ST. PETERSBURG — The two young men grabbed the geese by their necks from Crescent Lake and took off running.
The animals squirmed and squawked as the men jammed them into cages in their tan pickup. It took only a few moments on a quiet Saturday afternoon.
A man who was walking around the lake turned around and stared. Across the lake, another got into his car and tried to head them off.
Stephan Van Horn, 36, was pedaling along on his bike and did a U-turn. He stopped and memorized the license plate of the truck.
When the feathers had settled, Mama Goose, the longtime matriarch of Crescent Lake, was gone. Two other geese were missing, too.
Before long, residents would call police and get a name for one of the goose grabbers.
They knew it well.
• • •
Goose-loving residents of this picturesque neighborhood have barely recovered from Austin Corley's last expedition to Crescent Lake.
A year ago, they discovered Mama, a large buff-colored goose, paddling the lake from shore to shore, honking in distress.
Mama's mate and babies were gone.
Geese mate for life. And these geese were beloved, like the Banyan trees and the baseball field. Mama's bleating got so bad — HONK, HONK, HONK — one resident picked up a pair of Chinese geese and released them into the lake.
Mama warmed to the newcomers, named Lenny and Squiggy.
"They were a family," said Jennifer Silva, 37, who witnessed the union. "I was crying. It was a beautiful thing."
Residents discovered the identity of the goose grabber — Austin Corley, an 18-year-old from Palmetto.
Corley may have broken a city ordinance, but the police don't typically cross county lines for such minor violations.
The son of a former beekeeper, Corley had just graduated from high school. He had an animal trapper's license.
In an interview at the time, he admitted that he had been taking ducks and geese since the ninth grade for extra cash. He was selling them at animal auctions, getting $5 to $20 a bird. The birds went to residential lakes and Asian restaurants.
At the time, he promised never to return to Crescent Lake.
"There's too much drama there," he said.
• • •
This past year, geese and ducks disappeared from lakes all over Tampa Bay.
In Tampa, two women whose pet geese, Andre and Daisy, were snatched from a private lake tried to negotiate with Corley to get them back to no avail.
In Riverview, a woman accused Corley of trying to run her over when she tried to stop him from taking the ducks behind her home in a gated community. Corley was acquitted of those charges.
And just two weeks ago, Mary Jane Kohler of Harshaw Lake neighborhood was approached by two men in a pickup truck who said they were city employees coming to remove the ducks.
Kohler, 68, knew better.
"I said, 'No you don't, you're not taking any ducks,' " Kohler said.
She followed them in her Ford Escape and got a license plate number.
• • •
Mama has been missing for three days now. There have been calls to the police, calls to area small animal auctions, calls to state wildlife officials.
No luck so far.
But the neighbors won't let Mama go.
"We know there are other more heartbreaking things going on in the world so we understand that and keep that in perspective," said Michael Flanagan, 52, who lives at Crescent Lake. "At the same time, we live on this lake and several of us feed those geese. They're part of our neighborhood and our family."
Flanagan wrote a letter to the parks department and City Council member Leslie Curran seeking help. Stronger laws. Trespass violations. Anything.
But mostly he's counting on St. Petersburg Officer Ray Merritt.
Merritt helped the residents when Mama's mate and babies were nabbed. Geese and ducks are domestic animals. It's a city ordinance violation to pluck them from a public lake. Trappers can remove ducks if called to do so by the neighborhood or the city.
Officer Merritt is looking for Corley, who doesn't have a listed telephone number. The tan pickup spotted at the lake on Saturday belongs to Corley, now 19. Merritt wants to know if Corley had a reason to be there Saturday.
"I spoke to a friend of his," Merritt said. "What I'm telling him is 'come on down here and show me the documentation of who wanted you to remove these ducks.' I'm also hoping to get the geese back if they haven't already been destroyed."
• • •
Janet Wuske stood by the banyan tree at Crescent Lake and stroked Lenny's downy chest Monday, trying to soothe him.
Lenny, a white Chinese male, is the last remaining goose on Crescent Lake. Squiggy, a female who was smaller and had a crooked tail, disappeared from the lake about six months ago.
Several of the neighbors are making plans to sequester Lenny, to protect him.
"Come here sweetheart," Wuske said in a soft voice. "I know. It's so sad. It's so sad. Yes, it is. It's too sad."
Lenny stood at her feet and nibbled her hand.
"He's just lost," she said.
Every morning at 6:20 a.m., Wuske feeds bread to the geese of Crescent Lake.
On Sunday morning, only Lenny showed up.
But he wouldn't eat. He wouldn't eat Monday either.
Wuske keeps hearing him out there on the lake by himself.
HONK. HONK. HONK. HONK. HONK. HONK. HONK. HONK.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Times reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8640.