Abducted Dog, Rusty, Reunited with Owner

December 02, 2004, 12:00 AM Daily Journal wire report

A San Mateo dog recently taken from his condominium complex is home and safe, his owner reported yesterday.

“This was the best Christmas present I could have asked for,” said Michele Phaler, whose 9-year-old Jack Russell terrier known as Rusty Dog disappeared three days before Thanksgiving.

A witness reported seeing a brunette woman call Rusty by name just before driving off with the fluffy friendly dog in her gray sedan.

Yesterday, the mystery woman came forward, returned the dog and apologized to Phaler.

“She said she was sorry, she didn’t want the money,” said Phaler who had offered a $2,000 “no-questions-asked” reward for the dog's safe return.

Following her morning routine, Phaler let the dog out on the grass in front of her Edgewater Isle condominium about 9:30 a.m. Nov. 22. Within 10 minutes, Rusty went missing.

One of Phaler’s neighbors told her he saw a woman in the visitor parking area drive off with Rusty. The neighbor at first was not alarmed because he assumed Phaler knew the woman.

Phaler reported the incident to the police and searched the Peninsula Humane Society and Pets in Need for her beloved dog, but he was nowhere to be found.

Phaler posted fliers around town and recently told Rusty’s story to the local press. Yesterday morning, a woman identifying herself as “Justine” called Phaler and confessed that she had the dog. She told Phaler she had seen Rusty chasing a squirrel and was worried he would be hit by a car, so she took him home to play with her own terrier.

“She said I’m so sorry, you must have been going through hell,” Phaler said.

About 10:15 yesterday morning, Justine drove to Edgewater Isle and met Phaler outside.

Justine returned Rusty about 10:45 a.m.

Rusty was covered with fleas, but otherwise OK.

"I'm not pressing charges," Phaler said.

Phaler did, however, give Justine's license plate number to the San Mateo Police Department.

Rusty will also receive a microchip so he can be identified should he be lost in the future, Phaler said.