Police: Trainer bilked owners
At least one dog hasn't been found
Posted Monday, April 19, 2010
Frankford dog owner Karen Draikos hasn't seen her 14-month-old German shepherd, Zoe, since January, when she left the purebred in the care of a Wilmington dog trainer.
At first, James Whitten, 42, kept making excuses about why Zoe wasn't ready to come home, she said. Then both disappeared altogether.
"I thought that maybe he hit her and killed her, or she got attacked by another dog," Draikos said. "I'm not concerned about the money. I just want my dog to be safe and not hurt. I hope that she is somewhere where she's safe."
Police say Draikos is one of at least a half-dozen victims who were bilked out of thousands of dollars by the unlicensed dog trainer. Wilmington and state police have issued warrants for his arrest on felony charges of theft, two other felonies and two misdemeanors.
But they believe he fled the state.
After Draikos paid Whitten $1,600 in November to train her two dogs at A Bad Dog No More, Whitten returned both dogs in December, saying he would take Zoe back for more training after the holidays, she said.
"He came back and picked up Zoe in January for what was supposed to be two weeks," Draikos said. "And then we kept calling him. As time was going by, it was one excuse after another."
She filed a report with state police March 12. An investigator told her that Whitten claimed he had returned Zoe.
Other dog owners tell similar stories.
John and Rachel Johnson brought their two dogs from Baltimore to Whitten's business, which they found on the Internet. They said they paid him $500 to train Blue, an 11-month-old white pit bull terrier, and Mikia, a 4-month-old black Cane Corso.
He promised to call Johnson every day to let him know how his two pets were doing. He did so the first two days. By the third day, Johnson said he couldn't reach him. His messages went unreturned.
On March 17, the couple drove to Whitten's Browntown home in the 200 block of Stroud Street. Peering through the windows, John Johnson saw no signs of life. The home looked like the family had moved out. In a panic, he called Wilmington police.
SPCA Animal Agent Nicholas Pepe found the property vacant and the house a mess.
Pepe recalled an earlier incident involving Whitten in which six dogs he was allegedly training were seized from a home in the 500 block of N. Scott St. Pepe went to that house, where an unidentified man opened the door. Johnson's two dogs appeared behind him.
The man told Pepe that he had "found" the dogs "wandering around," according to the report.
Whitten's Stroud Street neighbors said he and his family moved out in the early hours of March 15, taking nine dogs with them.
Through the walls, next-door neighbor Shakita Price said she could hear the dogs whining and crying, and Whitten "hollering all hours of the day and night" at a dog named Chino.
'Best interest of the dogs'
Dog owner Norma Everhart, of Waldorf, Md., said her husband, James, found Whitten's website and agreed to let him train their 6-month-old white Great Pyrense, Tink, for four weeks for $1,400.
Everhart said they were supposed to meet with him two weeks later. But every time they called, they got another excuse -- ranging from he had to undergo surgery for stomach cancer to their dog "couldn't work under the pressure of rain." By the third week, they could no longer reach him.
That's when James Everhart found an Internet posting by Johnson that identified Whitten as a fraud. Johnson helped him locate Tink at the SPCA.
According to Pepe, SPCA animal control officers confiscated six dogs Dec. 17 from the 500 block of N. Scott St., where Whitten was living at the time with just the oven for heat. The dogs were being kept in cages in a cold, damp basement with a fan blowing to deflect the odor. The dogs were returned to their owners, and Whitten was not charged with any counts of animal cruelty.
"It was in the best interest of the dogs to get them home to the owners," Pepe said. "We would have had to prove that the dogs were suffering, kept them and had them evaluated by a veterinarian to establish that something was wrong with the dogs before we could press cruelty charges."
While the Everharts got Tink back, a Dover man's 2 1/2-year-old Rottweiler, Diesel, was sold to a Shreveport, La., woman over Craigslist for $600 plus a $175 delivery fee.
The Delaware owner hadn't seen Diesel since February, when he told police he handed the Rottweiler and his other dog, Alf, over to Whitten along with $1,500 to be trained.
The owner said he picked Alf up after 10 days and didn't notice any improvement in his behavior. Whitten, however, kept Diesel and put off returning him with a string of excuses. The last time he talked to Whitten, he said, was on March 13. After that, all he got was an answering machine.
Pepe said the new owner did not want to give the dog up to its original owner.
So, the Dover man left Sunday and drove 20 hours to Louisiana to retrieve his stolen canine. He returned with the dog Tuesday night.
Long criminal record
According to court records, Whitten has a lengthy criminal record that dates back to 1984, when he was a juvenile.
He was convicted in 1990 of unlawful sexual intercourse, kidnapping, unlawful imprisonment and unlawful sexual contact. In 1996, he was convicted of resisting arrest, and of stalking the following year. In 2004, he was convicted again of resisting arrest and reckless driving. Theft charges dating from December 2007 are still pending against him in the Court of Common Pleas.
College student Ashley Pope, 20, of Dover said she paid Whitten $1,000 on Dec. 15 when she dropped off her 10-month-old Presa Canario, Jahada. When Pope picked up Jahada at the SPCA shelter, she found the dog with a scratch on her nose and a rash all over her body. The dog had to be taken to a veterinarian, at a cost of $200.
Pope said although she wants her money back, she's content just to have her dog.
"She's my baby," she said. "I'm not going to hold my breath for my money. I lost $1,200. It was an expensive lesson."
Anyone with information about Whitten's whereabouts may call the Delaware SPCA at 998-2281 or Delaware Crime Stoppers at (800) TIP-3333.
Staff reporter Sean O'Sullivan contributed to this story. Contact Terri Sanginiti at 324-2771 or firstname.lastname@example.org.