SAN JOSE, CA — Somewhere out there is a Virginia motorist with a nightmare case of road rage and a $40,000 bounty on his head, accused of tossing a fluffy white dog named Leo to his death in oncoming traffic after a fender-bender.

Police in San Jose are looking for the driver of a black sport-utility vehicle with Virginia plates who is suspected of yanking Leo, a 10-year-old bichon frise, out of a woman's car and throwing the dog onto a

"He didn't take me on. He took on my little dog. What a coward."
busy road where he was struck and killed.

An initial reward of $5,000 has mushroomed into pledges of $40,000 from dog lovers around the Bay Area, where news of Leo's fate has dominated talk-radio programs, overshadowing today's presidential primary.

Leo's owner admits bumping the man's vehicle with her station wagon as she maneuvered through bumper-to-bumper traffic on a rainy night last month.

Sara McBurnett said the man got out and approached her car. When she rolled down her window to apologize, she said, Leo excitedly leaped into her lap as he often did at the bank when the teller would give him a dog biscuit.

"I was going to say 'sorry,'" McBurnett said yesterday, but the man began cursing her, then reached in and grabbed Leo. "He didn't take me on. He took on my little dog. What a coward."

"It was the most disgusting thing I've ever seen," a witness said.

McBurnett raced Leo to a veterinarian, but it was too late. She spent the night at her mother's home in Marin County, about 50 miles north of San Francisco, where she reported Leo's death the next morning.

An Internet site that tells the tale, created by a friend of McBurnett who wants the driver found, has received more than 18,000 hits. And yesterday, authorities in San Jose said McBurnett and a witness to the Feb. 11 incident are being called in to meet with a police sketch artist.

Police spokesman Rubens Dalaison said finding the driver is complicated by the time that has elapsed.

San Jose police learned of the case last week and have put out an all-points bulletin for the Virginia vehicle. Dalaison said investigators are also talking with the witness, who was several cars behind McBurnett that night.

"It did occur. But we are only looking at one side of the story," Dalaison said, explaining that police are eager to talk with the driver of the black vehicle.

McBurnett said she was nearing the airport and had slowed to merge with oncoming traffic when the black SUV sped around her on the right and cut in front.

A man who said he witnessed the incident said that he saw the other driver say something to McBurnett, then reach into her car, grab the dog and toss it. "It was the most disgusting thing I've ever seen," the witness said.

The witness, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition that his name not be used, said that after the dog was hit, the man "got back in his car. It looked like he was kind of debating what to do. He went into the right-turn lane and took off."

A real-estate agent who lives near Lake Tahoe, McBurnett said she is beginning to get over her loss, thanks to an outpouring of support. She has received more than 500 e-mails and letters of sympathy. She now has a new bichon puppy, named Stormy, a gift from her husband and mother.

Moved by Leo's heart-wrenching story, hundreds of listeners to radio station KGO pledged reward money, and the station enlisted the help of the local Humane Society.

Marcia Mayeda, a director with the Humane Society of the Santa Clara Valley, said the society will push prosecutors to charge the suspect with a felony for animal cruelty, which in California can be punished by fines of up to $20,000 and time in jail.


When this case hit the newsstands, police had very little to go on beyond a description of the vehicle and its driver as a "thin white man in his 20s with a goatee". But incredibly enough, on the basis of an anonymous e-mail tip, police in December 2000 arrested and charged 27-year-old Andrew Burnett, a "one-time telephone repairman", with Leo's murder.

Burnett was eventually convicted of felony animal cruelty in July 2001, and despite a last-minute apology, received the maximum sentence of three years in prison.

Leo's reward fund finally reached $120,000, which was shared by several tipsters.

The three-year sentence came despite a recommendation by the Santa Clara County Probation Department that Burnett, who had no prior criminal record, be given probation rather than jail time for the crime.

In addition to jail time, Burnett was also ordered to pay the McBurnetts $1300 in restitution, and pay a $1000 fine to the state.

Burnett's sentence stands in sharp contrast to another recent "road rage" case in San Jose where a defendant was accused of causing the death of a 27-year-old man.

In a plea bargain that resolved that case, a 34-year-old San Jose man pleaded no contest to a charge of misdemeanor manslaughter in return for a sentence of nine months in prison, including credit for time served.


... And Your Little Dog Too!:
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