Moment of Madness

updated 03/27/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/27/2000 AT 01:00 AM EST

Someday soon, Sara McBurnett will sprinkle the ashes of Leo, her beloved bichon frise, into the waters at Chimney Beach, on the Nevada shore of Lake Tahoe. The pretty stretch was one of the few places where 10-year-old Leo could frolic without his leash on, where he could swim and roll in the sand to his heart's content. But returning Leo to his favorite spot will not be easy, and McBurnett, 38, isn't ready to do it yet. "I miss him so much," she says, breaking into tears. "God, I wish I could turn back time."

The sheer senseless horror of what happened to Leo has made him a sort of poster dog for animal victims of cruelty. On Feb. 11, in a bizarre and despicable act of road rage, a man involved in a minor fender bender with McBurnett snatched Leo from her lap and hurled him into traffic. A passing vehicle struck the dog, who died shortly afterward. In the wake of the killing, hundreds of people have contributed to a reward fund—more than $100,000 so far—for the capture of the motorist, and hundreds more have sent McBurnett cards and e-mails. A Web site set up by her friends has logged nearly 70,000 hits, while police in San Jose, Calif., where the incident took place, receive some 250 calls and e-mails every day with tips and questions about the case. "We've never had this kind of response to any crime that has occurred here," says San Jose police officer Rubens Dalaison. "It's overwhelming."

Curiously, few murders of humans have provoked the same level of outrage. "It was a hateful, sadistic thing to do to a person," says Marcia Mayeda of the Humane Society of Santa Clara Valley, which oversees the Leo Reward Fund. "It's the most extreme case of cruelty' we've seen. Everyone is just sick over it."

At the center of the storm is the 18-lb. dog who was much more than a pet to his owner. McBurnett, a real estate agent from Incline Village, Nev., bought the bichon as a puppy and named him after her favorite childhood toy, a stuffed lion. Leo became a constant companion, helping McBurnett through a difficult divorce, then through surgeries and fertility procedures as she tried unsuccessfully to have a child with her second husband, Patrick, an airline pilot. "I was very dependent on that dog," she says. "He was my surrogate child. He was my baby."

Then, on Feb. 11, McBurnett drove to the San Jose airport to pick up Patrick, with Leo in the passenger seat of her Subaru station wagon. As she eased into the left lane of the busy two-lane Airport Parkway, a black sports utility vehicle—police believe it was a Ford Explorer or Expedition with Virginia plates—barreled past her on the shoulder and cut in front of her. That's when McBurnett lightly tapped the SUV's rear bumper. "It was a tiny touch," she says. "There's no way it would have damaged my car or his."

Still, the motorist—described by police as a thin, white, goateed male in his mid-20s—stormed toward McBurnett, who rolled down her window as Leo jumped in her lap. "He was yelling, 'What the hell do you think you're doing?' "she recalls. Then, says a witness who declines to be named, the man "reached into the car with two arms and flung the dog over the center of the road."

Dazed, Leo scampered on the asphalt for a few seconds before being fatally hit. "He got run over right in front of my eyes," says McBurnett, who was nearly struck herself as she tried to rescue Leo. Hysterical, she rushed Leo's battered body to her car as the man sped away. But the dog died on the way to a veterinarian's office. Three weeks later, a local newspaper report kicked off the public outcry that has yet to let up.

Spurred by escalating interest in the case, San Jose police are ratcheting up efforts to find Leo's killer—a long shot considering their lack of solid leads. Meanwhile, McBurnett is seeing a psychiatrist for her grief, and getting used to a new companion—a jolly little bichon puppy named Stormy, a Valentine's Day gift from her mother and husband. She is also slowly working her way through hundreds of sympathetic letters, all of them painful reminders of her loss. "It's a challenge not to become misanthropic," she says. "But the response has really bolstered my faith in humanity. It's been healing."

Alex Tresniowski
Emily Bazar in Incline Village

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