Video footage points to inside job in theft of Otis the pug, a dog with 25K Instagram followers
Steve — we’ll call him Steve — sits on the new, two-ton, intentionally uncomfortable stone bench at the 16th Street BART Plaza meant to frustrate homeless sleepers. He takes a drag off his cigarette. The whole world appears to be in motion here, but we’re sitting still — though it is hard to keep from slipping off this profoundly uncomfortable bench.
He’s confused as to why I have sought him out. “I don’t understand the fascination with this,” he tells me quietly. “The question isn’t why I did what I did. The question is: Why should this be seen as so strange?”
A lady’s dog was stolen. Steve found it. No big deal.
Then he turned down the reward. Which was $15,000.
Also: He’s homeless.
Steve exhales a cloud of smoke and slowly gestures at the other men and women on the plaza. Every one of them looks like he or she could use $15,000. “People look at the folks out here. They don’t know our stories. They assume a whole lot.”
And that’s a mistake.
“This,” he continues, “is the way I was raised, man.” The reward would be life-changing, but Steve could not in good conscience accept what he calls “a ridiculous amount of money.” Not for just doing the right thing. Not for doing what he’d do anyway.
He shakes his head. “I don’t know why the world is so selfish. I just wanted to help someone.”
He lets the thought hang for a moment, and turns to look me in the eye. “Why is the world so fucked-up that this is considered an unusual act?” he asks.
I have no answer for him.
The strange and terrible saga of Otis the pug’s theft and recovery began at 2:11 p.m. on Sept. 11 and ended at 6:30 a.m. on Sept. 12. The interregnum was the worst 16 hours of Kelly Fitch’s life.
Fitch, 27, is an event planner. Until the end of September she lived in a postage-stamp-sized, rent-controlled apartment on Valencia Street. It’s remarkably clean and so small that there’s no table to sit at for her to recount those dark 16 hours. Fitch sits on her bed and I sit on her floor.
If you lose anything in an apartment of this size, you’ll find it in two minutes or it’s not going to be found. And, on Sept. 11, Otis the pug wasn’t there when Fitch opened the door. Nothing else was missing. There were no signs of breaking or entering. The 20-pound beastie had, apparently, pulled a Houdini. Or, more likely, someone opened the door and took him. Regardless, he was gone.
Fitch was horrified. And, to boot, the 7-year-old dog’s 25,000 Instagram followers were horrified, too.
“I don’t make any money off Otis’ Instagram,” Fitch tells me. “People just enjoy looking at pictures of him.” Well, of course they do. He is a delightfully ridiculous creature and a living stuffed animal.
But now he was gone.
Fitch informed her family members. She informed her friends. And, notably, she informed Otis’ friends. And they delivered. Fliers with his adorable likeness were created and disseminated throughout the Mission. And if this pug’s picture didn’t turn your head, the promised reward would: $15,000.
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Now, that’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of money. That’s a metric shitload of money.
Fitch’s friends told her “don’t do that.” She did that.
“That is a big chunk of money. That would’ve hurt my savings. But it would’ve hurt more to not get Otis back.” She’d heard stories of pugs going on the black market for thousands of dollars. She wanted to stave off this possibility. At nearly any cost.
Fitch didn’t feel comfortable in an apartment where someone apparently so effortlessly absconded with her pug, so she spent the night at the home of her friend, Ericka Castle. Nobody slept. There was much lamentation and fruitless refreshing of Web browsers in hopes of a message or tip. None came.
But, then, at 5:30 a.m., Fitch’s cell rang.
“Now, hear me out,” said the deep voice on the other end of the line. “I know this dog means a lot to you. I can tell from the poster the dog means a lot to you. I believe I’ve seen it.” The man asked Fitch to meet him at the gas station at Mission and 14th — like, now. And then he hung up.
Heading out in the pre-dawn hours to meet a total stranger at a gas station when you’ve advertised a $15,000 reward for a dog is not the most well-advised thing to do. Fitch’s friends told her “Don’t do that.” She did that.
Castle tagged along. They arranged that their friend, Cesar, would also meet them en route to his early-morning kitchen job.
And, in the oasis of light at the Arco station, there was Steve.
