SAN JOSE -- When 10-year-old Marissa Mabanag came home from school Thursday afternoon, the best possible surprise was waiting. Her adorable, 6-month-old puppy Meeko was back, safe and sound.
"I want to say thank you to everyone who made this happen," Marissa said, tears welling up in her eyes, clutching Meeko. "It means a lot to me. I missed him."
The feeling appeared mutual. Meeko, a reddish-brown Yorkie-Shih Tzu mix, wouldn't stop wagging his tail.
The reunion, which was carefully scripted to happen in front of a gaggle of waiting media cameras, brought a happy ending to a dastardly dognapping that personalized the very serious problem of rising crime in San Jose.
"This shows that when a community stands together and good people do something like this, great things can happen," said Marie Mabanag, Marissa's mother. "Everyone made an amazing ending for us. This is something that we're never going to forget."
The story of the purloined pup had tugged at Bay Area heartstrings. He was stolen when burglars robbed the South San Jose home Monday. It was the second time in just over a year that Michael and Marie Mabanag's house had been ransacked by thieves.
Two members of the San Jose City Council, Ash Kalra and Nancy Pyle, drew attention to the robbery with a news conference Wednesday, citing it as a way to illustrate how they believe police understaffing is responsible for the city's spike in crime. Marissa simply pleaded for her puppy's return.
Meanwhile, it turns out that Meeko was having quite an adventure.
Wednesday night, Blanca Del Real, a former San Jose resident who moved with her family to Los Banos in Merced County about six months ago, was walking through a Target parking lot with her two children. The kids saw a woman holding a cute puppy, who told Del Real that she had just found it wandering around. She said they could have it since the kids, 3-year-old Jasmine and 6-year-old Jonathan, were so taken with the puppy.
They bought a collar, leash and food for the dog. But Thursday morning, Del Real saw an online news report about Meeko.
"I realized, 'Oh my, that's this dog," Del Real said. "I wondered how he could have gotten from San Jose all the way here."
She called Michael Mabanag's phone number, which was included in the story, and local animal control in Los Banos came to pick up the dog. Scanning an implanted microchip confirmed it was Meeko.
"I was glad to get the little girl her dog back," Del Real said. "But my little girl was crying so hard. I told her we could get her another dog."
She'll have the money to do that. A reward fund of $6,000 had been established by the San Jose Police Officers Association, the San Jose Fire Fighters Local 230 and Kalra. Thursday afternoon, Del Real already was holding checks of $2,500 each from the unions.
Marissa also had offered the contents of her piggy bank. As promised, 14-year-old sister Marianna handed Del Real a fat, ceramic pig filled with several hundred dollars. In turn, Del Real gave it back to Marissa. That set off another round of tears and a long hug between Del Real and Marie Mabanag.
"Look at the smile on my daughter's face," Marie Mabanag told her. "You put that on her."
With the escalating tensions between City Hall and the police union, even the simple story of dog's safe return is steeped in politics.
The circumstances of Meeko's recovery, police union President Jim Unland said, is evidence supporting the union's claim that criminals are emboldened by the department's thin patrols and cuts in dedicated teams like the burglary unit.
Even so, Kalra, a police union ally, said: "There are fairy tale endings."
Marissa certainly thought so as she continued to hold on tight to Meeko.
"I just can't believe that he's in my arms right now," she said. "I'm just so happy that he's home safe."