Lost dog led to trying case

Lost dog led to trying case

Larry Altman DAILY BREEZE

It started out simply: Vicki and Joseph French’s dog, Cassie, got out of their yard.

Former Lawndale Planning Commissioner Edie Warwick found it.

In the months to follow, it evolved into one of the South Bay’s most bitter custody battles, forced two trials over a three-year period and ultimately never was resolved.

The dispute began Sept. 11, 1994, when Cassie, a 2-year-old black chow, wandered away from the Frenches’ back yard. The Frenches placed an ad in the Daily Breeze.

So did Warwick.

But when Joseph French and his young sons went to Warwick’s house to collect their pooch, the dog ran from them. Warwick did not believe they were the owners.

“The dog didn’t acknowledge him or his children,” Warwick said at the time. “We said no way to releasing this dog.”

French called the Sheriff’s Department. Warwick called Mayor Harold Hofmann and City Councilman Larry Rudolph.

Deputies tried reasoning with Warwick, but she refused to give up the dog. For several days, they negotiated with her, but Warwick said she feared the dog would be placed in a kennel and get raped.

“Sometimes in life you have to take a stand,” said Warwick, who had renamed the dog Lady when she invited a reporter into her home.

Lennox sheriff’s deputies quickly opened a theft investigation. Detective Hector Garcia, who recently retired, told Warwick that if she did not hand over the dog, he would serve a search warrant and retrieve the animal himself.

“I am amazed at the hardball tactics of the Sheriff’s Department,” Warwick said in a statement at the time. “They seem to be sitting as both judge and jury — no actually, like a bunch of humorless thugs.”

Deputies agreed they weren’t laughing at the incident. Warwick was charged with theft.

The night before deputies planned to break open her door, Warwick reported the dog missing. She even suggested that sheriff’s deputies stole the dog, and denied hiding it herself.

But the next day, a Torrance kennel operator following the daily developments in the Daily Breeze recognized the missing dog as one stashed for four days at her business. The woman who boarded the dog there had collected the dog, signing the boarding slip “Cruela DeVil,” the notorious villain in Disney’s “101 Dalmatians” film.

Most of the information on the slip was false, but detectives traced a telephone number to the home of Warwick’s son in El Segundo. When they arrived, they heard someone inside say, “Hide the dog!”

By the time someone opened the door, the dog was gone and no one ever saw her again, not even in court.

Warwick’s trial in South Bay Municipal Court in Torrance began in February 1995, while most of the media paid attention to O.J. Simpson.

Warwick’s attorney, Michael Rotsten, argued his client was not guilty because the dog simply did not belong to the Frenches.

But 8-year-old Brandon French, and his 12-year-old brother, Jason, testified that Cassie was their dog and they wanted her back.

Jurors hung 10-2 in favor of guilt.

Warwick went on trial again that July, facing another panel of jurors. The trial again featured witnesses, including the boys, their parents and Lawndale city officials.

This time, jurors found her guilty. Warwick barged out of the courtroom, smacking Daily Breeze photographer Robert Casillas on the head with her purse when he tried to take her picture.

Judge Josh Fredricks ordered Warwick to bring the dog in his courtroom by 11 a.m. the next day. If she did, he would sentence her to 30 days in jail. If she did not, she would receive five months.

Everyone waited the next morning. The deadline passed and Warwick never appeared. Fredricks imposed the harsher sentence.

Warwick told a reporter that morning that she slept in. She continued to maintain her innocence, blamed her conviction on her attorney in the second trial, Scott McCabe, said witnesses lied, and said jurors were swayed by emotion.

“Those people did not own that dog in the beginning,” she said. “The dog I found is not the dog they lost.”

Warwick appealed the conviction, but ultimately lost and was ordered to go to jail. In 1997, she admitted to having the dog at her home.

When Fredricks ordered her into custody Aug. 14, 1997, he made no ruling directing her to hand over the dog. Sheriff’s deputies said they did not have enough evidence to secure a search warrant to enter her home. The Frenches never got their dog back.

A few weeks later, despite the three-year expensive court battle, Warwick was let out of jail, months before her sentence was to end. Sheriff’s deputies said the reason for her early release was overcrowded jail facilities.

“I’ve got a statement for you,” Warwick told a reporter. “Weebles wobble, but they don’t fall down.”

Copyright Copley Press Inc. 2004

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.