TAMPA — A 3-month-old puppy was stolen from a car waiting at a red light near the University of South Florida this week in what deputies described as a bizarre case of road rage.
But when something that shocking happens to a puppy that looks like Bella, people take notice. And when the Labrador later showed up at the Mort Park Playground in Lutz, someone recognized her from all the news coverage and reached out on social media.
On Friday, Bella was reunited with her owner, a little dirty and with a few ant bites, but otherwise unharmed.
"I'm so glad to have my baby back," said Laura Rodriguez, 22.
Deputies got a call from Rodriguez at the intersection of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard and USF's Holly Drive reporting her brown Lab had been taken through her car's back window Wednesday by another motorist.
"We've had puppies stolen from yards and pet stores," said sheriff's spokeswoman Debbie Carter. "But nothing else I can remember about one being taken out of a person's vehicle."
Rodriguez told investigators an old gray or dark-colored sedan with a male and female inside cut her off as she was approaching a turning lane. She said she could tell the female driver thought she was driving too slowly.
Soon, the driver pulled her car next to Rodriguez and her twin sister, who was in the passenger seat, and got out. Rodriguez's two rescue dogs were in the back.
Rodriguez was waiting for the light at the intersection to turn green. But before it did, the woman reached into Rodriguez's half-open window and grabbed 8-pound Bella's leash and pulled her out. The other dog, Aiko, dropped to the floor and started barking.
When Rodriguez realized what was happening, it was too late. She watched the woman throw the puppy inside the other car to the passenger and speed through the red light and onto USF's campus.
Rodriguez tried to race after her, but never caught up.
Carter said Rodriguez and another witness had a hard time giving specific details about what the woman who took the dog looked like.
Rodriguez said the ordeal happened so fast and the woman was gone before she saw details on the car or license plate. The incident wasn't caught on any red light or security cameras, Carter said.
Bella was in rough shape when Rodriguez took her in two months ago. She and her litter were abandoned by their owner.
"She is a very attached puppy," Rodriguez wrote to the Hillsborough County Facebook page for missing pets. "She needs me as much as I need her."
Bella was found playing with a little girl at Mort Park. Sensing the dog was lost, someone took her and knocked on doors nearby asking if it belonged to anyone.
A couple who recognized the dog from news coverage lied and said Bella was theirs. They posted on Facebook saying they had Bella.
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A friend saw the post and alerted Rodriguez, who said she had been crying since her pup was snatched. She said Bella and her other dog have been playing nonstop.
"Even Aiko was missing her," Rodriguez said.
Contact Sara DiNatale at email@example.com or (727) 893-8862. Follow @sara_dinatale.