By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Rick Kiluk drinks a lot of cheap beer. He also smokes cheap cigarettes, sleeps where he can, and makes money at odd jobs. He used to pal around with a black Labrador retriever named Three, sharing a sleeping bag with the dog under the 17th Street Causeway and teaching her how to balance a ball on her nose. But ever since a well-meaning neighbor decided the dog would be safer living with someone else, Kiluk hasn't seen much of Three.
"I'm losing my mind over this," Kiluk says angrily, dragging hard on a cigarette. "I like my dog just like anybody likes their kids. Two judges gave me back my dog, but I still don't have the dog."
Betty Francis is the well-meaning neighbor. She lives in a lovely split-level brick home about four blocks from Kiluk's bridge. In a soft, gentle voice, she describes how she befriended this homeless man and his dog about two years ago, bringing Kiluk blankets and cookies, bringing Three food and fresh water. She also took it upon herself to take Three to the vet and paid for the dog's heartworm pills.
"For over a year, I took care of the dog, so we were both owners of the dog," Francis explains. "I just felt sorry for this little dog living under the bridge, and I did everything I could."
Kiluk and Francis have started a legal war over this slender hound, and it's gotten personal. Determined to keep the dog off the streets, Francis has dognapped Three, kept her overnight on several occasions, turned the dog over to the North American Pet Owners Alliance for placement in foster care, and is now suing Kiluk for custody. Kiluk defends himself from the legal onslaught with the help of two lawyers who have taken his case for free. But now, with a new hearing scheduled for this month that could reopen the Case of the Homeless Hound, the lovable Lab has disappeared under suspicious circumstances.
"It's one of our horror stories," says Ron Fach, director of the Alliance. "We had no idea it was going to get as involved as it did."
In the past ten months, Kiluk has been in court once and in jail twice over Three, and Francis had a hand in all of it. The dog was taken from Kiluk, returned, and taken again. He's had two different judges order Three returned to him, most recently on September 29. But prior to that last decision, however, Francis claims Three took it on the lam from her backyard after utility workers broke a rusty hinge on the gate. Francis had been holding the dog ever since a special weekend emergency hearing regarding Kiluk's unlawful removal of the dog out of town.
"Frankly, it's too painful for me" to talk about Three's untimely escape, Francis says through tears. "I just loved her so much, and I don't know what happened to her."
Kiluk doesn't swallow the "Three is lost" tale. He believes Francis has placed the dog in a secret locale until the custody lawsuit is settled. If Three truly had gotten loose, Kiluk says, she would have found her way back to Harbor Beach Plaza where the pair would sometimes sleep and where Kiluk would pick up the occasional odd job. The plaza, at the southeast end of the 17th Street bridge, is only four blocks from Francis' house. Neither Kiluk nor one of his attorneys, Blake Carlton, had heard the rusty-hinge explanation until a reporter asked them about it in late December, four months after the escape allegedly occurred. None of Francis' three attorneys returned phone calls.
Three's fate rests with the power struggle between two people who admit they are afraid of each other, yet who say they only want what is best for Three.
For Kiluk that means letting the dog live with him where she was constantly adored and cared for. True, Three didn't sleep on silk sheets as she is rumored to have done while in foster care under the Pet Owners Alliance, but she was happy, says Kiluk and numerous tenants of Harbor Beach Plaza. Kiluk, of course, lives a simple life. All he really has in the world is his dog, which he affectionately called Bubba Three. When Kiluk is asked how old he is, he says "too old." (He's 56.) When asked how long he's lived in Fort Lauderdale, he says "a long time." (About ten years.) He's not concerned with tracking time. He's lost count of the judges and trials and confuses the details of events that led him to where he is today.
He is concerned about why Francis is fighting him for the dog. "I'll bet she's done this to other people, but other people haven't been as lucky as me," Kiluk says, referring to his lawyers. "She don't like my lifestyle. You can't dictate to people what they can do. Even the lawyers have dogs, and they drink. You run your life and let me run mine. But don't take my dog."
Tenants and employees of the 80 businesses in the plaza know and like Three because she is, like most Labs, a sweet and friendly pooch. They easily adopted her as their mascot, providing water and affection when she and Kiluk walked around the plaza. A picture of her with Kiluk is tacked up in the cabana-style bar of the Best Western Marina Inn and Yacht Harbor.