During his 27 years with the Santa Clara, Calif., police department, Detective Sgt. Phil Zaragoza has made a habit of displaying pictures of crime victims above his desk. Having them there, he says, helps motivate him to keep working on hard-to-solve cases. Since he is one of Santa Clara's top investigators, most of the photos have been of victims of murder, kidnapping or sexual assault. But since the beginning of the year, his workspace has carried the portrait of a 10-year-old victim who weighed only 18 lbs.—a bichon frise named Leo. The dog's wanton killing last year generated international headlines, hundreds of tips to police and $120,000 in donations to a Humane Society-administered fund to help catch his killer. "This case has been more complex than any homicide I have ever investigated," says Zaragoza, 56. "It became more of a personal challenge than anything else."

But one he was more than equal to. On April 13, thanks in large part to Zaragoza's determined police work, Andrew Burnett, 27, a former telephone repairman, was arraigned on a felony charge of animal cruelty. The indictment stems from a grotesque episode on the evening of Feb. 11, 2000, when Sara McBurnett, 39, of Incline Village on Lake Tahoe, Nev., accidentally tapped the bumper of a black SUV that had cut in front of her as she was driving near the San Jose International Airport, on her way to pick up her husband, Patrick, an airline pilot. As McBurnett, a Realtor, later told police, the driver of the SUV stopped, stormed back to her car and began screaming. Just then, McBurnett's dog Leo, whom she described as her "surrogate child," jumped into her lap. Without warning, the enraged driver grabbed the dog and flung him into oncoming traffic, where he was run over. Leo died of his injuries shortly afterward, on the way to the vet's.

At first the San Jose police had little to go on. It had been dark and rainy when the incident occurred, and the traumatized Sara McBurnett could provide authorities with only a general description of the vehicle plus the fact that it had Virginia plates. But as the killing of Leo gained widespread attention, investigators began receiving hundreds of tips—roughly 20 of which pointed to Andrew Burnett or his SUV. On May 9, in fact, one anonymous e-mail actually named him, describing how he prized his GMC Jimmy, which bears Virginia plates, and had a "nasty temper." But when Sara McBurnett was shown photos of several possible suspects, she couldn't pick anyone out. Police questioned Burnett in August but let him go for lack of proof.

At that point the case seemed destined to languish. There was no physical evidence, and the primary eyewitness couldn't make an ID. But the distraught McBurnett believed that one difficulty was that the San Jose police seemed unmotivated to solve the killing of a mere dog. "They treated me like a nuisance," she says, "and the case like a nuisance." (San Jose police declined to comment on their handling of the case.)

The same could not be said for Zaragoza, who entered the case by chance due to his involvement in another case involving Burnett. His path had first crossed Burnett's late last year, when Burnett, then working for Pacific Bell, went missing on Dec. 8 with a company van containing $17,000 in tools. Since it first appeared that Burnett might have been the victim of foul play, Zaragoza was assigned to the case. But as mysteriously as Burnett had disappeared, he suddenly reappeared at a local hospital on Dec. 16, claiming he had been in an accident. He said he had been driving the van on Highway 1, which runs along the Pacific Ocean, when a deer jumped in front of him, causing him to swerve and plunge down a 450-ft. cliff. As he told it, he had somehow survived the terrible plunge with no serious injuries.

Not surprisingly, Zaragoza was skeptical, especially since none of the missing tools were found in the wrecked van. He had already begun checking into Burnett's background and had discovered that the suspect, who is single, was a Navy veteran who recently had been evicted from his apartment in San Jose for delinquent rent payments. Although neighbors described Burnett as a loud, surly tenant who was sometimes intimidating, Zaragoza found no record of violence. Nor did Burnett appear to hate animals: His girlfriend Jackie Figgins told police he owned a dog himself—a rottweiler mix. But he did seem to have a problem with his temper. Three days after he appeared at the hospital, in fact, he allegedly tried to kick out the windows of a police car after he was arrested for missing a court date on charges stemming from some speeding tickets.

In December Zaragoza made a routine call to the California Highway Patrol for a background check on Burnett. Sgt. Jeff Rhea told him that in the early morning hours one day in July 1999, Rhea and his partner had stopped Burnett in his black SUV for doing 98 mph in a 70-mph zone. A half hour later they again stopped him for speeding and ticketed him. In the course of those two encounters Burnett had talked back to the partner and, according to Rhea, had gotten "very upset" when the two officers simply touched his SUV. And after the second stop, in what the officers took to be a gesture of contempt, Burnett had dumped a piece of cherry pie out his window. They promptly arrested him for speeding violations. Rhea told Zaragoza that after reading about Leo's death eight months later and learning that the dog-thrower had been driving a black SUV with Virginia plates, he had become convinced that Burnett was involved. "I mentioned to Detective Zaragoza," says Rhea, "that [Burnett] is, as far as I'm concerned, the guy."

That was all the prodding that Zaragoza, the divorced father of two grown children, needed. And he understood what Sara McBurnett must have felt, since for the past two years he and his fiancée, retired sheriff's Lt. Jeanne Bomar, have had two small dogs of their own—Pepper, a terrier-cocker spaniel mix, and Bubs, a tan pug. "I saw what I have and what these two little guys mean to me," he says.

Zaragoza realized that any case against Burnett in the dog killing would depend on circumstantial evidence. So he obtained search warrants to examine airline and telephone records, which allegedly show that on the evening of Feb. 11 Burnett was at the San Jose airport picking up a cousin who was flying in from San Diego. The prosecution will probably depend on other witnesses to the incident, as well as McBurnett's ability to identify the Jimmy with the Virginia plates.

For McBurnett, the arrest of Leo's alleged killer is "not a cause for celebration, exactly," she says. "But at least it will hopefully lead to closure and somebody being held accountable for their actions." Sara's husband says the past year has been almost indescribably hard for his wife, who has been treated for depression. It helps, though, that the McBurnetts have a new 19-month-old bichon named Stormy. "My spirits are improving," says Sara.

As for Burnett, his trial is scheduled to start June 4; he could face as many as three years in prison if convicted of killing Leo. Meanwhile, Detective Zaragoza is confident he got his man, and his career conviction rate is an enviable 99 percent. "If you were guilty of something, he's one you wouldn't want after you," says Santa Clara County assistant district attorney Al Weger. "He's a bulldog."

Bill Hewitt
Emily Bazar and Melissa Schorr in San Jose

  • Contributors:
  • Emily Bazar,
  • Melissa Schorr.