“She basically got caught up in an emotional dog rescue. That’s what this was,” said the defense attorney. “Miss Vukov, yes, took the dog.”
Although Trina Vukov took the dog without permission, she had no intent to steal, according to her attorney William Mathews. “She had completely different motives.”
Elvis in Escondido
The dog’s owner is a California attorney named Steven Afghani. The dog is a Belgian Malinois imported from the Czech Republic. Afghani purchased the dog in 2008 through a kennel in Tar Heel, North Carolina, which he found in an internet search. When Afghani bought the dog, he was named Emil, but Afghani changed his name to Elvis. Afghani paid $5500 for Elvis, then $350 more to have him shipped from North Carolina to his new home in Orange County.
The Malinois is bred for police and military work and to compete in European dog sports: French Ring, Belgium Ring, Mondioring, Schutzhund. In French Ring competitions, which are held in Southern California, dogs are judged on obedience, agility, and protection. Dogs are trained to attack a man in a bite suit, called a decoy. An example of the demanding training that is tested in Ring III, the highest level, is “object guard,” in which the dog should attack the decoy, but only when he comes within one meter of a basket the dog is guarding.
Afghani began to train Elvis for competition with the help of a professional trainer, Philippe Belloni, who lives in Escondido. In early August 2010, after both men had tired of commuting between their homes, Afghani left Elvis at his trainer’s house. About two weeks later, Belloni called to say that Elvis had been stolen.
Philippe Belloni speaks with a heavy accent. “I train dog. I train the dog for the police, for the military.” Belloni enjoys status as a dog trainer in Europe. “I was champion France five years.”
On his website, Belloni states that he worked with canine units in France who protect Paris subways and the Paris–Charles de Gaulle Airport. After the 9/11 attack, the United States gave him a visa so he could share his expertise with the United States military, police departments, and pet owners, Belloni states.
Belloni said he sells dogs to the Oceanside Police Department.
Afghani met Belloni at a public dog-training event some years ago. Belloni said he sold two dogs to Afghani, one for $5000 and one for $3500, and Belloni worked with Afghani to train the dogs.
While Elvis stayed in Escondido, Belloni’s girlfriend said she fed him “a big bowl of dry food at night.”
Belloni denied that he allows dogs in his care to be “skinny.” He said, “We can’t have the dog skinny or the dog fat. We can’t.” He said he wants his dogs at “what I call athletic.”
The Dog in a Hole
It was a hot August day when Trina Vukov and her two teenaged girls drove out to Belloni’s home to pick up a check. Even at four in the afternoon, it was 85 degrees. Not a wisp of breeze, not a cloud in the sky.
Belloni’s home and dog-training facility is located in the 3100 block of East Valley Parkway. Large, shady trees surround the modest house and its rough asphalt drive.
Vukov, who was 47, had arranged with Belloni to rent rooms in his house and had left a deposit with him. But he had backed out of the deal.
Vukov walked to the front door to retrieve her deposit while her daughters waited in the car. Belloni’s girlfriend was expecting Vukov and handed her the check. Vukov saw the dog as she returned to her car.
Elvis was on a chain that was attached to a long wire, allowing him to run back and forth in a dirt area alongside the driveway. He was hidden in a deep hole when Vukov pulled up, the reason, she speculated, that she hadn’t seen him at first. She said only his ears protruded from the hole. Vukov supposed the dog had dug the hole to make a shady place. She claimed the dog did not have other shelter from the sun.
When the dog came running toward her, she thought the dog looked skinny.
Vukov said parts of the dog’s ears were eaten away by a thick covering of black flies, and the biting flies were around the dog’s eyes, too. “He had bloody ears and poop stuck on his butt with maggots,” Vukov said later.
The dog threw himself at her and hung on her, Vukov said. “The dog was asking me, pleading with me,” she said. “He was begging me not to leave.” Vukov said her daughters were calling out to her, telling her to rescue the poor dog and not to leave the suffering animal behind.
At this time in her life, Vukov could have used some rescuing herself. Her husband had left her, and she was in the middle of a divorce. Her home of 14 years was being foreclosed on. Soon the fuel pump in her 12-year-old Suburban would fail, and she would find herself living with her girls in a 36-foot motor home, parking at campsites or wherever she could. She already had five dogs; she didn’t need one more.
But at that moment she had it in her power to rescue a creature she thought was even more miserable than herself. On impulse, she unsnapped the dog’s chain from the overhead wire and drove off with him. That was August 27, 2010, the day her felony troubles began.
I Love Dogs
“I love dogs, my whole life.” Vukov said she has owned as many as six dogs at a time. “I basically rescue them,” she said. “I don’t go looking for them.”
Vukov said that the day she rescued Elvis she phoned another dog lover, a friend of hers named Anne, and Anne came to her home with a 40-pound bag of dog food for the new guy. Vukov said Anne was another softhearted person who rescued animals and sometimes arranged for dogs to be shipped to her home to save them. Vukov believed her friend had money to finance her kindhearted adventures.
