At first blush, the man banging on Geoffrey Lewis’ door at 10:30 p.m. Monday appeared to be the bearer of welcome news. Lewis’ cat, Remy, had been missing from her Uptown New Orleans home for several days, and the late-night visitor claimed to know her whereabouts.
In short order, however, the toothless — and apparently homeless — man made clear that Lewis had little chance of recovering his furry friend if he didn’t first fork over a “finder’s fee.”
Before the end of the night, Lewis found himself driving to a darkened yard and paying a $30 “ransom” to reclaim his pet, which the man had leashed and detained in a blue storage bin.
Though she appeared to be shaken by the ordeal, Remy was unharmed.
Lewis, in an interview Tuesday, said he easily could have taken the law into his own hands and used force to recover the cat. Instead, he called the New Orleans Police Department and waited until the wee hours of the morning for an officer to arrive.
With no identification of the catnapper, the authorities said they had little to go on and that in any case it would be difficult to prove an actual crime had been committed.
“I don’t want him to have an incentive to do this again,” Lewis said of the unidentified man, whom he recalled as having matted hair and a drunken appearance. The man rode a bicycle with a Chihuahua riding in the basket.
“If I were to have beaten the (stuff) out of this guy, he wouldn’t be coming back again,” Lewis added. “Now, he’s got my money, and there’s no charges coming.”
An outdoor cat that has belonged to Lewis’ girlfriend for eight years, Remy is prone to roam away from her home on South Carrollton Avenue, though never more than a few houses down, Lewis said. She also wouldn’t stay away from home for more than about a day at a time. So when Remy hadn’t been seen for three or four days, there was cause for concern.
The man who knocked on Lewis’ door Monday night claimed at first that a friend of his had found the cat, offering an accurate description of the animal and a somewhat convoluted tale of its recovery. “He went on for about five minutes,” Lewis said. “I could tell the guy was drunk.”
After Lewis’ interest was piqued, the man inquired whether a finder’s fee was in the offing and suggested he might have difficulty persuading his friend to release the cat without financial incentive. “I think I’ll need like $30 to be able to get the cat back,” the man said, according to Lewis.
Saying he was going to find the cat, the man left Lewis’ home and said he would call with details regarding a meeting point. Lewis said he tried following the man in his vehicle but lost sight of him. Meanwhile, he said, his girlfriend called the police.
Sometime later, the man called and told Lewis to meet him in a yard on Dante Street near South Claiborne Avenue. When Lewis arrived, he got out of his car and encountered the man again.
“He’s got this big blue storage bin with a closed lid,” Lewis said. “The fact that (Remy) was on a leash in a bucket leads to the conclusion that he was trying to keep it from returning to the house or getting away.”
Lewis grudgingly gave the man the money and said he again lost sight of him after telling him the “cops were on the way.”
Lewis said several hours — perhaps four or five — passed before the police arrived at his home. “It’s frustrating as a citizen when you’re paying taxes and doing the right thing,” he said. “When I really need the police, I expect them to be there.”
He said the officer was cordial and thorough but explained it would be difficult to prove a law had been broken. For one thing, Lewis acknowledged that he didn’t know whether the cat had been taken from his yard or somewhere down the street.
Tyler Gamble, an NOPD spokesman, said the response time likely was delayed because Lewis’ life wasn’t in danger and the alleged theft was not a priority call.
He said police have not closed the case and could make an arrest if they develop new information.
“At this point, there’s no evidence that suggests the cat was actually stolen,” Gamble said. “We don’t have enough to identify a suspect, let alone charge one.”
Alicia Haefele, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said the organization had not received any reports of other animals being ransomed.
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.