Maya, a purebred German shepherd at the center of a contentious custody battle, has been ordered returned to a Sacramento woman who adopted her from a Bay Area home only to lose her a couple of months later when the dog bolted from an unlocked gate and wound up with another family.
During a hearing in Sacramento small claims court Tuesday, both Shanita Drippon and Jacob Aragon claimed to be Maya’s rightful owner.
Aragon found the dog in March after she escaped from Drippon’s yard in Rancho Cordova via a poorly latched gate. He took the pup to a veterinarian, who scanned a microchip beneath Maya’s skin and told Aragon the dog was registered to a Christine Bricker in Brentwood – Maya’s original owner.
Aragon returned the pup to Bricker, who by then was having second thoughts about letting Drippon adopt Maya. This time, she signed the dog over to Aragon, who took the elegant shepherd home to his College Glen neighborhood and quickly bonded with her.
Drippon and her husband eventually discovered that Maya was living with Aragon, and confronted him. But he refused to return her, touching off a dispute that has included accusations of lying, defamation and deception. Police even got involved but ultimately referred the parties to civil court to resolve the matter.
Judge Molly E. Greene, following more than an hour of sometimes emotional testimony at the Carol Miller Justice Center on Tuesday, ruled that Bricker had no legal right to surrender Maya to Aragon after first giving her to Drippon. She ordered Maya to immediately be returned to Drippon and her husband, Beau, and said the couple must pay Aragon $600 for caring for the dog during the past two months.
“The dog belongs to this family,” Greene said, gesturing toward the Drippons. “The dog has to go back to this family.”
A posse of the couple’s supporters raised their fists in victory in response to the ruling. Shanita Drippon brushed away tears. Aragon was stoic.
“I believe I acted in the right manner, based on what Christine (Bricker) told me,” he said later. “I got caught in between these two people, and I did what I thought was the right thing.”
Bricker testified that she allowed Drippon to adopt Maya in a moment of haste in late January, while helping her partner through a terminal illness. “I had second thoughts. I had third thoughts,” she said. “I never felt settled with it.” She said she wondered whether the Drippons had the yard and the means to care for the dog, and concluded she had made a bad decision.
But she never expressed those concerns until after Maya ended up with someone else, Greene pointed out. “If you give away the property and it’s returned to you, you can’t just give it away to someone else,” the judge said. “It’s no longer your property.”
She told Aragon that he “tried to do the right thing” by returning Maya to Bricker. “But you were misled,” she said. “You got some property that wasn’t supposed to be given away.”
“You’ve become attached. They’ve become attached,” the judge said. “It’s a sad situation. But I have to rule that the dog be returned immediately.”
Although many people regard their pets as family members, dogs are considered property in California and most other states. That limits the amount of legal damages that can be recovered, and discourages attorneys from filing lawsuits. As a result, most “pet custody” cases wind up in small claims court.
Both Drippon, 26, a claims adjuster, and Aragon, 25, a sergeant-at-arms in the California State Assembly, came armed with photos, paperwork and testimonials to bolster their cases. As required in small claims cases, they met outside the courtroom to try to work out a solution with the help of a mediator. Both stood their ground, agreeing to go before the judge to decide the matter.
Outside court following Greene’s ruling, a teary Bricker said she was “extremely disappointed,” and believes Aragon is a better custodian for Maya.
“I can see both sides to the situation,” she said. “I just don’t think Shanita is the best owner.”
Drippon, who testified that she searched for Maya for 12 days and posted a $2,000 reward before discovering that Aragon had her, said she was eager to tell her young son Damien that Maya was coming come.
“We’re ecstatic,” she said. “It’s been a long road. But we won! The truth prevailed.”
Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.