Drone Pilot JobsLost Dog, Lies Found – D Magazine

September 3, 2021by helo-10

Where to begin? With Paul Mecca cooking cheap steaks at 2 am on a grill in the middle of a densely wooded area in West Dallas, as bullets popped through foliage around him? With a malnourished 32-pound black Labrador retriever, eyes and ears infected, wandering around a small town in East Texas? With the epitaph that Lord Byron wrote in 1808 for his dog named Boatswain? Or with the phone call?

It came at 3:24 pm on May 27, a Thursday. On the other end was a man named Michael Hamill with bad news. He told Paul and his wife that their dog Pancho had slipped his collar during a walk and run off. The odd thing about that: the couple had never met Michael.

Paul is 36 years old and looks like Jeremy Renner if Jeremy Renner lost most of his hair and his key card to the gym. Not long before that phone call, he’d left a job at a small business that he’d sold and was knocking around a modest Turtle Creek condo that he shares with his wife, Maria, who works in commercial real estate sales. She also loves dogs. When the couple started dating, Maria would take Paul with her on weekends to help do volunteer work for the rescue group Dallas Pets Alive. She took flattering photographs of dogs to better their chances of getting adopted. So of course the couple wound up adopting that underweight black Lab found in Lufkin, Texas. 

In the care of his new owners, Pancho thrived. He liked to walk through the parks along Turtle Creek. He was not an ally to the squirrel. He lived up to his breed’s name and excelled at playing fetch. But given Pancho’s early life on the streets of Lufkin, he had separation anxiety, so a couple of times a week, while his owners ran errands and went to lunch, Pancho would get picked up by a woman named Wendy Strawser and travel to her house in West Dallas, in a neighborhood called Mountain Valley Estates, where she runs a doggie daycare out of a 1,500-square-foot ranch-style house. At K9 Cabin, Pancho played with other dogs and went on walks.

Maria has known Wendy for about four years, from back when Maria lived downtown and owned a boxer-bull mastiff mix named Zeus. Wendy worked for DogFit, with Art Ortiz, whose training lineage runs through Cesar Millan, aka the Dog Whisperer. Wendy walked Zeus until he was taken early by cancer. 

Yet now a stranger named Michael (who turned out to be Wendy’s fiancé) was calling about Pancho’s escape. No matter. Paul and Maria rushed to K9 Cabin, arriving just 18 minutes after the call. They were met at the door by Michael, who further explained that during a pack walk through the neighborhood, a passing truck had startled Pancho, causing him to pull free of his collar and run into the woods south of Nancy J. Cochran Elementary School. Michael said he’d searched for hours, but at that point he didn’t seem much interested in looking for Pancho, a characterization by Paul that will have to go undisputed here because neither Michael nor Wendy responded to requests for comment for this story. 

The woods in that neighborhood comprise one of the largest undeveloped swaths of land within the Dallas city limits. Roughly 300 acres of Indian grass, cedar elm, hackberry, and Chinese privet lie between Loop 12 and an old power plant fed by Mountain Creek Lake. People claim to have spotted mountain lions there. They unquestionably have spotted mounds of car tires and other illegally dumped trash, mostly on the western half, which is owned by the city and bordered by Merrifield Road. A hill there sees more action than Sugar Loaf did in 1945, with off-roaders and drunk hell-raisers attacking it every weekend. Erosion leads to mudslides that sometimes bring shark teeth to the surface, a reminder that Texas was once seabed. The eastern acreage of the woods, quieter but no less dangerous, is owned by the Catholic Diocese of Dallas. It leases to the Irving Bowhunters Association, which maintains a network of footpaths and shooting lanes populated by stoic white-tailed deer that have suffered many arrows.

Paul and Maria combed those woods for hours, shouting Pancho’s name. After nightfall, their friend Steve showed up with his ATV, which had to be winched upright after they rolled it on a muddy hill at midnight. They emerged from the woods filthy and exhausted, but at 3 am some teenagers playing basketball at the school said they’d seen a black dog at the apartment complex across the street, so Paul and Maria parked in the teacher’s lot and sat in their Lexus till sunup, watching the apartments, hoping against hope that Pancho would appear. 

That was how the couple spent Memorial Day weekend, searching for their dog, taking no half measures, keeping despair at bay. About a dozen friends joined in the hunt. They handed out hundreds of flyers offering a $2,000 reward, then, after Paul realized English wasn’t the neighborhood’s preferred language, he had the flyers translated into Spanish and redistributed them. A drone pilot saw one of the flyers and searched for Pancho from the air. On the advice of a dog tracker, Paul and Steve and Maria dragged that grill into the woods on Saturday night and cooked meat for hours, trying to lure Pancho out of the brush, but after the bars closed, the random gunfire started, forcing their retreat.

