BY KATELYN MASSARELLI, Times Correspondent
Rose Verrill, 13, plays with Sinatra, a Husky she found wandering near her Seffner home. The dog somehow made his way 1,200 miles from the Brooklyn home where he disappeared 18 months ago. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
SEFFNER — The bookends are clear in the life of Sinatra, a 5-year-old, brown-and-white, blue-eyed Husky.
Beloved by his teenage owner and her parents, Sinatra disappeared after the girl died in a tragic gun accident.
Then earlier this month, he wandered into a neighborhood where people tracked down his family and arranged for them to be reunited this Sunday.
But Sinatra can’t explain what happened in between — an 18-month, 1,200 mile journey that took him from his home in Brooklyn to the streets of Seffner. Neither can his owners or the family who found him.
“I didn’t believe it at first, but when I saw the picture, I broke down in tears,” said Lesmore Willis of Brooklyn, whose 16-year-old daughter Zion Willis died in the accident at a friend’s house in November 2015. The dog had been Zion’s constant companion.
Rose Verrill, 13, found the dog wandering near her Lenna Avenue home in Seffner and her family launched a search with help from friend Jeanne Baldi. A local veterinarian removed an identification chip from Sinatra but couldn’t recover much information.
They turned to the Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center and came up with a possible owner’s name and a phone number. But the name, Willis Les, turned out to be convoluted and number was wrong — just one digit off.
With what information she had, Baldi took to social media. She decided to reach out to a Lesmore Willis whom she found there.
“I never would have thought he was from Brooklyn,” Baldi said. “I messaged Lesmore over Facebook and didn’t think it would lead to anything when I saw where he was from.”
But within a few days, Willis messaged back, saying he used to have a dog but it had been missing for a very long time.
Comparing notes, they both spoke of an animal that had a problem with its right foot
Then Baldi decided to send along the photo. Immediately, the mystery of where Sinatra ended up — if not how he got here — was solved.
Willis was overcome by emotion, Baldi said, thinking for months that this link with his daughter had been lost to him and his wife Maria.
“I told him that he was safe and well taken care of with Denise,” Baldi said.
In his temporary home, Sinatra — like his blue-eyed namesake — seems to enjoy breaking into song. He does a duet with another family dog.
“It’s the funniest thing,” said Rose’s mother, DeniseVerrill. “He’s been such a wonderful guest and such a sweet dog. I can see why they love him so much.”
In Brooklyn, the grieving Willis family had suffered an added blow when Sinatra disappeared 18 months after Zion’s death.
“He’s known throughout the neighborhood as the dog who runs off to chase raccoons and squirrels,” Willis said. “He’s done it before, but usually he comes back no more than 30 minutes later, and he never came back.”
Zion Willis was an avid dancer and an animal lover at heart, her father said. Only after her death did he learn the teenager had started a dog-walking business on her own.
“Sinatra was her 14th birthday present,” Willis said. “That was her dog and their bond was strong. She loved to take him on her walks to the store. The love was obvious. When he was gone, it was like losing a part of her.”
Willis and his wife put up flyers and spent months actively searching for the dog, but had resolved that they’d never see him again.
He figures that other people might have found Sinatra and taken him in over the months but that he just kept running away. Verrill said that whatever happened, she’s pretty sure he didn’t walk the whole way.
On Sunday, a friend of Verrill’s will travel to Baltimore with Sinatra, and Willis will meet them there.
“Of course he’s getting a big hug as soon as I see him,” Willis said. “Sinatra always loved turkey legs at Thanksgiving, so I’m saving him a big turkey leg for when he returns home.”