“She basically got caught up in an emotional dog rescue. That’s what this was,” said the defense attorney. “Miss Vukov, yes, took the dog.”
Although Trina Vukov took the dog without permission, she had no intent to steal, according to her attorney William Mathews. “She had completely different motives.”
Elvis in Escondido
The dog’s owner is a California attorney named Steven Afghani. The dog is a Belgian Malinois imported from the Czech Republic. Afghani purchased the dog in 2008 through a kennel in Tar Heel, North Carolina, which he found in an internet search. When Afghani bought the dog, he was named Emil, but Afghani changed his name to Elvis. Afghani paid $5500 for Elvis, then $350 more to have him shipped from North Carolina to his new home in Orange County.
The Malinois is bred for police and military work and to compete in European dog sports: French Ring, Belgium Ring, Mondioring, Schutzhund. In French Ring competitions, which are held in Southern California, dogs are judged on obedience, agility, and protection. Dogs are trained to attack a man in a bite suit, called a decoy. An example of the demanding training that is tested in Ring III, the highest level, is “object guard,” in which the dog should attack the decoy, but only when he comes within one meter of a basket the dog is guarding.
Afghani began to train Elvis for competition with the help of a professional trainer, Philippe Belloni, who lives in Escondido. In early August 2010, after both men had tired of commuting between their homes, Afghani left Elvis at his trainer’s house. About two weeks later, Belloni called to say that Elvis had been stolen.
Philippe Belloni speaks with a heavy accent. “I train dog. I train the dog for the police, for the military.” Belloni enjoys status as a dog trainer in Europe. “I was champion France five years.”
On his website, Belloni states that he worked with canine units in France who protect Paris subways and the Paris–Charles de Gaulle Airport. After the 9/11 attack, the United States gave him a visa so he could share his expertise with the United States military, police departments, and pet owners, Belloni states.
Belloni said he sells dogs to the Oceanside Police Department.
Afghani met Belloni at a public dog-training event some years ago. Belloni said he sold two dogs to Afghani, one for $5000 and one for $3500, and Belloni worked with Afghani to train the dogs.
While Elvis stayed in Escondido, Belloni’s girlfriend said she fed him “a big bowl of dry food at night.”
Belloni denied that he allows dogs in his care to be “skinny.” He said, “We can’t have the dog skinny or the dog fat. We can’t.” He said he wants his dogs at “what I call athletic.”
The Dog in a Hole
It was a hot August day when Trina Vukov and her two teenaged girls drove out to Belloni’s home to pick up a check. Even at four in the afternoon, it was 85 degrees. Not a wisp of breeze, not a cloud in the sky.
Belloni’s home and dog-training facility is located in the 3100 block of East Valley Parkway. Large, shady trees surround the modest house and its rough asphalt drive.
Vukov, who was 47, had arranged with Belloni to rent rooms in his house and had left a deposit with him. But he had backed out of the deal.
Vukov walked to the front door to retrieve her deposit while her daughters waited in the car. Belloni’s girlfriend was expecting Vukov and handed her the check. Vukov saw the dog as she returned to her car.
Elvis was on a chain that was attached to a long wire, allowing him to run back and forth in a dirt area alongside the driveway. He was hidden in a deep hole when Vukov pulled up, the reason, she speculated, that she hadn’t seen him at first. She said only his ears protruded from the hole. Vukov supposed the dog had dug the hole to make a shady place. She claimed the dog did not have other shelter from the sun.
When the dog came running toward her, she thought the dog looked skinny.
Vukov said parts of the dog’s ears were eaten away by a thick covering of black flies, and the biting flies were around the dog’s eyes, too. “He had bloody ears and poop stuck on his butt with maggots,” Vukov said later.
The dog threw himself at her and hung on her, Vukov said. “The dog was asking me, pleading with me,” she said. “He was begging me not to leave.” Vukov said her daughters were calling out to her, telling her to rescue the poor dog and not to leave the suffering animal behind.
At this time in her life, Vukov could have used some rescuing herself. Her husband had left her, and she was in the middle of a divorce. Her home of 14 years was being foreclosed on. Soon the fuel pump in her 12-year-old Suburban would fail, and she would find herself living with her girls in a 36-foot motor home, parking at campsites or wherever she could. She already had five dogs; she didn’t need one more.
But at that moment she had it in her power to rescue a creature she thought was even more miserable than herself. On impulse, she unsnapped the dog’s chain from the overhead wire and drove off with him. That was August 27, 2010, the day her felony troubles began.
I Love Dogs
“I love dogs, my whole life.” Vukov said she has owned as many as six dogs at a time. “I basically rescue them,” she said. “I don’t go looking for them.”
Vukov said that the day she rescued Elvis she phoned another dog lover, a friend of hers named Anne, and Anne came to her home with a 40-pound bag of dog food for the new guy. Vukov said Anne was another softhearted person who rescued animals and sometimes arranged for dogs to be shipped to her home to save them. Vukov believed her friend had money to finance her kindhearted adventures.