Five years ago this February, two men hopped into a van belonging to the River West pet daycare service Urban Out Sitters and drove off, making international news and triggering a citywide panic. The van contained at least six dogs waiting to be taken home. The dogs’ owners, along with animal lovers everywhere, feared that the thieves would dump the pets on the street, or worse, during what was one of the coldest Februaries Chicago had ever experienced.

Here, four of the dog owners recall that anxious night — and the peculiar twist that followed.

Rob Sayre,owner of Jadyn: I know the day I got Jadyn because it was my sister’s birthday: September 14, 2007. She was just a puppy — 7, 8 weeks old. A beagle-Lab mix. I guess she chose me — she pooped on my shoe.

Allison Egos,owner of Brad Pitt and Scarlett: Of the dogs that were stolen, I had two, both rescues. Brad Pitt is a Yorkie, and Scarlett is a border terrier. Brad Pitt had been kept in a cage as a puppy mill dad for six years, one of those dogs that you see in the ASPCA commercials, shaking and matted. Scarlett is gregarious — she thinks everybody is her friend except the squirrels — but Brad Pitt has PTSD. The moment you try to touch him, he shows his teeth. I named him Brad Pitt because I thought, “He deserves something people can remember.”

Erin Broderick,owner of Busy: I tried walking services, but they were expensive. My sister started using Urban Out Sitters first, and they were reliable. I was often still there in the morning when they would come to pick Busy up. We don’t know exactly what Busy is, but he’s definitely got some Yorkie terrier in him.

Sayre:Jadyn went to Urban Out Sitters every day. The guy that picked her up had piercings and tattoos everywhere. Not the kind of person you’d think, “Hey, let’s hang out,” at least for me. But Jadyn loved him. She would lick him and get really excited. I trusted him completely because she trusted him.

Urban Out Sitters owner Joseph Giannini told DNAinfo Chicago that the van, a 2002 silver Chrysler Town & Country, was at a stoplight when two men with a gun approached it. “[The driver] got out of the car,” Giannini elaborated on NBC-5. “They got in the car and drove west down Grand Avenue.” Police told reporters the carjacking happened about 3:50 p.m. near the intersection of Ogden, Milwaukee, and Chicago Avenues. The temperature at the time: six degrees.

Allison Egos with Brad Pitt and Scarlett
Allison Egos with Brad Pitt and Scarlett

Egos:It was the end of the workday when I got a phone call from Joe. He said the van had been stolen. My thought was, “Then I have to pick up my dogs myself.” My office is in Wheaton; I was thinking, “I have to fight traffic, it’s going to take an hour.” And he goes, “No. The dogs are in the van.” It took me a second to digest it. That’s when I said, “Joe, you’re going to find them. You’re going to find my dogs.” He goes, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. We’ll find them.”

Sayre:I ran into my boss’s office and told him, and he said, “You need to get the media involved.” So I tweeted at all the major news networks, and got in my car and left for Urban Out Sitters. I wanted to hear firsthand what was going on, what Joe was doing about it, and I wanted to help.

Egos:Joe told me not to make it known to the public. I’m like, “That’s impossible.” So I called my friend Dan Ponce, the newscaster. Then I called another friend of mine, who’s a police detective. He told me, “If they’ve been stolen, they might be used as bait for dogfighting.” I was crying, and I had to pee from anxiety. I think I stopped at the McDonald’s on 25th, off the Eisenhower. By the time I got to Urban Out Sitters, a whole newscast team was there. Joe looked at me like, “I freaking told you not to call.” And I was like, “You’re not going to tell me what to do with my dogs.”

Sayre:I got in my car and drove around looking for the van. It was one of the coldest nights in the history of the city. And all you can think is your dog is somewhere in that.

Heather Ballard with Mochi
Heather Ballard with Mochi

Heather Ballard,owner of Mochi: I thought, “Mochi’s gonna freeze to death.” The dogs were kept in separate kennels in the van, so it’s not like they could burrow together to keep warm, and she’s not a very large dog; she’s a miniature schnauzer. I felt so responsible. We had trusted these people to take care of her, and we had completely failed her.

Broderick:My two worst fears were that they would shoot the dogs or that they would just pull over somewhere and drop them out and they would freeze to death.

Ballard:That night we didn’t sleep at all. We started canvassing the neighborhood, looking for this minivan. I was the passenger, trying to be the lookout, and my husband was driving. There were a lot more silver minivans than we had assumed.

Temperatures overnight dipped to minus four degrees. The dog owners announced rewards totaling about $12,500, filed police reports, contacted cab companies to ask them to send a description of the missing van to their drivers, gave interviews to news outlets, and spread the word on social media.

Among the more outraged voices online was Barstool Sports blogger Daniel “Big Cat” Katz: “If all 6 of these dogs aren’t found safely these carjackers should be murdered. They should be murdered on the spot. Shot and left to bleed out in the cold. Only a true psycho would carjack a van full of dogs and do harm to those dogs. You can keep the van, the van means nothing, but give back the dogs right this second. Fuck if I’m the police I would grant immunity for all 6 dogs alive and well. Treat it like a hostage situation.”

