Lawyer Andy Carpenter’s true passion is the Tara Foundation, the dog rescue organization he runs with his friend Willie Miller. All kinds of dogs make their way to the foundation, and it isn’t that surprising to find a dog abandoned at the shelter one morning, though it was accompanied by a mysterious anonymous note. But they are quite surprised when they scan the dog’s embedded chip, and discover that they know this dog. He is the “DNA dog.”
Two and a half years ago, Jill Hickman was a single mother of an adopted baby. Her baby and dog were kidnapped in broad daylight in Eastside Park, and they haven’t been seen since. A tip came in that ID’d a former boyfriend of Hickman’s, Keith Wachtel, as the kidnapper. A search of his house showed no sign of the child but did uncover more incriminating evidence, and the clincher that generated Wachtel’s arrest was some dog hair, notable since Wachtel did not have a dog. DNA tests showed conclusively that the hair belonged to Hickman’s dog. Wachtel was convicted of kidnapping, but the dog and baby were never found.
Now, with the reappearance of the dog, the case is brought back to light, and the search for the child renewed. Goaded by his wife’s desire to help a friend and fellow mother and Andy’s desire to make sure the real kidnapper is in jail, Andy and his team enter the case. But what they start to uncover is far more complicated and dangerous than they ever expected.
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This would not let her come to terms with what she had done. Though that had long ago ceased to be a goal. This act today could never erase her actions; nothing could. But this was the right thing to do, and she had been planning it for a long time, since that day three years ago. She was thirty-six years old, but it felt like those three years had consumed half of her life.
No, getting rid of the guilt was not going to happen. This might ease the pain some, but it would never entirely go away. Not even close. So the best she could hope for was not to feel good, but rather less bad.
She had known she would do it for a long time, far too long. But even in her self-loathing, she was self-protective. So she waited until she was sure she was safe and that they could never find her.
She had tried once, and it had been a disaster and only made things worse. Much worse ... a man had died. She couldn't be sure it was as a result of what she did, but she believed that it was.
She knew even then that there would be a time she would try again, and that time had come.
She had her reasons for what she did back then, but looking back, they seemed so insufficient. They convinced her it was the right thing, and they gave her all that money. She needed that money, and somehow they knew it.
She pulled up to the building and waited to make sure the people weren't there. She knew they wouldn't be; she had patiently observed their arrival every day for a week. They would pull up in twenty minutes sharp; they were very punctual that way. That was why she chose this time to arrive; this way he would be outside and unprotected for only a short time.
She turned off the car and got out and then opened the rear passenger door. The border collie perked up; he just figured he was going for a walk.
Which he was, in a way. But that walk was only about twenty feet, to the front of the building. Once there, she had to work quickly. With gloved hands, she tied his leash to the door handle and taped the envelope with the note to the door.
She gave the dog a small pat on the head and turned to go back to the car. It was then that she realized she was crying. It did not surprise her.
The woman made the mistake of looking to her left, toward the gas station / convenience store. She saw a man watching her through the window, and then she quickly turned away. She doubted he could recognize her or identify her from that brief moment, but either way, there was nothing she could do about it.
She got in the car and pulled away, not looking back at the dog. By now she was sobbing, so much so that it was hard for her to drive.
But it was over now, out of her hands. They would do what they would do, and she would be alone with her pain.
I place the paper on the table and say, "It's time for a Carpenter family meeting." I'm pretty sure that Laurie and Ricky are surprised by this, since they're in the middle of breakfast, and we've never had a breakfast family meeting before.
Actually, this will be the first family meeting we've ever had, regardless of the meal, which is why I'm not opening with the reading of the minutes from the last meeting. Of course, we haven't even been a family very long; it's just been eighteen months since Laurie and I got married and adopted Ricky.
"What about?" Laurie asks. She points to the paper. "What's that?"
"It's a renewal form for my law license. If I want to remain certified to practice law, I need to sign it and send it in." I've been a reluctant lawyer for some time now; while I have no financial need to work, I seem to get drawn into taking cases even when I don't want to. If I'm not certified, then that can't happen, so not signing would be a form of self-discipline. I continue, "I think this should be a family decision."
"So you want our opinion on whether you should send it in or not?" Laurie asks.
"Send it in," she says.
"Just like that?"
She nods. "Just like that." Then, "Are we done with the family meeting?"
"Wait a minute. Why are you saying this?"
"Because you're a lawyer, Andy, and a wonderful one. That's what you do."
"Not if I don't send in this form; that's the whole point." I turn to Ricky. "What do you think?"
"If I send it in, can I be a lawyer?" he asks.
"Not without going to law school."
"That's not fair," he says.
I'm not making much progress here.
"I already went to law school, before you were born. Now, do you think I should send it in or not? Think about it carefully before you answer."
"Yup. Send it in," he says. If he took the time to think, then he's a really quick thinker.
"Because that's what Mom said."
"Thanks, Ricky, that's really helpful." Then, "This is one of the worst family meetings we've ever had."
