Johanna Smith got busted for Bella, her "dog at large."
Johanna Smith got busted for Bella, her "dog at large."
Mark Graham

Obedience School

Errant pet owners serve time in doggie defensive driving
At 10 a.m. on the first Saturday of August, a glum group of people gathered at the Skyline branch of the Dallas Public Library, as a different group does each month. They are the rogues, the rapscallions, the "dog-at-large" violators. You can think of these sessions as doggie defensive driving.

Dallas rabies investigator Federico Chavez stands in front of the group and in English launches into an explanation of the new Dallas animal ordinances that went into effect July 1. Chavez alternates his talk with Spanish for the handful of Hispanics in the room.

Chavez goes over the ordinances regarding registration, rabies inoculations and the leash laws, "what most of you have received your citation for." By attending the class, a first-time violator gets a certificate to give the judge, avoiding the $175 fine. (They may still have to pay court costs.) Repeat offenders can be fined $200 to $500.

Several of the attendees express irritation at animal control officers who they felt were rude or unsympathetic or shouldn't have been on their property. Some didn't even own the dogs that got them ticketed. Anyone in the house over 18 can receive the citation. Alex Cardenas lives in Louisiana. While visiting his mother in Dallas, her dog got out. The only one at home, Cardenas received the ticket and had to drive eight hours back to Dallas to attend the session.

Johanna Smith slouches in her chair looking pretty peeved. A student at Richland College, Smith moved into a house near White Rock Lake in 2003. A few months later, she heard a knock on her front door and opened it to find Chavez, who informed Smith that someone had reported a "dog at large" to the city. There, he pointed, was the offending beast. Sure enough, Smith peered around him and there was Bella, her medium-size "mixed-breed" mutt .

Smith admits it wasn't the first time Bella had gotten out. Smith had just moved in, and Bella was finding wiggle spots under the fence faster than Smith could plug them. She guessed an elderly neighbor snitched Bella out by calling 311.

Chavez gave Smith a citation for a violation of the Dallas animal ordinances. Smith says she took care of the ticket, photocopying Bella's tags to prove she was registered and had up-to-date rabies shots and mailing them to the address on the citation. Smith says she heard nothing further from the city and assumed the matter had been handled.

Last month, Smith got a letter from a city lawyer saying that there was a warrant out for her arrest. Thinking there was some mistake, Smith called the attorney who informed her that she had to post a bond or risk being taken to jail after a traffic stop.

After getting the citation in 2003, Smith had failed to turn in a certificate earned by taking the Saturday class and then missed a court date.

"I was pretty surprised," Smith says. "I thought it was taken care of." Smith says she had attended the class in 2003 but was given no certificate and never heard from the city about going to court. That didn't satisfy the wheels of justice. Smith had to post a $305 cash bond. Her date in municipal court is August 31.

But first Smith has to attend another doggie defensive driving class to get a certificate, taught by the guy who busted Bella in the first place.

The new city ordinances aren't much different from the old ones, mainly substituting the word "animal" for dog or cat. But most of the calls that animal control gets are about stray canines or "dogs at large," Chavez says. Cats don't seem to upset people until someone has too many of them. Angela White, a woman whose young son sits with her, pipes up. "When people call the city to pick up stray dogs, nobody ever comes," White insists. "I can never, never get someone to pick up the stray dogs. Never. You just pick up dogs you know someone will pay to get back."

Chavez, who does "pet education" because he's bilingual, responds by saying she may think that's the case, but the department will pick up strays or set traps for homeless dogs. It's basic prevention.

He hauls out some shocking statistics. Two stray un-neutered dogs and their offspring can produce 67,000 dogs in six years. Two stray cats and their descendants can produce 420,000 cats in seven years. While Chavez describes several spay and neuter programs available to those who can't afford to have the procedure done by a veterinarian, everybody in the room contemplates the planet being overrun by vigorously copulating animals.

A dog-at-large call to 311 can rack up some major fines for the pet owner if he or she has violated other city animal ordinances by: not getting yearly rabies vaccinations ($100 to $2,000 per day); not registering the pet and renewing the registration each year ($100 to $2,000 per day); not restraining the pet on a leash or in a fenced yard at all times (maximum $2,000 per violation); and not scooping poop on public or private property owned by someone else ($50).

Chavez explains the number of pets allowed (four if there's a common wall with another residence), how long pets are kept after being taken to the pound and when pets are quarantined after biting someone. It's not just the pit bulls and Rottweilers. "I've got four Chihuahuas on quarantine right now," Chavez says.

Owners whose stray animals get picked up and taken to the pound by animal control officers have to pay $27 to get them back, plus any other fees that are applicable. A microchip with the owner's contact information must be injected in the withers of all pets before they are released; it can be read with a wand if the animal is picked up again. "They should do that with people," cracks one participant.

Then Chavez plays The Film.

Adorable pictures of cuddly puppies and kittens give way to wrenching images of animals that have been neglected, starved, abandoned, set on fire, tortured or hit by cars because their owners are irresponsible. Several viewers sniffle or dab at tears. It's like giving teenage drivers a tour of the morgue.

