Raquel Witherspoon had spent a frantic 24-hours searching for her daughter’s Yorkshire terrier, after making a shocking discovery. Footage from her doorbell camera showed a young woman with dyed-red hair creep onto her front porch, throw treats to Avery and then make off with the tiny dog.
In menacing texts laced with profanity and misspellings, someone said they had Avery and sent a video of the brown and black pup in a cage. Avery looked forlorn as he lifted his diminutive furry head to the camera.
The conversation was punctuated with a threat to kill the dog and a demand for ransom: “y’all not gettin y’all dog baxc y’all payin 1200 no funny’s.”
Witherspoon was the victim of a crime that appears to be on the rise across the nation: dognapping. Police generally don’t maintain statistics that separate stolen pets from other thefts, but the latest numbers available from an American Kennel Club affiliate that registers animals show dognappings increased 30 percent in the third quarter of 2022 over the same period the previous year.
While animal shelters are overflowing with dogs to adopt, experts say brisk demand for and short supply of pure breeds and designer pooches like pomskies, shihpoos and maltipoos is creating a lucrative resale market where stolen dogs can fetch thousands.
The crimes have grabbed headlines, sometimes with surprising violence — a Maryland dog walker’s arm was broken during a heist of a Havanese in February; a wild gunfight erupted between a Florida breeder and would-be nappers late in 2021; and Lady Gaga’s dog walker was shot in Los Angeles as thieves made off with her French bulldogs the same year in a much publicized case.
But more often, dog owners say the crimes are quietly heart-wrenching, leaving gaping holes where a cherished member of the family had been. Witherspoon likened the loss of Avery in June to a kidnapping.
“It’s like losing a child,” she said.
Witherspoon knew she had little time. She was in a race to get Avery back before he was resold — or something worse befell him.
The odds were long.
Most stolen dogs are never recovered, but what followed was an improbable effort to crack the identity of the dognapper. It brought together Witherspoon, neighbors, TV news, police and a former Marine Corps intelligence operator who offered skills he honed on the battlefields of Iraq to capture al-Qaeda fighters.
“I’m going to get your dog back,” Witherspoon said she kept telling Semaj, more hope than belief.
A desperate search
Semaj was inconsolable, so soon after getting the ransom texts Witherspoon decided to pay up. She texted a photo of cash to show the dognapper she was serious about doing whatever she needed to save Avery.
Witherspoon pleaded with the dognapper, texting that her daughter relied on Avery, but the napper texted back “ha ha.” In a flurry of messages and calls, the negotiations soon collapsed. The dognapper went silent.
Avery had gone missing the night before, a Saturday, and Witherspoon had quickly filed a police report. She said she was told a detective would not be able to begin working the case for a week. Prince George’s County police said Avery’s disappearance was initially reported as a missing dog, but detectives elevated it when they later received the video showing Avery had been stolen.
Desperate, Witherspoon said she felt like she had nowhere to turn but the media.
On the Monday after Avery was stolen, Witherspoon stood in front of a Channel 7 news camera and told a reporter the dog “means the world” to her family as photos of the fluffy pooch flashed across the screen. “I want Avery back,” she pleaded as Semaj stood next to her in their front yard.
Rick Machamer saw it.
Machamer, who lives in Arlington, said he had been troubled by the recent reports of dognappings locally.
“I have two dogs of my own,” said Machamer, who owns a Norwegian elkhound and a Pomeranian. “I couldn’t fathom my reaction if someone took one, especially if they sent a picture of one in a cage.”
Machamer said he served in the Iraq War, gathering human and signals intelligence for the Marine Corps. He said he was honored for taking part in operations that helped capture insurgent and al-Qaeda leaders in al-Anbar province. He now runs a corporate intelligence company, Dark Ember, performing opposition research for political campaigns and other digging.
Machamer said he took note that the dognapper had demanded a ransom by phone. That number was a crucial clue — he figured he might be able to trace it, putting his unique skills to use.
The TV news report featured a “missing dog” flier with Witherspoon’s phone number, so Machamer texted her and offered his help. Witherspoon quickly agreed and sent him the doorbell video, the dognapper’s phone number and other evidence.
Machamer set to work.
He said he ran the dognapper’s phone number through an online database, but the number was unregistered. He used software to try to extract geolocation data from the video of Avery in the cage, but none existed. He said he even waded through customer reviews of local salons near Witherspoon, hoping to find the perpetrator since she had distinctive dyed hair. He struck out again.
Machamer said he tried one last trick: He put the dognapper’s phone number in his iPhone contacts which were linked to his Instagram account. He knew Instagram would likely recommend he follow any accounts associated with that number.
Soon enough, Instagram offered up a profile: a body piercing business near Witherspoon’s Landover home. The account had a post linking to the owner’s personal Instagram account.
Machamer followed the link and said he discovered a tantalizing lead. The owner had posted about another dog that had gone missing in Witherspoon’s neighborhood before Avery was taken.
Machamer said he googled until he located a social media post about that dog.
The post featured a photo of police talking to a family about the dog, including someone who looked like the dognapper in Witherspoon’s doorbell camera footage. The photo also showed the address of the home.
Machamer felt a rush of excitement. He wasn’t 100 percent sure, but he thought he may have identified the dognapper.
Machamer was worried the publicity around the case might lead the dognappers to quickly sell or ditch Avery. Another dog stolen in D.C. last year was found dead in an abandoned home in Maryland.
“Time was of the essence,” Machamer said.
He texted Witherspoon about what he had found. Witherspoon had been doing her own sleuthing that was pointing in a similar direction. She noticed the “missing dog” fliers she had posted near the address identified by Machamer had been torn down.
Four days after Avery went missing, Witherspoon got a tip that someone who lived in the household identified by Machamer was behind Avery’s dognapping. She took all the information to a police detective.
Two days of agonizing waiting followed.
Finally, a Prince George’s County police detective called and said, “I have Avery. I’m on my way,” Witherspoon said.
Prince George’s police said the dog was recovered in the Landover home Machamer identified and they charged a 16-year-old girl with stealing the dog. Police said the girl admitted involvement in the theft and attempt to extort Witherspoon for money and pleaded guilty before trial. The Post generally does not name juveniles charged with crimes. Her father declined to comment.
Witherspoon’s searing experience is becoming more common.
The American Kennel Club, which has an affiliate that implants microchips in dogs to identify them, said nearly 1,500 dogs in its registry were reported stolen across the United States, its territories and Canada between July 2021 and August 2022. The top breeds targeted were French bulldogs, German shepherds, Yorkshire terriers, and Labrador retrievers.
Brandi Munden, a spokeswoman for the AKC, said more frequent reports of violent dognappings have been particularly troubling, including thieves who stole two dogs at gunpoint in D.C. last year just 15 minutes apart in a case that received widespread media attention.
“It is a sizable concern that people are becoming more brazen in their pet theft,” Munden said.
Kathleen Summers, a director for the Humane Society of the United States, said pet owners worried about dognappings should avoid leaving their dogs tied up outside grocery stories and coffee shops, install a good fence around their yard and security cameras on their home, get their pet microchipped, buy a GPS collar, and make sure their animal is spayed or neutered. Unfixed dogs are more of a target because they can be used for breeding.
Semaj was sitting on a couch in her living room when a Prince George’s County police officer walked into their home with Avery on a leash. Semaj said she ran to the dog and hugged him. Avery bounded around the house and the pair went outside to play.
“I was like, ‘They got him back!’ said Semaj, who is now 13. “I didn’t want to face the reality of not seeing my dog again.”