"What will you do with yourself if you don't practice law?" Laurie asks.
"Well, for one thing, I'll spend more time here at home."
"Definitely send it in," she says, a hint of desperation creeping into her voice.
"You don't like having me around during the day?"
"It's a treat having you here, but it's a treat that's best enjoyed in moderation. Sometimes you get a little cranky when you're bored. And sometimes you get a little cranky when you're not bored."
"Okay, then I'll spend more time at the foundation helping out." My friend and former client Willie Miller and I are partners in the Tara Foundation, a dog rescue operation. Willie and his wife, Sondra, run it day to day, but I help out whenever I can.
It's named after Tara, our beyond wonderful golden retriever. Right now, she and our basset hound, Sebastian, are lying on the floor next to me; they are technically a part of the family meeting but have so far shown no desire to contribute.
"I think I can speak for Willie and Sondra when I say, 'Send the form in,'" Laurie says.
"They don't like having me around either?"
She smiles. "I refer you to my previous comments about 'crankiness' and 'moderation.'"
Getting nowhere with her, I turn back to Ricky. It's a desperate move, and one likely to backfire. "Wouldn't you want me around more?"
"Would I still get to play with my friends?"
"Would we have to let you play with us?" he asks.
"Then I don't care."
"Well, this has been very enlightening," I say. "I don't think I'll be calling any more family meetings anytime soon."
"Andy," Laurie says, draping her arm around me. "We love you deeply. As far as Ricky and I are concerned, the sun rises and sets on you. And it is from that place of love and that place of the rising and setting sun that we say this to you: 'Sign the damn form and send it in.'"
The phone rings. I hate to break up this heartwarming family moment, but I drag myself away to answer it. "Hello," I say, which is a breezy bit of repartee that I have found often opens the door to further conversation.
"It's me," says Willie, confident enough in his own skin to feel sure that he's on an "It's me" basis. I, on the other hand, have only started using "It's me" on Laurie, and I still am afraid she'll think it's a crank call.
"Would you and Sondra want me to spend more time at the foundation?" I ask.
"Definitely not. But I do want you to come down here now."
"I'll show you when you get here."
The Tara Foundation is only about ten minutes from my house. I bring Tara with me, since she always likes to play with the dogs that are there. I don't bring Sebastian, since playing really isn't his thing. Sleeping and eating are his two main interests, though he puts up with occasional walking.
Willie and Sondra are both waiting outside for me when I get there, which seems a bit unusual. Willie is holding a border collie on a leash; it's not a dog I have seen before.
We say our hellos, and Sondra takes Tara into the play area. Before she does, she asks, "Willie says your plan is to spend more time here?"
I nod. "What do you think?"
"I love you, Andy, you know that. But ..."
"I think you should come up with a new plan," she says.
"You too? Why are you saying that?"
"Well, don't take this the wrong way, but there are times when you can get a little —"
I interrupt. "Cranky?"
"I was going to say annoying, but cranky works," she says and then heads inside, leaving me with Willie and the border collie.
"This one just come in?" I ask.
He nods. "This morning. Somebody tied him up before we opened. They left a note."
He hands me a piece of paper that I hadn't noticed he was holding. The message on it is short and more than a little weird, since it's made up of pasted-in letters that look like they were cut out of a magazine, much like one of those old movie ransom notes.
It says, "You'll know what to do with him."
"They didn't leave any identification? We don't know who left him?"
Willie shrugs. "That's all."
"Okay; idiots like that don't deserve a dog," I say. "Let's find him a good home."
"The thing is, I scanned him," Willie says, "even though it was an owner turn-in ... because of the weird note and because the person who left him could have found him as a stray."
He's referring to a device we have that scans for imbedded chips in the dogs that come in; it's a way of identifying who their owners are, provided the owners have registered the chip. We don't usually bother doing so with dogs that owners turn in to us, since we obviously don't have to find those owners to reunite them with the dog. But in this case, Willie couldn't be sure that the person who left him was the owner.
"What did you come up with?" I ask.
This time he reaches into his pocket and comes out with another piece of paper. I recognize it as a scanner report. He hands it to me.
"Can't you just tell me?" I ask.
"You probably should read it."
So I do, and I'm three lines in when I say, "Holy shit."
Willie nods. "That's what I thought you'd say."
If the chip scanner is correct, and I've never known it to be wrong, then the owner of this dog, whose name is Cody, is Jill Hickman. And that is going to send shock waves through North Jersey and beyond.
"Do you think it's real?" Willie asks.
I nod. "Seems like it. That is definitely her address, and I remember she had a border collie named Cody. If it's a scam, it's a beauty."
"There was a whole DNA thing, right?"
Jill Hickman was a very successful businesswoman who suddenly decided three years ago, at the age of thirty-five, that she wanted to have a child. What she didn't have available was a husband; she and her fiancé, Keith Wachtel, had broken up about six months earlier. So she adopted a one-month-old boy that had been anonymously abandoned at a local hospital. She named the child Dylan.