Chavez calls each participant to the front and hands out certificates. "If some of you have been offended by my fellow officers in their attitudes," Chavez says, "this is what they see every day." --Glenna Whitley

Home, Bitter Home
Ferman Cuadros is a hard-working guy. Smudged with grease and sweaty from hours of work at Llanteria Paraiso, his tire shop in Oak Cliff, Cuadros wants what a lot of immigrants want: a place to call home here in the United States. No shift is too long when, at the end of the day, he knows he's putting every penny toward his family's future.

But now, Cuadros, who speaks only Spanish, has to work twice as hard. Last year he says he lost his entire savings to an elaborate housing scam he believes was orchestrated in part by one of his neighbors and another Dallas man. Starting in December 2003, Cuadros says he paid $25,000 in cash over the course of a few weeks to Jose Murragara for an ailing house on Ewing Avenue in Oak Cliff. He'd seen Murragara, the owner of a Mexican restaurant just down the street, sell several houses to other families during the four years they'd known each other. Murragara had purchased the properties from a man named Fred Cartwright, via his now-defunct corporation, FCI Equities.

Today, Cartwright and Murragara are under investigation by the Texas Attorney General's Office after Cuadros discovered he did not own the title to the property he'd paid for--and neither did Murragara or Cartwright. Cuadros approached the attorney general, and the resulting lawsuit, filed in April, accuses the two men, their businesses and several other individuals of perpetrating an "elaborate shell game designed to hide the true ownership...of the properties they peddle."

Representatives for the attorney general say that the scam targeted primarily non-English-speaking Hispanic consumers who had been assured a title check was unnecessary. Most of the Oak Cliff-area properties, which did not legally belong to Murragara or Cartwright, were in foreclosure, had been condemned or had excessive liens against them. Sales were completed in cash, using handwritten contracts.

"It sounded like a good deal," says Cuadros, who invested an additional $10,000 in improvements to the house, where he says he spent his lunch hours working on the renovations. "I spent a lot of money fixing it. I was at the point of moving in."

Cuadros requested a title insurance certificate from Murragara, but he stalled. For the next three months, Cuadros says he asked every day for the certificate before going to an office of the Chicago Title Insurance Co. himself in February 2004. He says other homeowners who had purchased property from Murragara then started receiving foreclosure and eviction notices.

"At the moment I began my own investigation," says Cuadros, "strangely enough the banks and the owners began to repossess the houses."

Chicago Title told Cuadros there was a "big problem" with the property's ownership. When Cuadros approached Murragara and Cartwright, he says they told him not to worry.

The men then offered him a different house and reimbursement for the money he'd spent improving the Ewing Avenue property.

This time, he asked Cartwright and Murragara to accompany him to Chicago Title, along with another woman who had trouble purchasing property from the two, to secure the new house. Cuadros says a female employee at Chicago Title took the other woman aside and told her that she'd worked for Cartwright before, and that she'd quit because she believed he was a "con man." When Cuadros found out, he says the Chicago Title employee helped him prepare a package to send to the attorney general's office and to the Dallas Police Department.

"This case is big," says Cuadros, who bought just one of the 12 properties Murragara acquired from Cartwright. "It's so complicated that only the [government] can put a stop to it."

Murragara, who has in turn filed suit against Cartwright, says he is as much a victim as Cuadros. In 2003, he says he paid more than $224,000 in cash to Cartwright for the 12 properties and was falsely promised that he then had a valid title to each one. His lawyer, Gary Werley, says that Murragara has no problem admitting he owes his customers a substantial amount of money, but that he sold the properties in good faith, sometimes even to his own family members.

"Murragara is not the bad guy in this," says Werley, whose client took action against Cartwright months before the attorney general sued both of them. Murragara filed a complaint with the Dallas office of The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development alleging Cartwright had taken advantage of Murragara's limited English.

Werley says Murragara tried to pay taxes on a property he'd sold to his son when he found out the deed he'd been given by Cartwright was a forgery. Murragara then filed his claim against Cartwright's company, R.I.C.H. Building & Business Systems in August 2004, alleging that Cartwright knowingly sold the properties without valid titles. A settlement for $175,000 was arranged and payments were to begin in January 2005. In a letter verifying the settlement, Cartwright notes that the reimbursement is not "an admission of any discriminatory practices."

Murragara says he will repay his clients as soon as Cartwright reimburses him, but he has filed an additional suit against Cartwright because no payments in the settlement have been made, Werley says.

Cartwright, who lives in an upscale neighborhood in Mansfield, would say only that he had been in business for several years and that he had not encountered any legal trouble until now and that the claims were unfounded. "I've been doing this for 15 years," Cartwright said in a phone interview. "They just never write about all the successful deals I've made."

Still working just a block away from Murragara's restaurant, Cuadros says he is comforted knowing that legal action is finally being taken in his case. "People come in [to the tire shop] and tell me what a fool I was," Cuadros says, "but I just sit there, relaxed. I know that eventually justice will be done."

The attorney general's suit also accuses Cartwright of falsely representing his businesses as legally incorporated. Another man, Jose Menjarez, is named for allegedly practicing law without a license after promising to represent consumers against Cartwright and Murragara. --Andrea Grimes


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