NEW PORT RICHEY — Vickie Bankowski spent Thursday afternoon making fliers with Gizmo's picture and, at 6 p.m., she began what she thought was going to be a long journey, racing from store to store, asking people whether they had seen her dog. She's had Gizmo, now 7 and graying on his ears, since he was 10 weeks old.
On Tuesday night, a naked, bloody burglar, drunk on Four Loko caffeinated booze, broke into Bankowski's home on Blayton Street — his second break-in of the night, authorities say. When Bankowski returned home about 1 a.m. Wednesday after visiting her sister in Tampa, she found 21-year-old Justin Barker sleeping on her sofa.
The house was smeared with the blood of the burglar, who had cut his arm shattering a sliding glass door. Bankowski's other dog, 5-year-old Beethoven, was there — freaked out but unharmed.
Gizmo was gone. He had just been groomed on Saturday and Bankowski hadn't put his tags back on him. She feared the worst.
Bankowski, 56, decided to start her search Thursday at Beverage Express, a convenience store on Moog Road about six blocks from her home. The store is the halfway point on her walks with Gizmo and Beethoven, the landmark for them to turn around and head home. Until this night, she had never been inside.
"I know where your dog is," said the store manager, Dan Berkey, 42.
"I haven't even told you what he looks like yet," Bankowski said.
"Was he wearing a red collar?" Berkey said.
Bankowski started crying.
"Yes," she said.
Berkey told the story:
On Tuesday night, as Barker was allegedly hiding out in Bankowski's house, the neighborhood was on edge as deputies searched for the nude man who ransacked and defecated inside a 70-year-old woman's home on Hendrix Street. That resident wasn't home. A 72-year-old neighbor told deputies she saw the thin man flee in the buff, but she wasn't sure if she could identify him. She didn't get a good look at his face, she said.
Berkey was off work, but the clerk on duty at the store was scared, so he came in to calm her. That's when two of his regulars — a young couple, Matt and Shelby — came in with a dog they found about 8:45 p.m. on Moog Road. It was a brown and white shih tzu with a red collar. Matt told Berkey to let him know if the owner showed up.
On Thursday night, Berkey couldn't find the couple's phone number. But he told Bankowski he would drive around the neighborhood after he closed the shop at 9 p.m.
"I know he lives near here," he said. "I will find him."
Berkey knows what his regulars drink, smoke and drive, and he knew Matt, who loves strawberry Wonka Nerds, drives a black Honda with a dent in the driver's side door. Berkey drove, round and round, for 30 minutes. Somehow, in the dark, he found the right black car at the right house and knocked on the door.
The three of them waited, with Gizmo on Shelby's lap, for Bankowski, who couldn't believe these strangers went so far out of their way to help her. When Gizmo was finally back in her arms, she felt like she could start healing, like she could breathe again.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.