ALICE, Texas - Politicians have been known to pull some doggone dirty tricks, but can it get more low-down than puppy theft?
That's the question people in this Texas brush country town are asking now that their mayor has admitted - without a smidgen of remorse - that for months she has been harboring Puddles, her neighbors' cuddly Shih Tzu.
At first, Mayor Grace Saenz- Lopez lied to the family, telling them that the dog had died while they were vacationing. Now she's refusing to return the pooch, which she calls Panchito.
She argues that the dog's owners have forsaken the right to keep such a tender animal because they failed to shower him with loving care when he was ill and needed them most. That has triggered a bizarre custody battle that has both sides calling for sympathy.
"I'll tell you what: Let's drop that dog in the middle of the courtroom and see who it goes to first," the mayor's lawyer, Homero Canales, said in a fit of bravado. "You want a dog? Take care of it. These people were more interested in going on vacation than caring for a dog that looked like it was about to die."
The Puddles-Panchito feud started last summer, when Rudy Gutierrez and Shelly Cavazos asked Saenz-Lopez to dog-sit their sickly black and white pup while they took their four children to an amusement park. Puddles had gotten trapped under their home weeks earlier, and by the time he emerged he had been ravaged by fleas. He was deathly ill when the family decided to go away, Gutierrez and Cavazos acknowledge.
After one day, the mayor called them with terrible news: Puddles was dead.
"We broke the news to the kids on the way home, and they cried," said Cavazos, 37. "Everyone was very upset."
It was easy to believe, given the dog's condition - but by small-town happenstance they learned it was a lie. On Halloween, Cavazos' aunt went to a local groomer to scout a potential breeding partner for her Shih Tzu; she was struck by the male dog's uncanny resemblance to Puddles. Then it hit her: It was Puddles.
"I asked who the owner was, and the groomer said Grace Lopez," the aunt, Sylvia Trevino, recalled.
The news that the mayor had faked a dog's death and then secreted it away set tongues wagging in this town of 19,000 people about 45 minutes west of Corpus Christi, where the motto is "Alice is Buena Gente." Translation: "Alice is good people."
Few seem to be buying the mayor's sad-dog story.
With Internet polls showing Saenz-Lopez in the doghouse with voters, she dropped out of a race this fall for county tax collector, citing health reasons. Still, she has no regrets - if she must choose between politics and Panchito, Panchito wins easy, her lawyer said. The mayor, who is said to be in her early 60s, did not respond to requests for comment.
Gutierrez, who says Saenz- Lopez refused to return his calls, filed a police report last month accusing the mayor of dog theft. Authorities initially considered criminal charges, but Jim Wells County Attorney Jesusa Sanchez-Vera declared it a civil matter, prompting Gutierrez and Cavazos to file a civil lawsuit against the mayor.
The mayor clearly has sympathizers, but few here believe she has a legal leg to stand on - and she's become a source of civic shame.
"Now it's a statewide joke: You're from Alice? Your mayor steals dogs," said Ana Perez, a seamstress at a bridal shop called Wedding Lace on the town's main street.
Perez said she has known the mayor for years and voted for her. But as the owner of Shih Tzus named Sparky and Lucky, Perez believes the mayor had no right to take another person's dog, no matter how poorly they treated it.