Egos:The TV just kept saying, “Any beings out there are going to freeze.” I remember thinking that Brad Pitt is probably thinking, “I was better off in that cage.” We got a phone call saying that someone had heard a dog barking in a garage somewhere on the West Side, like 26th and California. I’m like, “We’re going. My dog is being fed to pit bulls.” So me and my husband decided to go there and look around. We didn’t have a gun, so we brought a hammer and a flashlight. We drove around, and then we went home.

Broderick:As the hours went by, it just felt more hopeless. I finally went to see one of my friends, and I was like, “I need a glass of wine.” I ended up falling asleep on the floor. The next day, the second I got back into my condo, my cellphone rang, and it was Good Morning America saying, “They found your dog.” I never got a call from Urban Out Sitters or the police or anybody. It was Good Morning America that told me.

Ballard:It turned out a beauty salon owner had seen the van and reported it to police. It was the most random thing.

“I noticed there was a dog in the front seat sticking his head up as if to say ‘Help me,’ ” Daisy Bowers, owner of Ultimate Hair Design, told DNAinfo. “I thought it was a child at first. I just knew it was too cold out there for anything alive to be out there without any attention.”

The van was found in the 2100 block of South Wabash Avenue, about four miles south of where it had been stolen. The dogs were still inside, cold but unharmed after their 19-hour ordeal.

Broderick:I think what happened was, the folks who took the van didn’t even realize there were dogs in there. I think out of the goodness of their hearts, they left the van in a central location where they knew somebody would find the dogs.

Egos:We headed to where the van was abandoned. The other owners were already there. Brad Pitt jumped on me right away. I didn’t want the cameras to see me crying, so I buried my face in my dogs.

Sayre:I got out of my car, and I remember hearing the cameras: click, click, click, click, click. Jadyn was licking me and wagging her tail, and I carried her to the car and had my friend drive while I sat in the back with her — trying to fight back tears, talking to her, telling her I missed her, I loved her. I took her straight to her vet and had her checked out. She was hungry and thirsty, but other than that, she was in tiptop shape. I got her back home, and she was just dead tired. And then the next day, she went back to her normal self like it never happened.

Ballard:I assumed Mochi had peed [in her crate] after being left alone for 16 hours, but she hadn’t. She had held it the entire time. We stopped at the side of the road and she peed for an entire minute. For the rest of the day, she sat in the sun. But she was fine. She’s just the same old girl.

Egos:For two weeks, we kept getting phone calls from our friends all over. A friend in London told me the news they got there was that Brad Pitt the actor had been kidnapped in Chicago.

Ballard:We had an invite to go on Steve Harvey, and we were like, “All we want is to go back to work and live normal lives.”

Erin Broderick with Busy
Erin Broderick with Busy

Broderick:About a week later, there was a story on a local news station where they had footage of what had happened. It was a very different story than the one that had been conveyed to us.

“I want to show everybody the surveillance tape that was just released,” ABC-7 reporter Judy Hsu told viewers. “It seems to contradict what the initial reports were. … This now looks like the car was left running, unlocked perhaps, with the dogs inside.” In the video, the van is parked in front of Urban Out Sitters, not stopped at a light, as Giannini initially told reporters.

Sayre:What really happened was, the drivers left the van running while they were loading the animals because it was so cold outside, and a couple of kids walked up and stole it. Obviously, I was not pleased with Joe.

Giannini sent an email to Urban Out Sitters clients: “The vehicle was not running or left unattended. …  The van was located directly near the front door of the facility (with the driver only steps away in front of the van). By the time he could get the vehicle, the two men already started the car, reversed the van, and sped away. At this point, the driver and a UOS dog walker immediately jumped into action, got in their car and bike to follow the carjacked vehicle. The driver (witness) and walker chased after the van and the driver confronted the two thieves. … One of the thieves in the van pointed a gun at the driver (witness) and told him to exit away from the vehicle. … We are sorry if you feel that you have been mislead [sic].”

Giannini did not respond to requests for an interview. Former employees who were contacted declined to speak. Urban Out Sitters has since closed.

Broderick:A lot of owners were terribly angry with Urban Out Sitters. I wasn’t angry. I think it was a mistake to leave the van running. It was negligent. But at the same time, we all have slips, and it was a really cold day, and they were trying to get the dogs home on time, so there was a shortcut. I think everybody learned their lesson as far as proper protocol and exactly what can happen if it’s not followed. I just felt thankful that everything resolved itself.

Egos:The biggest thing is that we got our dogs back. If we didn’t see our dogs again, then yeah, we were going to go all out.

Sayre:From that point on, I refuse to board Jadyn anywhere. She goes with me. That’s why I don’t fly; I’m not going to get a fake doctor’s note, and I’m not going to put her in luggage. I drive, for her.

Egos:I used to never worry about leaving doors unlocked. Now I’ve got cameras, I’ve got locks, I’ve got all the monitors I could get my hands on.

Ballard:It made us really cautious when we were finding a caregiver for our child. I know how fast bad things can happen.