Not wanting to give up her career, Jill hired a full-time nanny, Teresa Mullins, to care for Dylan while she was at work. One day, two months after the adoption, Teresa took Dylan in a stroller, along with the family border collie, Cody, for a walk in Eastside Park.
Once they were deep inside the park, a car pulled up and a man jumped out. He had some kind of covering over his face and was holding a gun. He pistol-whipped Teresa, who was the only witness to the crime, and then took off with the child and dog.
The brazenness of the midafternoon crime stunned and paniced the community. Mullins pointed to Keith Wachtel, Jill's former fiancé and also a former top employee at her company, as the kidnapper. Mullins had met him on a few occasions and claimed to recognize his eyes and voice. She also got a partial license plate number, which matched Wachtel's car.
The police searched Wachtel's house, and while there was no sign of Dylan or Cody, they did find dog hair in the house, on Wachtel's clothes, and in his car. They also found some trace hairs in the car that they matched to the blanket surrounding Dylan when he was taken.
The police matched the DNA of dog hair to that found on the brush that Laurie used to groom Cody. It was the first known use of DNA in this manner, and Cody became known as the "DNA dog."
Wachtel had no explanation for the presence of the hair or blanket fibers, or at least none that the authorities found credible. He was arrested for the kidnapping, though, to my recollection, murder charges were never filed, simply because Dylan's body was never found. It didn't matter anyway; he received a sentence that will likely keep him in jail for the rest of his life.
I was not involved legally in the case, but my connection to it was that Jill Hickman was a high school friend of Laurie's and lives just a few minutes from us on Derrom Avenue. I wouldn't describe them as close, but since Laurie is an ex–police officer, Jill accepted her offer of advice and support during the months after the abduction.
Dylan would be three years old now, though a more hopeful way of saying it is that he is three years old now. But the truth is that none of us know whether Dylan is alive or dead, which is why back then Laurie had nothing to say that could ease Jill's pain. Only the return of her son could do that.
Laurie had offered my help to Jill in dealing with the legal side of the issue, and I met with her a few times, always with Laurie present. I also brought nothing substantive to the party and wound up having no role, since no leads ever turned up as to Dylan's fate and Wachtel was continuing to deny his involvement in the crime.
I'm not really sure what the apparent return of Cody means; it could be nothing. Perhaps Wachtel took them both and just let the dog run stray later. Or maybe the dog ran off during the abduction, and Mullins, having just been pistol-whipped, didn't realize it.
It could be of little significance, but when the word gets out, the media will jump all over it.
I tell Willie to keep this to himself for the time being and to take care of Cody. Then I head home to discuss it with Laurie. I pretty much discuss everything with Laurie, but in this case, it's a no-brainer.
But I'm just going to walk in and talk to her; there's no reason to call a family meeting about it.
Are you sure it's the same dog?" Laurie asks.
"I can't be 100 percent positive, but everything fits. And he seems to answer to the name Cody. But I'd never been around Jill's dog."
"I need to call her," she says.
Laurie does just that and tells her that we'd like to come over and talk to her. She says it in as casual a way as she can, but I can tell from the rest of the conversation that Jill's guard is up.
Finally, Laurie says, "Jill, it's nothing to worry about, and we can clear it up for you as soon as we get there." When she gets off the phone, she turns to me and says, "She knows it's about Dylan."
"How does she know that?"
"Intuition. And the fact that you're coming also. Let's go."
"Should we bring Cody?"
She shakes her head. "One step at a time."
We drive over to Jill's. On the way, I ask Laurie what Jill has been doing with her life and whether she is still working. I remember that she started and owned an Internet venture that had progressed from struggling start-up to very successful, and the nature of that company contributed to the public interest in the case. Jill's company, called Finding Home, was one of the pioneers in retail DNA. People could send in a sample and find out their heritage. By all accounts, Jill has made a fortune.
Keith Wachtel worked for Finding Home as the company's chief chemist. He continued in that role for quite a few months after their personal relationship broke up, and I don't know why he subsequently left the company.
Laurie tells me that when Dylan was taken, Jill initially pulled back from work entirely. At the time, she had just spent months raising enough money to save the company and ensure its ability to compete at a high level. It was an intense time in Jill's life; the money was crucial to the company's survival and, therefore, crucial to preserving her life's work.
Laurie had been out of touch with her during that period of time; she said that Jill's fund-raising efforts had been all- consuming and required a lot of travel.
Jill eventually returned to the company, but in a less active role. Laurie is not sure but thinks Jill might be more of a figurehead at this point than a hands-on executive. Dylan's disappearance has apparently left her with a different perspective on her career than she had before.
Jill's house can best be described as stately, though enormous and stately probably fits better. It is probably the most impressive house in Paterson, and while some might consider that faint praise, it really is an imposing place. I know through Laurie that Jill has often talked about moving, since the house reminds her of Dylan.
Excerpted from "Collared"
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