Then, Sunday evening, Paul and Maria changed tack. All along, they’d wondered about the odd way they’d learned about Pancho’s disappearance. They knew K9 Cabin had Ring cameras in front of the house and in the backyard, so they called and texted Michael and Wendy, asking if they’d share their video. They got no response. 

Monday morning, Maria called the police, and three Dallas cops paid a visit to K9 Cabin. Michael answered the door but was less than helpful. Even when Paul and Maria promised to drop the whole matter if he’d let them watch the video from the day of Pancho’s disappearance, Michael refused.

At that point, what had been merely the most thorough search for a lost dog ever conducted in Mountain Valley Estates turned into a triumph of amateur detective work that has racked up 10,000 views on YouTube and will inspire generations to come. Paul, remember, is a monolingual White dude. Nonetheless, he started knocking on doors and asking the mostly Hispanic people behind them if they’d share video from their security cameras. Sometimes children were summoned to translate. By then, of course, the crazy White people had been looking for their lost dog in the neighborhood for nearly four days. Most folks were friendly to them. A man from El Salvador brought Paul his first break in the case.

The man had a serious surveillance system. Burglars had hit him hard, stealing even his passport, so his house now bristled with commercial-grade cameras that recorded to his own hard drive. After the man showed the couple his footage from the day Pancho disappeared, Paul left to buy a thumb drive. All told, that day Paul and Maria spent about six hours at the man’s house, transferring video.

Even more astounding: Paul found another neighbor who showed him a Ring video on his phone while standing in his driveway, in the rain. Paul needed that video. After a 30-minute speakerphone conversation in which a friend of Paul’s from Mexico translated for him, that neighbor agreed to give Paul his Ring password so that he could go home and download the video.  

Paul and Maria worked like this, canvassing the neighborhood, until they could assemble a video shot from six cameras that shows the truth about what happened in Mountain Valley Estates on the day in question—or what didn’t happen. Two pack walks originated on Thursday at K9 Cabin, one led by Wendy and one led by Michael. The six cameras allowed Paul to plot the routes of both walks. Pancho was nowhere to be seen. Further, it was clear that no search for him had taken place. 

The video revealed other discrepancies with the story Michael had told the cops. When Paul presented this evidence to a Dallas police detective, she obtained a search warrant for video recorded by K9 Cabin’s cameras. The case, as of early August, remains active. The detective won’t discuss it with a reporter. But Paul says he was told that the K9 Cabin video from Thursday—not Wednesday or Friday, just Thursday—had been erased from Ring’s servers. 

Which brings us to Lord Byron’s Boatswain and the value of Pancho’s life. In 2009, a Fort Worth animal shelter inadvertently euthanized a Labrador mix named Avery, and his owners sued the worker who’d made the mistake. The case went all the way to the Texas Supreme Court, which in 2013 ruled that pet owners can’t sue for emotional damages in the case of a pet. Justice Don Willett began his 25-page opinion by quoting Byron’s epitaph and then explained that allowing people to collect noneconomic damages for the accidental death of their pets would elevate, say, a ferret to the same level as a spouse. In the view of the state of Texas, then, Paul and Maria and their friends and the drone pilot and the Dallas Police Department have spent all this time and energy on a personal property case with a value of $325. That’s what the couple paid a rescue group when they adopted Pancho. 

If Pancho met his demise while in the care of K9 Cabin—hypothetically—that would amount to a Class C misdemeanor. Just like a traffic ticket. 

For now, that leaves Paul and Maria with two unsatisfactory avenues of recourse. First, Paul spent a week and a half editing about 30 hours of footage into a 15-minute video about Pancho’s disappearance, complete with graphics and his own voiceover narration and the chung-chung sound effect from Law & Order. He posted it to YouTube on July 12 and also launched the website panchosstory.com, which details everything that happened and advises dog owners on how to avoid a similar ordeal. Second, the couple has begun talking with animal rights groups and legislators about what it would take to get state law changed. 

“You know, we don’t have children,” Paul says. “We love dogs. We felt very responsible for him. We rescued him, and we let him down by choosing who we left him with. There’s a lot of guilt. I can’t even begin to tell you what it feels like, not knowing what happened. That’s what has made us crazy. They know exactly what happened to him, and they won’t tell us. That really takes a certain kind of evil.”

Paul says that his wife starts every day by searching shelter websites for Pancho. Maria knows that he’s probably in heaven, but she’ll never give up on that 1 percent chance that he’s out there.

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There is more to being a drone pilot than just buying a machine and flying in your backyard. It can be that simple, but most of us will need to understand some drone laws before we try to take to the sky.


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