A 7-month-old Chihuahua purportedly stolen from San Diego's Mission Beach is now safe at home after the pooch's family members said they went through great lengths to find their beloved pet.
The search ended two differing accounts of the rendezvous and exchange of money for the dog, Peanut, in a North County parking lot.
"The whole thing felt like a ransom," said dog owner Catharine, a mother of two daughters who doesn’t want to use her last name. "Our dog was held hostage."
However, the woman who returned the Chihuahua said she has been unfairly misrepresented by the family. The circumstances surrounding the dog’s return aren’t clear.
Cynthia Fonseca said she was not the one who stole the dog – she found Peanut in the street and took care of her.
"I took this dog in, not knowing where she came from, what she had -- she could've had a disease,” Fonseca said Wednesday. “I still took her in, gave her shots, we grew a bond with her, we named her Bella.”
San Diego police said they're investigating the case, which began two weeks ago when the Laguna Beach family was vacationing in San Diego and visited Belmont Park.
At the park, Peter, Catharine's husband, said he placed Peanut's small pet carrier on the ground while he purchased tickets for an amusement ride March 19. Within seconds, someone had swiped the family pet and vanished, Peter said.
It wasn’t until Peter tracked down surveillance footage from a candy store that he realized it was no accident. The video shows a couple quickly walking away while hiding the carrier with a piece of clothing.
"These people were professionals. They were unbelievably quick. Unbelievably efficient. If you look at the way they covered up the bag [and] walked together — the way they got through the crowd — how quickly they got out of the crowd," Peter said.
The family launched an exhaustive search and hired marketing specialists to get spread the word of the dog's disappearance.
That’s when they got a phone call that their dog had been found and would be returned.
This is where the story is disputed.
Catharine said she asked the detective assigned to her case if officers could accompany her to the exchange. After they declined, she still went with friends to the arranged location, an Escondido Wal-Mart parking lot.
“When the girl pulled up to return the dog, she pulled up with several other cars watching us at the same time and videotaping us. I don't know why," said Catharine. "It felt like a business enterprise to me, like this is what these people do, is take people's dogs and try to get money from them."
However, Fonseca said there were no other cars there, and she didn't bring any cameras.
“Right away, they took the puppy from my hands, no thank you, no nothing, they handed me a fanny pack and said here's a thousand dollars cause obviously we don't have $5,000 to give you," she said.
A San Diego police spokesperson said it’s unclear how the handoff will impact the investigation, which is still open.
But even if the suspects were caught and convicted, the offense wouldn’t carry a large punishment. Police said the suspects would most likely face misdemeanor petty theft charges.
Fonseca said all she wants is an apology from the family.
"I did not steal this dog," she said. "If I did I wouldn't want my name in public, I'm not hiding, there's nothing to hide, I'm actually trying to become a police officer."