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Steve approached Fitch. “I know you don’t trust me,” he said. “So take my ID.” He handed her his driver’s license. He asked only Cesar to come with him — the women felt Steve was watching out for their safety here — and the two men went off to the nearby homeless encampment to retrieve Otis the pug.
This was not a pleasant time for Fitch. Five minutes became 10, 10 became 20. The sun rose and Steve returned with information — but not Otis. The dog wasn’t where he’d been before. But they were told he’d been dropped off in a large tub by a strangely emotionless woman — young-looking with dark hair — who simply said she didn’t want her dog anymore. The homeless woman in the tent was happy to take the pug, but she didn’t think it added up: “How can you not care about a dog that’s so cute?”
Fitch was setting herself up to be disappointed. Maybe there would be a dog, but it wouldn’t be Otis. She’d take care of that dog. That’s not the worst outcome. And then a homeless woman walked around the corner with a pug in her arms. It was Otis.
“I have never had a crazier swing of emotions,” says Fitch’s friend Castle. “This was one of the wildest nights of my life.”
And it got wilder. When Fitch began to ask Steve how she could get him his reward, he said not to bother. He turned it down.
But that wasn’t the last surprise.
We know Otis the pug was taken at 2:11 p.m. on Sept. 11 because the Nest camera in Fitch’s apartment reveals her door opening after someone rattles through a number of incorrect keys. The pug emerges from the closet, and, within a minute or so, out he goes.
Well, that narrows down the suspect pool quite a bit. With that, it went from everyone in the city to Fitch’s dog-walker or resident manager. And another building resident’s Nest camera reveals the resident manager’s door slamming at nearly exactly 2:11 p.m.
But wait — there’s more: Video from neighboring businesses Fitch rounded up herself reveals a woman — who, for all the world, resembles her resident manager — walking toward the homeless camp where Otis was recovered. These videos were recorded at 2:22 and 2:27 p.m., and the woman is carrying a large black-and-yellow tub — a tub identical to the one at the homeless encampment in which Otis was dropped off.
And, finally, there’s history here. Fitch had complained, repeatedly, about her resident manager’s habit of smoking in the hallways and leaving the building doors open, so anyone could wander in off Valencia — she worried Otis the pug might run off. Or, perhaps, someone would steal him.
There were other things, too: Fitch says the resident manager had a habit of skulking down the halls, talking to herself, and wearing her clothes inside-out. A cursory Internet search finds someone with the same name as the manager penning multiple posts in which she claims to have had “internal implants” clandestinely placed into her body as part of “government or occult programming.”
On a recent Wednesday, I approached the manager, who was smoking in the building’s exterior hallway. I asked the woman — young-looking with dark hair — if she had played a role in the theft of her neighbor’s dog.
“It’s complicated,” she replied. “I’m being set up for things I didn’t do.”
She claimed she had to go, on her own volition, to speak to the police and “give them the real story.” She took my card. “Maybe I’ll contact you afterward.”
She hasn’t yet.
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This woman’s apartment was 10 feet from Kelly Fitch’s. Fitch decided this was untenable and moved out at the end of last month.
Fitch’s sister contacted attorney Joe Tobener on her behalf, and he took the case. Expect legal action regarding a constructive eviction — “being forced out because of some situation at the property that is unsafe” — this month, the attorney says. “This,” he continues, “is a really common type of lawsuit we file.”
At least something about this case is common.
Fitch’s housing ordeal leaves Steve — who, again, is unhoused — fuming. “She’s become like a baby sister to me.”
But Fitch is going to be okay. So is Otis. They’ve moved in with Ericka Castle. And maybe, just maybe, Steve will be okay, too. He didn’t want Fitch’s $15,000. But he has acquiesced to smaller gestures. A night in a motel here, a set of work tools there. But, most of all, he just appreciates Fitch for who she is.
“She is someone positive in my life when I don’t have a lot of positive people in my life.”
He rises off the stone bench and wanders into the 16th and Mission crowd. But he turns to offer some parting advice: “You never know when you’ll be talking to an angel.”
Steve found a dog. But he found more than that.
“Finding Kelly,” he says, “was a blessing.”
He smiles. And then he’s gone.