In the summer of 1965, a female Dalmatian was stolen from a farm in Pennsylvania. Her story changed America.
Over the next few days, Julia mobilized her family in a desperate search for the missing dog. According to a short version of the incident that was published five months later, improbably, in the pages of Sports Illustrated, "all during the following week, a heartbroken Mrs. Lakavage advertised and hunted for her dog." Indeed, no one in the family had ever seen Julia so upset. ("Dogs are like family members," she would later tell a newspaper reporter, "children that don't grow up.") The Lakavages fanned out through the woods and along the dirt road that ran past the farm. They checked with the neighbors up the hill and drove to the top of Blue Mountain to call for Pepper from the ridge under the power lines. Julia posted signs and telephoned everyone she knew.
Michael assumed that a neighbor had run over Pepper with a car—there was kid up the road who messed around with muscle cars—but Julia talked to someone who had seen a man loading a Dalmatian into the back of a truck near their farm.
For years, animal welfare groups had been warning of nighttime forays by pet snatchers in unmarked vans. Stolen dogs, they said, were being sold to laboratories and subjected to painful experiments. In 1961, Walt Disney had released 101 Dalmatians—a hugely successful film about pet theft—and the Humane Society of the United States had begun to look into a network of illegal animal dealers operating across Pennsylvania and Maryland. Navy veteran Frank McMahon led the investigation and hired Dec Hogan, a rough-and-tumble nightclub owner, to pose as a dealer in the field. Along with another investigator, Dale Hylton, they began to stake out the rural auctions where stray animals were traded before being shipped off to research laboratories in big cities. The team devoted much of its energy to a notorious Amish market down in Lancaster County, known as the Green Dragon.
Named after a Chinese restaurant on the Atlantic City, N.J., boardwalk, the Dragon had been operating in the town of Ephrata since 1932. (It's still open.) Fridays were auction days, with sales of livestock running all afternoon. The small-animal sale started by 7 p.m.: An auctioneer would set up in the middle of a rectangular pen, about 20 feet by 40 feet, surrounded by bleachers. Crated dogs and cats were rolled inside one by one and put up for bidding.
Hogan remembers thousands of people at the market, Amish vendors selling pies and cookies, and the animal dealers—"grass-roots kinds of guys, doing it for a six-pack of beer"—carting in stray dogs for sale. The winter before Pepper disappeared, investigators had watched one dealer purchase hundreds of dogs at the Green Dragon and pack them into his truck in chicken crates. When he returned home the next morning, the police were waiting; he was arrested for cruel treatment of 7,000 animals on his farm and paid a $67 fine.
Likely at the suggestion of her local SPCA, Julia Lakavage decided to investigate the Green Dragon market for herself. On Friday, June 25, three days after Pepper vanished, Julia put her daughter Star and grandson Michael into the backseat of a finned, brown '60 Ford Fairlane with a green interior and drove an hour or so down to Ephrata.
Star, who was 14 at the time, remembers rows of wire crates at the Green Dragon auction. They were stacked two and three on top of one another, filled with dogs and goats, and left out in open areas without shade. The Lakavages visited at least one more auction in the days that followed. But Pepper was nowhere to be found.
Almost 200 miles away, in the Pennsylvania mountains near the Maryland border, a 77-year-old outdoorsman named Jack Clark was getting ready for his weekly animal swap. Jack was burly and gregarious, with a generous gut and a bald head. He lived out in the woods of Black Valley and kept by his house an extensive menagerie of woodland and other critters. There were pet raccoons and caged skunks, penned-up groundhogs and captured foxes. But above all, there were dogs.
Jack made his living as a dogcatcher, and he kept hundreds of his quarry boxed up by the creek out back. His grandkids remember seeing big dogs and little dogs on the property, mutts and purebreds, golden retrievers and Dalmatians. "I remember laying upstairs in bed at nighttime," recalls his grandson Terry, "and falling asleep to the sounds of the dogs barking."