Vukov gave Elvis a bath. She said the bathwater “ran red” from his bloody wounds. But Vukov did not take him to a veterinarian. “I didn’t have money for a vet.” She did not call the police or 911. She did not call the humane society or the animal shelter. Because she failed to call any agency in connection with what she said was a rescue, three months later a warrant would be issued for her arrest.
When an Escondido police detective contacted Vukov in October, she began with denials. “She told me she didn’t know anything about a missing dog,” said detective Stephen Thompson. But then Vukov admitted that she did take Elvis. Vukov told Thompson that she rescued the dog because she believed it was being mistreated. The detective remembered Vukov telling him that “it was underfed and that it was out in the sun.”
Thompson was not satisfied with Vukov’s explanations. Vukov said that he told her to come down to the station and make a statement. “I just got kicked out of my house and my car broke down,” she remembered telling the detective. “He told me to take the bus.” The detective left his card with Vukov, but she did not contact him.
The Dog Goes Missing, Again
On August 27, when Belloni called Afghani to say that Elvis was gone, he named Vukov as the suspected dog-napper, and Afghani took down Vukov’s phone number.
Then, Afghani said, he did research, partly on the internet, and found out that Vukov sold jewelry. So he phoned Vukov and posed as a potential buyer and eventually she gave him directions to her home. When he arrived, he was surprised to see many of Vukov’s belongings scattered about her front yard. She was having a yard sale while she moved out of her house. Afghani said he was allowed to snoop around the house a limited amount, but he did not find Elvis. He said that he went “driving by, for a day, evening, night, midnight,” trying to find his dog.
Vukov said that within a few days of taking the dog — maybe three or four days — she discovered that Elvis was missing. One morning her back gate was half-open, and the rescued dog was gone. Vukov said in the 14 years that she lived in the house not one of her dogs had escaped from her backyard. She said it was not possible for a dog to jump the tall fence nor slide open the large, heavy gate. She believed someone took Elvis.
Vukov wondered if her friend Anne might have come in the middle of the night to take Elvis or maybe someone from the trainer’s place.
And Vukov was suspicious of the man who had contacted her and posed as a jewelry buyer. This man had called her many times. Afghani admitted that he phoned Vukov “300 times.” Vukov had captured Afghani’s cell phone number on her cell phone.
“I thought about it and thought about it,” said Vukov. She decided that the jewelry buyer was the dog’s owner. “I thought, ‘Gee, he’s got his dog back!’”
She sent a two-word text message — “How’s Elvis?” — to the number in her phone. Vukov thought the man might confirm that he had Elvis.
Afghani denied that he’d taken his dog back and said that Elvis is still missing. Afghani said he presently owns two Belgian Malinois dogs.
Vukov went on trial in San Diego’s North County Superior Court in June 2011, charged with felony dog theft.
Grand Theft Dog
California Penal Code 487(e) states that it is grand theft, a felony, to take a dog worth more than $950.
“Make no mistake, this was not a rescue,” prosecutor Laurie Hauf told the jury. She called the defendant’s actions “selfish, irresponsible, and careless.”
The deputy district attorney informed jurors that it is not okay to go onto someone else’s property and take a dog just because you believe you can do a better job with that dog.
“It really doesn’t matter what her purpose was, really,” said Hauf. “Doesn’t matter why she took it.”
“Why she did it is interesting,” the prosecutor allowed, “but it doesn’t excuse her.”
Hauf told jurors to set aside their emotions and “follow the law.”
The defense attorney, William Mathews, took the opposite stance. He told the jury that the defendant’s mental state at the time she took the dog was everything. “This is a specific-intent crime,” the public defender stated.
“The only element in dispute is whether she intended to steal that dog when she took the dog,” Mathews said.
Vukov did not intend to sell the dog nor hold it ransom nor keep it for herself, he said. The woman did not profit from taking the dog, and in fact, she only brought more trouble into her already desperate situation. Clearly, this was an act of compassion, said Mathews. “She didn’t steal the dog.”
“At the time of the taking, in her mind, it was a rescue, simple as that.”
The jury deliberated a full day before declaring Vukov guilty of grand theft.
After the verdict, the five women and seven men of the jury spoke with attorneys outside the courtroom. They said it was hard to determine if the dog was in danger. “Her actions did not prove the dog was in danger,” said one juror. They wished there had been photos of the dog’s bloody ears or any photo to support Vukov’s description of the dog when she took it.
The jurors decided it was not “a legal rescue” because Vukov did not contact authorities. They thought Vukov should have called 911 or the police or the humane society. They said that Vukov should have phoned a veterinarian if she really believed the dog’s life was in danger.
“We felt bad for her,” said one juror. “She did sink herself.” Jurors said they had sympathy for Vukov after they heard her testify.
“I hope the judge does show some leniency,” said one juror, and the others murmured agreement.
After the jury was dismissed, judge Runston Maino told the defendant that if the missing dog were returned it might “influence” him at sentencing time. Vukov later expressed wonder at this. She said she did not have Elvis, and she didn’t know where he was.
Maino ordered Vukov to serve 240 days in custody. Vukov surrendered herself at the Vista jail on October 6. ■