Dognapped! When her adored canine was stolen, cookery writer Annabel Karmel thought she'd never see him again. But then came a mysterious phone call and a very sinister encounter
22:47 GMT, 29 June 2012
There’s an estate in North London which is the sort of place where nobody steps out alone after dusk.
Concrete concourses overrun with weeds, bars on every front door and the occasional shadowy hooded figure darting behind pillars make this a place riven with undercurrents of fear, despair and threat.
Yet recently, I found myself alone there one night, stumbling around in the fading light while dressed in a smart business suit and with 750 in cash stuffed into my handbag.
'From the moment I first set eyes on Hamilton, it was love… So when he was taken from me by a gang of ruthless dognappers, it felt like a physical loss,' said Annabel Karmel
As I climbed the concrete steps to find the address that had been hastily scrawled on a scrap of paper in my hand, it struck me that this was more like a scene from a gangster film than real life.
Normally I live in the leafy haven of St John’s Wood, in London, home to stars such as Sir Paul McCartney and Kate Moss, but here I was about to step straight into the heart of the criminal underworld.
So what had driven me to take such a risk
I was there to pay a ransom for the safe return of a beloved member of my family who’d been ruthlessly kidnapped ten days before.
But it wasn’t my husband, my son or either of my daughters. It was my beautiful dog, Hamilton.
You may think me insane for risking my safety for an animal, but since my children have grown up, my fluffy, white Samoyed has become my most trusted and loving companion.
So when he was taken from me by a gang of ruthless dognappers, it felt like a physical loss.
From the moment I first set eyes on Hamilton, it was love. He was the runt of the litter, a tiny mewing pup with eyes which had barely opened and tiny paws the size of my thumb.
Four weeks later, in March 2009, I took him home and he quickly installed himself as my most loyal guard and companion, as well as younger ‘brother’ to my golden retriever Oscar.
Hamilton devotedly sat outside my office while I worked, even following me to the toilet. When I tested recipes, he adored sampling my efforts, and if he ever was unwell, I cooked his favourite chicken and rice.
So when it came to interviewing a dog walker in 2009 — for the occasional times I was working or away — I did so with the care a mother returning to work might use for selecting a childminder.
I finally chose Mike, an affable man in his 30s, who appeared to have a real affinity with dogs. He was experienced, calm and loving, and I knew that he would truly care for Hamilton.
So it was Mike who was looking after Hamilton when I took that fateful trip to France. I was sitting down to lunch when my phone rang and Mike’s name flashed up on the screen.
I immediately sensed it was bad news. I tried to keep my voice light.
Hamilton was a younger 'brother' to Annabel's golden retriever Oscar. When Hamilton went missing, 'Oscar wore a look of bemusement and searched the house, trying to sniff out his best friend,' said Annabel
‘Hi Mike, what is it’ He sounded hysterical.
‘They’ve got the dogs Annabel . . . they’ve got the dogs.’
My heart went cold. I could hardly breathe as Mike told me the story. A girl working for him had loaded my two dogs, Oscar and Hamilton, into the large, air conditioned dog walker’s van.
She had collected another nine dogs into the car and had stopped to collect a tenth, leaving the keys in the ignition of the car.
As she reached the doorway of the house, somebody leapt from the bushes and drove the van away — taking all 11 dogs including Oscar and Hamilton with her.
After Mike’s call, I could hardly think straight. I immediately tried to book a flight home, but none were available until the next morning.
I have never felt so utterly helpless in my life. In my desperation, I called my friend Nick Ferrari, who presents his own radio show on LBC, a local London radio station.
Nick agreed to put a newsflash out about the dogs and, a few hours later, I had a phone call. A passer-by had found nine dogs tied to a lamppost in North London and had rung me after seeing my number on Oscar’s collar.
For a minute, my heart soared. Then I remember Hamilton. Was there a white dog tied to the lamppost with the others The woman apologised. There was not.
I rang Mike, who collected the discarded dogs. They were wagging their tails and were none the worse for the experience.
But two dogs — my beloved Hamilton and someone else’s much-loved pug called Winston — were still missing.
The next day, on the first available flight and after a night of no sleep, I returned home. My phone stayed silent.
Nobody called to say that Hamilton had been found and I felt physically sick. Looking at his basket, his favourite spot beside my desk, filled me with an utter wretchedness.
But I was not the only one who was suffering. Oscar wore a look of bemusement and searched the house, trying to sniff out his best friend.
'The agony of those ten days is behind me now,' said Annabel
When he tried and failed to find Hamilton, he came and sat with his head on my lap, staring up at me with a desperation we both shared.
I had a tearful phone call from the owners of Winston, the missing pug.
They, too, had been on holiday and had raced home at the news that their beloved dog had gone. We agreed to meet to form an impromptu council of war.
