Kitty Has Two Daddies

Intrepid journalist sets out to resolve feline custody dispute

I figured this for a typical cat caper. One guy takes a strong liking to another guy's cat. Nabs it. Cops refuse to step in because of an entrenched anti-cat bias. Luckily a crusading journalist--moi--arrives on the scene in the nick of time, and the story has a happy ending.

As usual, nothing turns out the way I expect.

I already knew Johnny Miller. He called me last spring about a deal I assumed was going to be a typical bureaucracy caper, but it turned out to be something totally different ("Fatal Phone Tree," April 25).

An odd thing happened with that story. When we asked to take his picture, Johnny insisted on posing with his cat. I never heard another word from him until about a month ago, when he called me in bad shape. He's 42.

He's in the process of moving to Los Angeles. I don't quite get some of the details, but the big picture is this: A total stranger, guy named Jerry, asks Johnny if he can take Johnny's cat, "Mr. Kitty," inside his apartment for a minute.

Johnny says sure. Big mistake. Johnny tells me once Jerry gets Mr. Kitty in his apartment, he slams the door and refuses to let Mr. Kitty out.

Johnny calls the cops, naturally. The police show up but say it's not a kidnapping because Mr. Kitty isn't a kid. They say Johnny will have to pursue it as a theft, but in order to do that, he will have to prove Mr. Kitty is worth more than $25. Johnny goes to his vet and gets paperwork to show that he has spent more than $1,000 on Mr. Kitty.

Me, I'm sure about that. We spent money like that once on a cat at my house, and I always figured that made the cat worth negative-$1,000. Whatever. The cops still won't go get the cat back.

"I don't know very much about law enforcement or anything like that," he tells me on the telephone. "But I find it remarkable, even though there's a little life at stake, even though it's just a pet, and we know where it is, the police still haven't gone and gotten him.

"But I don't want to complain to the police about it yet, because I'm afraid that would make them mad or something, and they might not go get him. You know?"

But I'm sitting at my desk, wondering. I sense loose ends here. Why does a guy slam the door and refuse to return another guy's cat? No, wait: Even before that, why would you allow your cat to visit the apartment of a stranger? No, wait: Even before that, why does a stranger offer to let your cat visit his apartment? A lot of loose ends.

First thing you do on a case like this, you get the official documentation. The Dallas police incident report states: "Complainant advised that on 10-29-05 at approximately 4:30 p.m. he was visiting at the offense location where he used to live. Complainant advised he was talking to the listed suspect about his cat and how the complainant and the cat used to live in the apartment where the suspect now lives.

"The complainant advised that the suspect allowed the cat to enter the suspect's apartment, and the suspect immediately closed the door and refused to open and return the cat to the complainant."

Wow. If anything, based on the report I would say I now have more loose ends. Jerry lives in the apartment where Johnny Miller used to live? And guess what else? The report says all of this happened on Reagan Street, two blocks from the Dallas Observer's new offices at Oak Lawn and Maple avenues, almost in the shadow of the Observer building. I've got the chills.

Then I get an idea. Why don't I just walk over there myself, knock on this Jerry's door and see what happens? How tough can he be? A cat-napper, for gosh sake. Maybe I gain his trust. Maybe I nab Mr. Kitty, run back and return him to Johnny myself. Talk about a crusading journalist.

I walk over there. From half a block away I begin to get a bead on the little world I'm about to enter. The apartment building at 2429 Reagan Street is a lost archaeological remnant of wild and crazy 1980s pre-AIDS Oak Lawn.

It's a two-story brick barracks built around a long, narrow courtyard. Dusty, down at the heels and tucked away, with the dull roar of the Dallas North Tollway at its back and an abandoned hospital across the street, this cultural cul-de-sac somehow has survived Oak Lawn's bleak 1990s passage as a slum for white crackheads. Now it's typical of the worn-out, low-rent leftovers getting pushed out of Oak Lawn by rapid gentrification.

Knock-knock. A dog barks inside, and a gruff male voice shouts, "Down, Bear! Get back!"

BEAR? Poor Mr. Kitty. I start hearing the theme from Silence of the Lambs.

But the man who emerges is not Hannibal Lecter. He's Jerry Tucker, 55, stooped in a threadbare T-shirt, peering up pleasantly from behind pop-bottle glasses. Invites me to sit in a lawn chair at the little round table outside his door.

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