TAMPA — A Hillsborough sheriff's dog tracked a suspected mail thief over a mile-long path around fences and through back yards Tuesday morning before finding the man hiding in a bush.
CJ, a 4-year-old Belgian Malinois raised in Holland, followed the scent of Jorge Malpica, one of three people seen peeking into mailboxes and allegedly stealing mail in the Town 'N Country area, said sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway.
CJ's partner, Deputy Richard George, 39, responded to the area about 4 a.m. after getting a tip from a newspaper delivery person that the men appeared to be up to no good. Two suspects were caught after a short chase.
Catching Malpica, 20, took longer.
When CJ caught up with him near the Upper Tampa Bay Trail and Waters Avenue, the dog bit the suspect on the leg through his jeans. George said Malpica appeared to be okay.
The three men are accused of stealing mail from four mailboxes on Vista Pointe Drive and Eagle Cove Court. The stolen mail was recovered in one of the suspect's cars.
The U.S. Postal Inspection Service was called to the scene, took the mail and began its own investigation, Callaway said.
Sean Michael Taylor, 18, Randy Angel Ramos, 18, and Malpica were charged with four counts each of petty theft, criminal trespassing, and loitering and prowling. They were booked into the Orient Road Jail.
George said CJ began his tracking by sniffing the ground, and then kept on the trail by looking for flattened dew, disturbed dirt and crushed grass. He and his partner have been on the beat for two years.
"It's like a game to him," George said, stroking CJ's black chin above the dog's collar and badge. "It's like hide and seek."
CJ, bred in Holland and shipped overseas to sniff out drugs, suspects or missing people, still takes orders from his partner in Dutch. When George yells what sounds like "blive," CJ stops. He yells "brov," and CJ wags his tail. Good boy.
"He's a perfect angel," George said. "He knows work is work and play is play."
Drew Harwell can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3386.