of robot. I would just copy, paste, click. Copy, paste, click. I couldn’t rest. If I wasn’t doing something in efforts to get him back I felt like it’s just going to slip away.”
In his search to restore some sanity to his life, Ruzzo did things that pushed him to the fringe—things that many considered insane. “My Dad and the few friends I have are tired of hearing about this,” he told me in mid-December following a court appearance. “I understand—it’s my whole world at this point.”
“When he first got out, he seemed in really good spirits,” says Kay. “Like his life had really turned around because he was off the drugs and everything. At first he’s saying he just wants to see the dog, even for 15 minutes is fine, but then it goes to threatening Alex, threatening her family, bringing the police over and, ‘That’s my property, I want my property back.’ He was just a completely different person.”
Rudzinski declined to comment for this story, but Kay says the ordeal caused her to suffer depression and cost her the internship she had at Satori Yoga Studio in San Francisco, because Ruzzo called the owners asking if they knew anything about Johanne. The owners of Satori Yoga did not respond to calls for this story.
In an early draft of Ruzzo’s online flier, he listed Rudzinski’s name and phone number, which he admits was a mistake. This resulted in strangers calling and texting her, demanding she return Ruzzo’s dog. She responded by blocking Ruzzo’s phone number and filing a restraining order against him.
Months passed, and while his site gained more and more traction, very little of it was helpful. “I’d have calls. ‘I found your bagel dog.’ You know. I’m all, ‘you found my Beagle?’ ‘Yeah, I found your bagel dog.’”
Things seemed like a dead end for Ruzzo for a long time. Despite the large online response to his postings, very little of it was of any help. “I would get weird emails like, ‘Where does this person live? I’ll go handle this.’ You know? And I’d say, ‘Well what were you thinking? I’ve got legal proceedings and I don’t want to do anything to hurt anybody. Do you work for any organization or something?’ And a lot of times I’d hear nothing back after that,” he says.
All told, it took another six months on top of the six he spent in jail for Ruzzo to be reunited with his dog. It also took him filing what’s called a writ of possession—basically a court order requiring Johanne’s new family to give Ruzzo back his property. He had to prove to the judge that he was Johanne’s legal owner, and that he had a stable home for the dog. To that end, Ruzzo submitted as evidence his official adoption papers, plus photos of his father’s house in San Jose, where Ruzzo is currently living and which has a yard for Johanne. He also tried submitting a printout of the approximately 2,500 signatures he had collected via an online petition, but the judge squinted and promptly dismissed this. “What people say online doesn’t impact my application of the law,” he said. “I think you know that.”
The judge granted Ruzzo possession of Johanne on a Friday in late January, and ordered the dog’s new owner—an older man with glasses who showed up in court but insisted on remaining anonymous, to return Johanne to Ruzzo in front of the courthouse later that day, at noon. He obliged, pulling up in front of the courthouse in a gray van at noon sharp. He stepped out of the car with Johanne and, along with a woman and two young kids, petted the dog one last time.
“I’ll just need to see your ID,” he told Ruzzo before releasing his hold on Johanne’s leash. Without looking up from his dog, Ruzzo retrieved his drivers’ license from his wallet and handed it to the man. “OK,” he said. The man then turned, leaving Johanne with Ruzzo, and handed me a plastic bag full of toys and food. I stood there and watched him drive away with his family while Ruzzo pet his dog, and put the red collar he had brought on him.
“Hi buddy, buddy,” he said, calmer than I expected. Johanne was calmer than I expected him to be, too. He ran up to Ruzzo and sniffed him, then also sniffed me, and a random couple walking past. He was probably overwhelmed. There had been a lot of change for this Beagle in the last year. “He’s grayer in the face,” Ruzzo said, gazing at Johanne.
During the six months he spent at Elmwood, Ruzzo dreamed of the chance to walk his dog again daily. He would even walk around the yard holding onto an invisible leash. “I was like, ‘I’m gonna go walk on the yard with my dog,’ and pretended.” The other inmates made fun of him and called him crazy. But he did it anyway. He says thinking of Johanne was the only thing that got him through his time there. “I prayed every night, ‘I hope he’s in good hands.’”
About a week after the exchange I spoke on the phone to the man who had Johanne—or Howard, as he called him—for the past year. He declined to give his name, for fear of retribution by Ruzzo.
When I told Ruzzo this, he scoffed. “I did everything by the law and legally. If anything he’s the criminal who kept a dog that wasn’t his knowingly for so long,” he said.
All the man really said was that the dog was happy with his family, and it was extremely difficult to give him back. “I’ll tell you, that was one of the hardest days of my life,” he said. He then asked me if I had seen the dog. He wanted to know how the dog was doing. I told him I hadn’t, but I would be soon. I offered to call him afterwards, give him a report.
“That’s OK,” he said. “Just when you see him, could you give him a belly rub from me?”
Fetching in Red
About a month and a half after Ruzzo got Johanne back, I met up with him on a Sunday afternoon at a dog park in Palo Alto, where a local group of Beagle owners were getting together. He had outfitted Johanne in a black and white hounds tooth collar with red along the edges. “I always liked him in red,” he said.
He let Johanne off the leash, and he quickly made friends with the other Beagles—sniffing behinds and running, jumping up on his hind legs to play-wrestle with a Beagle wearing a pink bandana. I asked Ruzzo how it’s been having Johanne back.
He said he’s been making homemade dog food from recipes he’s found online, and retraining Johanne to walk on the leash. He said Johanne gets nervous when he’s left alone, so Ruzzo and his dad make sure at least one of them is home at all times. He takes him to the dog park almost every day. “I feel normal again,” he said simply.
Ruzzo first found the Palo Alto Beagle group online, when he was searching for Johanne last year. He thought it sounded like a nice thing to do once he was reunited with Johanne. But when he applied to join, via the website Meetup.com, he was surprised to be rejected. “They thought I was spam,” he said, because Johanne’s picture had been on so many dog sites in the last year. But he told them the story, and applied again, and he got a second chance.