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.
Rosemarie Testa, who owns two businesses in the plaza, is outraged that someone can take away a pet just because that person imagines it may be mistreated. There was no evidence produced in either trial to substantiate claims the dog was mistreated.
"We are all just one phone call away from these people," Testa says, seriously concerned. She has pets and is a smoker, and she wonders if "these people" would try to take her animals away for fear of secondhand smoke danger. "It's really frightening."
Francis insists she's not fighting Kiluk because of his lifestyle. She's worried about Three, worried about what happens to her when Kiluk passes out from drink, concerned for Three's safety, living so close to busy 17th Street.
"Because he's homeless, everybody felt sorry for him," Francis says. "I sure did. What I learned is that just because somebody's homeless doesn't mean you have to feel sorry for him, because sometimes they are mean, nasty people."
Francis asserts that Three was dirty and cold and not well fed when subsisting under the bridge with Kiluk. Francis has accused Kiluk of siccing the dog on people when he's been drinking and when he gets in fights.
Claiming she is the rightful owner, Francis has sued. According to court documents, Three was dropped off as a pup at Martha Yarbrough's home, where Kiluk lived at the time. When Kiluk left he took the dog. No receipt was made at the time, nor was any promise of care or intention of ownership mentioned.
"I own the dog," Francis insists. "The dog was given to me by the owner. Rick stole the dog from the owner."
The battle for custody of Three began on a chilly night in February. According to interviews with several plaza tenants, this is what happened: A drunk Kiluk, serving as the self-appointed traffic monitor in the plaza's parking lot, refused to let someone park in a particular spot he was saving for someone else. Thinking Kiluk was going to get arrested, another shop owner called Francis to pick up Three. Francis took the dog, though Kiluk hadn't been arrested. Kiluk went to Francis' house and demanded his dog. Francis refused, and police again were called. This time Kiluk was arrested for disorderly conduct.
That's when Francis turned the dog over to the Pet Owners Alliance, which handles many of Broward and Dade counties' calls for lost and found pets. The Alliance, wanting to return the dog to its owner, began checking records from the animal's identification tattoo. The tattoo indicated that Three is registered to someone who has since moved to California, another well-meaning woman who paid for Three's spaying, Fach says. The dog went to foster care and the silk sheets.
A judge gave Kiluk temporary custody in March, as long as Kiluk licensed and leashed the dog and kept her in Broward County. As the temporarily victorious Kiluk walked out of the courtroom, waiting police arrested him on an outstanding warrant for not showing up in court on a previous citation for not having the dog on a leash. When he got out of jail, he violated the judge's order and took the dog with him to visit his mother in New Hampshire.
While he was traveling, Francis and her attorneys convinced a judge that Yarbrough, Kiluk's ex-girlfriend, owned Three and wanted her back. The New Hampshire police responded to an all-points bulletin to be on the lookout for a man who stole a dog from Florida. Kiluk was arrested at his mother's house, and Francis flew to New Hampshire to retrieve Three. (Francis says Yarbrough no longer wants Three and has given the dog to her.)
Kiluk hasn't seen Three since his New Hampshire arrest. Legal orders were haggled over during the summer, and finally, in late September, a judge ruled that Kiluk should get the dog within ten days. Francis' lawyers filed a plea on the tenth day to rehear the custody case, so returning the dog was put on hold.
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Round Three (no pun intended) begins this month before County Court Judge Zebedee Wright to determine if the custody issue should be reheard. Even though Francis says Three is lost, she wants to pursue the lawsuit for custody because she's somehow hopeful that the dog will be found.
"It's not a case of whether or not homeless people should have pets," Francis says. "It's a matter that he's chosen to take someone else's dog. It's not his dog. It never was. Let him get another dog... It's not fair to take somebody else's dog and pretend it's yours."
That's exactly what Kiluk says. He's had the pup since it was five weeks old. About 200 people who know Kiluk and Three signed a petition last spring, many insisting Kiluk took better care of the dog than he did of himself.
"It's hard for me," Kiluk says, his rough, scarred fingers wrapped around yet another cigarette. "I just have to wait it out, I guess. And I worry about her." He's referring to Three.