07/20/2007

Fla. mom, now jailed, forced kids to steal puppies

By Elaine Aradillas
The Orlando Sentinel  

ST. CLOUD, Fla. A Boston terrier shoplifted from a pet shop was back home Thursday, while the mom accused of sneaking it out of the store with her children was in jail.

Tami Loechner, 27, was arrested Wednesday evening on charges of grand theft and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Bond was set at $1,000 for each charge, but she remained in the Osceola County Jail after a judge revoked a previous bond in a separate child-neglect case.

On Monday, the mother of four took her children to Tiny Me Puppies, 1511 U.S. Highway 192, where she had seen the black-and-white terrier during the weekend, St. Cloud police Detective Shalyn Somers said.

The store was selling the 10-week-old puppy for $699.99, according to reports.

"She saw the dog, thought it was cute and she wanted it," Somers said.

Surveillance video from the store showed the caper unfold during a 45-minute period.

A woman can be seen carrying a young child and standing next to the flea-and-tick-powder display while what appear to be her other children play with the puppies, including the terrier, authorities said .

At about 5:45 p.m., according to the time stamped on the video, the oldest child places the puppy into a royal-blue tote bag while an employee sells another puppy to a customer.

One of the children, a 7-year-old girl, announces she was going to wait in the van. The entire family leaves the store moments later, authorities said.

Loechner told detectives she didn't know why she involved her children, but that she told her daughter it was wrong.

"People don't want to see parents using their kids to commit crimes," Somers said. "It's disgusting."

When the store owner's husband, Juan Cotto, started to lock up for the evening Monday, he removed the puppies near the window and moved them to the back of the store as a safety precaution.

"We counted them up and realized the Boston terrier was missing," Cotto said. "I kept walking back and forth to make sure the puppy wasn't hiding."

He searched through the surveillance video, which uses four cameras placed throughout the store, and released the video in hopes that someone would recognize the woman and her children.

The video aired on TV on Wednesday night, and within 15 minutes, the police department received several phone calls.

Detectives approached Loechner and told her to hand over the puppy, which hadn't been named.

According to police, she told the investigators that she instructed her children to tell her husband and anyone who asked that they received the puppy as a gift from an ex-teacher.

Each customer who walked into the pet store Thursday asked about the terrier. She was back in her original pen, where she slept most of the afternoon.

Cotta said puppies are for children, and he didn't want to change the store's philosophy of encouraging people to pick up and pet the animals. But he posted signs around the store informing customers that handbags were no longer allowed.

"I'll be more vigilant now," he said, "but I'm not going to change."

With Loechner in jail, her husband has custody of the children because police think he knew nothing about the incident.

In January, she was arrested and charged with child neglect after one of her children nearly drowned in the family's pool, Somers said.

Copyright 2007 The Orlando Sentinel 

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