When Silver Spring resident Ellen Sands and her family packed up last August for a two-week vacation, they left their 2-and-a-half-year-old Australian shepherd, Puck, with a beloved local dog trainer, Todd Stewart. Like other Stewart clients, the Sandses trusted the trainer and appreciated his touch with animals.
Yet when the Sandses returned to pick up Puck, Stewart told them that the dog had died and he’d buried him. Sands asked the trainer for the coordinates of the dog’s remains, but he couldn’t say just where. He said something about a spot in the Virginia countryside and perhaps another location.
“He actually couldn’t even remember,” says Lydia Stewart, Todd’s wife.
On a hunch that Puck had been “sold or lost,” Sands circulated fliers seeking the dog and detailing his disappearance without naming the trainer. The search went on for months. Eventually, the Washington Post got on the case, interviewing Stewart on Nov. 4 about the controversy.
The next day, Stewart left this message on his outgoing voice mail: “Hello, this is Todd. It is Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2003. I will not be able to return your call, and you all can thank Ellen Sands of Silver Spring, Md., for being the primary reason. But, uh, I have gone over that emotional top. It’s been fun, I love you all. Take care.”
On Nov. 8, Stewart, 49, was found dead in a Ford Expedition parked at the intersection of Southern and Pennsylvania Avenues SE, according to D.C. police spokesperson Kenny Bryson. A hose had apparently been connected from the SUV’s tailpipe to an opening in the right rear window. The dog trainer left behind literally hundreds of distraught clients, a wife, and two stepdaughters.
There you have it: A dead dog, a dead man, and a vengeful suicide message. In all, not enough to make the news pages of the Post. “We didn’t think that it was a story,” says
Jo-Ann Armao, the paper’s assistant managing editor for Metro news.
The Post initially found out about the dog-trainer brouhaha through a photo editor who’d seen one of Sands’ fliers. The paper dispatched reporter Paul Schwartzman to suss out the drama surrounding Puck. According to some D.C. dog people, Schwartzman sank considerable time into the story, possibly trying to determine whether Stewart had a pattern of disappearing the dogs of his clients. (Schwartzman declined to comment for this story.)
The assignment took Schwartzman to the epicenter of D.C. doggymania—the upper-Northwest neighborhoods off Wisconsin Avenue. It was here that Stewart generated a fanatical following by coaxing poorly behaved shelter dogs to sit and come in group training sessions. One admirer remembers Stewart shoehorning a dozen or so dogs in a single parking space and disciplining them so effectively that they didn’t even sniff one another. “He would have a whole troop of people and dogs parading around Wisconsin Avenue,” says another former client, Spring Valley resident Susan Orlins.
Schwartzman apparently didn’t find much dirt on the trainer. Patricia Wells, a dog enthusiast who assisted Stewart with his Web site, fielded a call from Schwartzman and spoke with neighbors who had, as well. Further stories of Stewart’s alleged animal mistreatment were hard to find in Northwest’s canine community. “Todd came to our house and made everyone feel good,” says former client Mary Carpenter, who wrote a retrospective on Stewart that was published on the Post’s Close to Home page.
The Post decided not to touch the story of Puck’s death/disappearance just as Stewart himself disappeared. On the one side, you had a family grieving over the loss of their pooch. On the other, you had legions of supporters saying their dog mentor never would have betrayed a client. “It was one person’s word against another’s,” says Armao.
With or without the Post, Stewart’s drama had staying power. Wells recalls someone posting nasty notes about Stewart on the trainer’s Web site in the days surrounding his Nov. 5 suicide message. “They said things like, ‘Dogs die in your care,’ ‘You’re a liar,’” says Wells.
Perhaps messages like those were what pushed the trainer to take his life. “I know that Todd was very proud of his reputation,” says Wells. “He was really bummed out that someone could destroy his reputation just by posting things on the Internet.” The call from the Post certainly didn’t lift Stewart’s spirits, either. Lydia Stewart speculates that the interview with Schwartzman sent her husband “over the top” but can’t say for sure.
Once the news of Stewart’s suicide filtered into the newsroom, the Post gave the story a second look. Schwartzman filed a spot-news story on the tragedy, and it landed squarely on Armao’s spike. “I just recall thinking it wasn’t worth it,” says Armao, noting that her section was already working on the story of a suicide in Roanoke, Va.
A dog story? Not worth it? That’s an unusual judgment call at 15th and L Streets NW. Most days, the Post seems to put a priority on keeping animal- and pet-lovers engrossed. Metro, for instance, recently completed a massive investigative report on conditions for animals at the National Zoo. It has no discernible record of passing up doggy stories, whether of the saccharine variety or the conflict story about the lady who harbors pit bulls. It touts the Animal Watch feature, a log of incidents recorded by local animal-control agencies. And it tracks every last step and stool of every cuddly black bear out in Western Maryland.
The fur gets all over the rest of the paper, too. Style has its Animal Doctor column and loves nothing more than features about people and their animals. Sunday Source has its PetSet feature, which is commonly promoted with a big shot of a doggy watching TV or frolicking in the snow.
There has to be a better explanation for the paper’s decision to leave a juicy animal story at the curb. Did the paper bag the piece because it didn’t want to mention whatever role it may have played in compounding Stewart’s agony? “We did discuss that,” says Armao, who recalls the rationale: “Maybe we should go ahead and do this, because we looked into it and a suicide followed. Could someone say we had a hand in it?” Ultimately, says Armao, a strict news-value judgment drove the decision.
The suicide piece crossed the desk of Metropolitan Editor Robert Barnes, a family friend of the Sandses’. Barnes passed it along to Armao with the recommendation that it not run as a spot-news story. “It was either a takeout or something we didn’t want to spend time doing a takeout on,” says Barnes, who then recused himself from any involvement over conflict-of-interest concerns. “I really did stay away from it completely,” says Barnes.
“Bob Barnes did not kill this story,” says Armao. “I did.”
The good news for the Post is that it’s not too late. Puck may still be at large. Even Stewart’s clients concede that the man was a mysterious figure who, for instance, wouldn’t let them come to his house. On Sept. 12, county officials cited him for running an unlicensed boarding kennel from his Suitland, Md., home, according to Rodney Taylor, chief of the Prince George’s County’s Animal Management Division.
And there’s still a news peg for D.C.’s paper of record: The trainer’s acolytes have taken to gathering for group dog walks. Last Saturday, about 15 of them guided their pets through the wilds of Rock Creek Park. “We used to go every Saturday to dog-training class and all of a sudden, there was nothing to do,” said Columbia Heights resident Tracy Brookshire, who came with her 8-year-old Sheltie, Shay. —Erik Wemple