The next day, I found myself at their house, a few streets away from my own. We all had red and puffy eyes, unbrushed hair and faces etched with worry.
Together we launched a campaign of action and for the next few days, the constant activity helped. I ignored work and instead photocopied hundreds of posters of Hamilton.
Over the next few days, I walked for miles in every direction putting the ‘Missing’ posters up on fences and lampposts.
The police — called within minutes of the van being taken — were wonderful.
They spent an entire day making door-to-door enquiries. Witnesses had seen a man drive the van away and the vehicle was discovered abandoned — empty — in North London.
As to why nine dogs had been returned but two had completely disappeared, they couldn’t say.
Day after day, there was no sign of Hamilton. I couldn’t eat, and I couldn’t sleep at night.
Once — when my eldest child Natasha had died at the age of just 13 weeks — I had experienced total grief.
The despair and emptiness of losing Hamilton didn’t match it, but it came close.
Each morning, I started my day with a briefing at Winston’s house — our temporary bunker of war. Winston’s owners swore that they would stop at nothing to find their beloved pug.
A few days into his disappearance, they hired the services of a pet detective. When the sleuth failed to come up with answers, they told me that they had turned to a dog clairvoyant.
I was offered the chance of sharing her services, but politely declined because, although I was desperate to try anything, I just couldn’t bear my hopes to be raised and then dashed.
In the event, the pet psychic had a ‘vision’ of Winston stuck in a lock-up garage. The only problem was, she didn’t know which lock-up garage, or where.
Then came a breakthrough. My phone rang and a woman’s coarse voice broke the silence.
‘I’ve got the pug. I found him outside a shop. What’s the reward’
She’d obviously seen my posters. I took her address and number, and rang Winston’s owners. They were ecstatic. They went and collected their dog and paid the reward.
They told me she had been extremely cagey and vague. I had to know if this woman had any clues about Hamilton, so I set off to meet her.
This is how I found myself in the middle of a very run-down council estate.
There, behind one of the doors, I met a stout Irish woman in her 30s. I will call her Brenda. She had long dark hair and chewed her nails nervously. When I walked in, she shooed her young children away.
The flat was dark and dingy. Brenda was defensive and edgy.
‘I found that dog outside a shop,’ she began.
‘I know,’ I said, ‘I believe you. But please — I really do want my own dog back.’
Brenda’s eyes narrowed.
‘How much money did you pay for him when you got him’
It seemed a strange question to ask if she was merely a passer-by who had happened to find Winston outside a local shop.
I decided to just appeal to her.
‘Please — I’m not after retribution. There is a reward and I just want my dog back.’
‘I’ll ask around,’ was all she said.
I left, convinced that she knew more, and just hoping that she would ring me.
The next 24 hours were an agony of silence. Had I misread Brenda’s behaviour Did she know what had happened to Hamilton — or was she really an innocent passer-by
But the following day — ten days after Hamilton’s disappearance — my mobile rang and it was Brenda’s unmistakeable growl.
‘A dog like yours has been dumped on my doorstep. You can come and get him.’
So back to the concrete estate in North London. I drove and ran, with money in my bag. I didn’t want to reward her and I didn’t want to encourage dognapping. But I was desperate to see Hamilton again.
Brenda opened the door and I stepped inside the flat. There, in the corner, I saw something grey. For a few seconds, I didn’t recognise him.
But suddenly he saw me and leapt into my arms. It was Hamilton — his fur so filthy that he was unrecognisable.
It became clear, as he licked my face in delight, that Brenda wanted me out of her flat as soon as possible, and I was only too happy to leave.
I paid her the reward money and with my beloved Hamilton beside me, I left.
I would love to say that once we were reunited after the dognap 18 months ago, we were the same as before. But in truth, Hamilton had changed.
He started to growl when strangers came close and he became so nervous that he wouldn’t let me out of his sight.
Three months later, there was a curious follow-up to my case. Police contacted me and said that they had traced Brenda’s phone records.
She had been ringing a known armed robber, a member of the criminal underworld in Essex.
The police believed that a gang had taken the dogs, kept the two they thought were most valuable and had hidden them in Essex for the ten days that Hamilton was missing. There was not enough evidence for anyone to be charged.
A week after Hamilton returned, I hosted the most joyous dinner party of my life.
I invited around Winston and his delighted owners, and we sat with our dogs at our feet and marvelled at how wonderful it was to be finally reunited with them.
The agony of those ten days is behind me now — but I often look at Hamilton when he lies at my feet and he is deep in thought.
I will never know what he experienced in his time away from me — but somehow, like me, I doubt he will ever forget.
Annabel Karmel’s latest book Eating For Two (RRP 12.99) is published by Ebury Press.