Advertisement
  1. News

Dog custody battle lands Pinellas neighbors in court

A Pinellas County judge ordered that Tina Marie Walker share custody of her dog, Elario, with a former neighbor. (Laura C. Morel/Times)
Published Apr. 13, 2018

MADEIRA BEACH — What if a dog is a woman's best friend, but also a man's best friend?

She adopted the black Labrador retriever mix, but he paid for the vet bills.

At the end of the day, who is the rightful owner of 4-year-old Elario?

It's a question that a Pinellas County judge recently pondered in small claims court.

The plaintiff was David Somerville, a Vietnam War veteran recovering from lung cancer who credits the dog with improving his health.

The defendant is his neighbor Tina Marie Walker, a 53-year-old woman who has owned Labrador retrievers her entire life and spent $5 to adopt Elario even though he was emaciated and suffering from kennel cough.

Judge Lorraine Kelly's answer: Walker and Somerville must share custody, like divorced parents. She even created a calendar detailing pickup times.

"Both parties have spent a great deal of time with the dog," Kelly wrote in her order. "Witnesses say he shows great affection to both of his humans."

• • •

The story of Elario and his two owners began Jan. 7, 2016, according to court records.

Walker asked Somerville, 68, for a ride to the Pinellas County Animal Services shelter on Ulmerton Road.

She wandered through the hallways lined with cages, making her way to the quarantine section. She peered into the second cage on the left.

Inside was Elario, a black Labrador with honey brown eyes. His name, she learned later with a Google search, means joy.

On visits to Somerville's apartment, she brought her new companion along. Her neighbor grew close to Elario, taking him on walks while she worked part-time jobs at a cafe and a restaurant.

For two years, the 100-pound Labrador sauntered between their apartments.

But a rift soon formed between the neighbors.

What went wrong, court records show, depends on whom you ask.

• • •

This is Walker's version:

Months before the trip to the shelter, Somerville underwent lung surgery. His son asked Walker to keep an eye on him. She lived right across the hall at their Bayshore Drive apartment building facing the Intracoastal Waterway.

"We spent a lot of time together to the point where I stopped even having food in my apartment," she wrote in court records. "We did our shopping together, shared meals daily."

When she adopted Elario, she started taking him to Somerville's apartment.

But something went awry when Walker went on vacation to Martha's Vineyard last year and left Elario with Somerville. A few months later, in November, Somerville said he wanted to adopt him.

Walker offered to add his name to Elario's microchip.

On Dec. 22, Somerville sued Walker in Pinellas County court. He wanted to be Elario's sole owner.

"This dog is everything to me," Walker told the Tampa Bay Times. "I was only trying to share my joy with someone who needed it."

• • •

Somerville could not be reached for comment for this report, but this is what he told the judge in court records:

He walks Elario up to three times a day and takes him to the dog park in the evenings. When Elario cut his paw on a barnacle or needed a cyst removed, Somerville took him to the vet and handled the bills.

The animosity between him and Walker began when Somerville wanted Elario's microchip printed with his name since, he said in court, he is more "financially stable" than Walker.

That's when Walker, he says, started to keep Elario away from him.

"He does not get to see his dog friends at the park anymore," Somerville wrote. "He does not understand why when he sees me, he can't come to me."

• • •

On a recent afternoon, Walker sat on a bench in a dog park next to the Madeira Beach Recreation Department. Elario was sprawled by her feet, chewing on a tennis ball.

"I love my dog," she said, wiping away tears as she glanced at the court papers on her lap. "It's all I have in my whole life."

She has appealed and moved from the apartment building to avoid any more friction with Somerville. To this day, she says, Walker doesn't understand exactly what happened between them.

Elario barked and ran in circles around her. He grew still as Walker picked up his soggy tennis ball. He bolted after it when she tossed it across the grass.

The next day, she would have to drop him off at Somerville's apartment.

Contact Laura C. Morel at lmorel@tampabay.com. Follow @lauracmorel.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos listens to a speaker share an opinion about a city matter during a city council meeting at Clearwater City Hall in Clearwater, Fla. on Thursday, April 20, 2017.  On Thursday, the Clearwater City Council rejected the mayor's resolution urging lawmakers to ban assault weapons.  [Times files] TIMES FILES  |  Tampa Bay Times
    However, the city did pass a resolution calling for more modest gun control measures.
  2. An American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft approaches Miami International Airport for landing in March. Bloomberg
    The 60-year-old veteran airline employee told investigators he was upset that union contract negotiations had stalled.
  3. Maurice A. Ferré at his Miami home earlier this year. JOSE A. IGLESIAS  |  Miami Herald
    He served as mayor for 12 years and set the stage for Miami to become an international city.
  4. Lilly Beth Rodriguez, left, Laura Robertson and Linda Lamont work on a Habitat for Humanity house in north Pasco. [Times (2013)]
    The increase is expected to happen in the first half of next year. CEO hopes other nonprofits follow suit.
  5. Terry Spencer carries his daughter, Trinity, through high water on 59th Street near Stewart Road in Galveston, Texas, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, as heavy rain from Tropical Depression Imelda caused street flooding on the island. JENNIFER REYNOLDS  |  AP
    Although the amount of predicted rainfall is massive — forecasters say some places could see 40 inches or more this week.
  6. This April 2001 photo, which appeared in a newsletter from the West Point Grey Academy, shows a costumed Justin Trudeau, his face and hands darkened by makeup, attending an "Arabian Nights" gala. The academy is a private school in Vancouver, B.C., where Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics. (West Point Grey Academy/The Canadian Press via AP)
    A few Southern politicians responded to similar scandals recently with denials, apologies, and promises. Most of them have managed to stay in office.
  7. The number of single-family homes sold in the Tampa Bay area during August rose 2.8 percent when compared with the same month last year, according to a monthly report from Florida Realtors. (Times file photo)
    The midpoint price in the bay area rose to $250,000, which is still lower than the state and national median prices.
  8. This April 14, 2019 file photo shows a western meadowlark in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Commerce City, Colo. According to a study released on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, North America’s skies are lonelier and quieter as nearly 3 billion fewer wild birds soar in the air than in 1970. Some of the most common and recognizable birds are taking the biggest hits, even though they are not near disappearing yet. The population of eastern meadowlarks has shriveled by more than three-quarters with the western meadowlark nearly as hard hit. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) DAVID ZALUBOWSKI  |  AP
    “People need to pay attention to the birds around them because they are slowly disappearing,” said the study’s lead author.
  9. Michael Robert-Jose Harbaugh has pleaded guilty in the 2017 slaying of Safety Harbor neighbor David Sommer, a former reporter. Harbaugh also pleaded guilty to a charge he tried to have a witness in the case killed. [Pinellas County Sheriff's Office]
    Former journalist David Sommer was killed in 2017. Michael Harbaugh, 42, agreed to serve 30 years in prison for his crimes.
  10. Rep. Susan Valdes, D-Tampa, during a Feb. 7, 2019, meeting of the House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee. [The Florida Channel]
    ‘One test should not determine the rest of your life,’ Rep. Susan Valdes says.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement