These weren't just dogs to Sheri Traylor. • These were her "babies" Cam and Caya, two grown, female chocolate labs who ran from behind her Sunset Beach home and disappeared into the night. • Caya was found wandering the streets of Gulfport several miles away. Cam stayed missing for an entire week in July before some young men called Traylor and her husband, saying they saw fliers posting a $500 reward. • That unleashed a ferocious and relentless quest to put 19-year-old Samuel John Vargas and his friends behind bars.
Vargas was arrested Thursday on grand theft charges alleging he stole Cam and Caya. He denies it and accuses Traylor of mounting a slanderous attack on his integrity.
Traylor and her husband Scott, who own BellaDOG Magazine and foster several rescue dogs, say the fight isn't over yet.
"Of all of the people they could have chosen to steal dogs from," Traylor said, "they chose the worst."
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Sheri Traylor, 42, admits the first misstep began with her. Late one night, she let four of her dogs outside on the beach behind her home. They had identifying microchips but no tags, for their own safety when they swim, Traylor said.
Caya and Cam ran off. She figured they headed to some condos where they like to smell garbage. Usually they stay there or come right back. This time, the two dogs didn't.
"We were up all night," she said. "We were hysterical."
The next afternoon, she says, someone who saw a Facebook post about the lost dogs spotted Caya wandering around Gulfport, almost 10 miles from home. The Traylors rushed to get her and noticed her nails looked fine and she didn't seem overheated or worn out.
Cam was still missing. The Traylors blasted Facebook with pleas for help. They went days without sleep. She found horrible articles about dogfighting rings and Craigslist posts offering dogs that looked abused. Animal advocacy groups and strangers as far away as Switzerland began following the hunt for Cam. Search parties made up of hundreds canvassed Gulfport and other areas.
The Traylors heard from an "animal communicator" who told them Cam was with some "Latinos with ill intentions," possibly enclosed in a metal cage or fence, and the people wanted money.
Finally, about a week after Cam disappeared and not long after posting fliers in Gulfport offering a $500 reward, the Traylors got a call: "We have your dog."
The Traylors drove to Gulfport, not far from where Caya was found, and Vargas and his friend Aron Corcoran came outside with Cam. Cam had broken teeth and a skin infection, Sheri Traylor said.
"We knew it was him," she said.
They asked about a reward, she said, and the Traylors wrote them a $500 business check that the men couldn't cash without their approval. The men called later and said they couldn't cash the check. They gave their names and she went home and searched the Internet.
When Sheri Traylor found Vargas' Facebook page, she froze. A post dated a half hour after she lost her dogs described two grown, female chocolate labs for sale for $150. "Hit me up, spread the word," Vargas said in the post.
She screamed. And called police.
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On July 28, the day after Vargas and Corcoran returned the dog, Gulfport police went to the Corcoran family's home, where Vargas and his 22-year-old brother, Roman, live. They asked to see vet papers for the dogs in the home.
A couple of days later, a neighbor told Corcoran that a woman had been driving through the neighborhood, pointing at his home and accusing those inside of stealing and raping their dog. Traylor said she has not returned to the neighborhood since getting Cam back. She believes the woman was a Facebook follower.
Then Vargas began getting Facebook messages from strangers threatening his life.
Better watch your back, one said. Another called him "scum."
Corcoran, who is on the Gulfport Teen Council and recently enlisted in the military, heard from his recruiter that a woman contacted him and told him about the alleged dognapping incident.
"Frankly, we are so done with this woman," said Corcoran's mother, Darlene. "She's a very, very sick person."
• • •
Sheri Traylor has been a fierce dog defender since she can remember. At age 5, she ran out in the road in tears to stop traffic and get help for a dog being chased. A couple of years later, she beat up some boys who were messing with her collie shepherd Tinkerbell.
In 2005, when she was living in Manatee County, she noticed a pit-shepherd mix chained outside of a home and began visiting it almost daily. The owners eventually called the cops and accused Traylor of trespassing.
"I can't help it, it's just something about them being so innocent," Traylor said. "I cannot handle if something weaker is being mistreated. I lose it."
Vargas said he loves dogs, too. A pit bull he was trying to sell on Facebook belonged to his ex-girlfriend and he couldn't keep it. In the case of Traylors' chocolate labs, he merely rescued them and was trying to find them a good home, he said before his arrest.
Police didn't see it that way. While they believe it was an isolated incident and not part of a dognapping ring as the Traylors allege, they believe Vargas broke the law.
The most damning evidence: Vargas' Facebook post advertising the Traylors' dogs for $150 each. The Traylors made a copy. It was posted at 2:57 a.m., less than an hour after Cam and Caya disappeared.
On Friday, Traylor said she was happy about the arrest — but not satisfied.
She wants Vargas to face animal abuse charges, and she wants everyone involved in the dog theft to be held accountable.
Emily Nipps can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8452.