Who owns Maya? Battle over German shepherd lands in small claims court

Maya the German shepherd is a good dog: beautiful, gentle and intelligent.

On those points, Jacob Aragon and Shanita Drippon can agree. But they are engaged in a battle royale over the most important question of all: Who is Maya’s rightful owner?

A Sacramento Superior Court judge this week is set to decide who will get custody of Maya, whom Drippon adopted from a Bay Area woman in January only to lose her a couple months later when the dog bolted from her backyard near Rancho Cordova.

How the pup ended up with Aragon, who lives in Sacramento’s College Glen neighborhood, is a matter of dispute. For months, the two have been engaged in a custody battle over the purebred shepherd, replete with accusations of defamation and deception. Police got involved at one point, but ultimately referred the parties to civil court to resolve the matter.

Drippon, 26, and Aragon, 25, are scheduled to make their respective cases on Tuesday before a small-claims judge.

Although many people regard their pets as family members, or “fur babies” as Drippon calls them, 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.

Drippon, a claims adjuster, said she is confident she will prevail.

“Maya is my dog,” she declared in a recent interview.

Aragon, a sergeant-at-arms for the California State Assembly, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Drippon said she adopted Maya at age 7 months in January and fell in love with her. She said she did “everything a good pet owner should do,” including updating the dog’s vaccinations, registering her microchip and licensing her in Sacramento County.

She was heartbroken, she said, after Maya bolted through a poorly latched gate in January. She said she searched her neighborhood, scoured animal shelters and filed a “missing dog” report. She later discovered that Maya’s microchip was registered to two companies, she said. One had her ownership information on file, Drippon said, and the other had information on file for the previous owner. One of them told her that someone named Jacob Aragon had found the dog.

Drippon said she talked by phone to Aragon and that he told her he had picked up the wandering shepherd, but that she since had fled and was missing. For 12 days, Drippon said, she searched, papering her neighborhood and beyond with fliers, and posting pleas on Facebook. No luck. So, she said she decided to track down Aragon at home and ask him a few questions.

When she and her husband did so, she said, Aragon appeared at the door with a dog that looked like Maya. But she said he insisted that the shepherd he held on a leash was his longtime pet and not Maya. That is when Drippon called police and, later, got a court date.

“That was Maya at his house that day,” Drippon said. “I am 100 percent certain that this is my dog.”

Aragon did not respond to The Bee’s requests for an interview. But a man who answered the door at his home last week said Drippon “is not telling the whole truth,” that Maya belongs to Aragon, and that the matter will be settled in court.

Maya’s original owner, Christine Bricker, said she would like the dog to remain with Aragon.

Bricker said Aragon told her he acquired Maya in March after receiving a phone call from someone who found the dog running loose at a school. She said he told her that he took the shepherd to a veterinary office, where a technician scanned the microchip under her skin, and that Bricker’s name came up as her owner.

Bricker said Aragon called her and brought Maya to her home in the Bay Area. Upon meeting Aragon, she said, she and her terminally ill partner agreed to allow him to adopt Maya, sealing the deal with a handwritten contract.

Drippon said she grew up with German shepherds, and learned from a work colleague in January that Bricker was looking for a new home for Maya. She made her interest in the dog known immediately, she said, and agreed to adopt her. Drippon said she was thrilled to bring Maya home to live with her, her husband, Beau, and their son Damien.

But Bricker said she quickly regretted allowing the dog to go to Drippon. At the time, she said, she was overwhelmed with caring for her partner and unable to give the dog proper attention. “I never felt settled with it,” Bricker said.

She said she believes that Aragon should be Maya’s permanent owner. “In my heart, I know that Maya belongs with him,” she said.

Drippon, meanwhile, has filed a citizen’s complaint against Aragon with the state Assembly, accusing him of lying and misleading her about Maya’s whereabouts. The chief sergeant-at-arms for the Assembly, Ronald Pane, did not return a call seeking information about the complaint.

On Tuesday afternoon at the Carol Miller Justice Center, a judge will decide the coveted shepherd’s fate.

The court likely will decide, based on the facts presented, who is the rightful owner and assign a monetary value to the pup. That is what happened in a 2011 case involving Miss Tilly, a fluffy Pomeranian and former doggie model who was the subject of a custody dispute between two Sacramento women.

In that case, Judge Donald Currier ruled that the woman who was caring for the dog was not the legal owner. He ordered Tilly’s caretaker to either pay her rightful owner $5,000 or give the dog back. She decided to cut a check.

Bricker estimated that Maya is worth at least $2,000, although Drippon adopted her for free and Aragon gave Bricker “a nominal amount of money” for the dog.

Drippon said she is ready to pony up, if necessary. She posted a $2,000 reward for the dog shortly after she escaped the yard, she pointed out. She said her young son still asks what happened to Maya and when he can see her again.

“This is not about money,” said Drippon. “Maya is a member of our family. We just want her back home.”