Duo charged for kidnapping shark from Texas aquarium in baby's stroller

A man is caught on camera reaching into a tank at a Texas aquarium and, with accomplices, stealing a shark he disguised as a baby.

TEXAS (NYTIMES) - Miss Helen, a 16-inch-long horn shark in the San Antonio Aquarium in Texas, lives in a tank where visitors are encouraged to touch the animals.

Three people took the encouragement too far this past weekend, lifting the shark out of the tank and plopping her into a baby stroller, police said.

The trio of sharknappers - Ocean's Three? - can be seen on surveillance video using their own net to capture Miss Helen on Saturday (July 28), removing her from the 76-degree water (24 deg C) after staking out the pool for more than an hour, the aquarium said in a statement.

She was placed into 52-degree water (11 deg C) to make her voyage - a shock to the system that her handlers feared would quickly kill her.

But Miss Helen, who's less than a year old, proved her resilience, from her snout to her caudal fin. And the thieves, if bad at covering their tracks, turned out to be good at taking care of sharks.

If aquarium employees are correct in their suspicions, the thieves were also skilled at reconnaissance.

An official said she recognised one of them from a month earlier, when he said he worked for the facility's salt supplier and got an all-access tour.

On Saturday, just after Miss Helen's disappearance, an aquarium manager caught up to the trio in the parking lot.

They refused to allow an inspection of their truck or the baby stroller and drove off, said Ammon Covino, the aquarium's chief operating officer.

No matter. Surveillance footage recorded the license plate number, and an image of the getaway truck was all over local media.

Tips poured in to the police, who tracked down the truck Monday morning, according to Joseph Salvaggio, chief of the Leon Valley Police Department.

Police arrived at a home near where the car was found and were preparing a warrant when a man arrived and let the officers into the home, Salvaggio said. They quickly found Miss Helen.

It was hard to miss the giant pool inside the house, filled with sharks and other marine animals. "It looked like almost a mock-up" of the aquarium, he said Monday at a news conference. "Luckily, the thief was someone who knew what he was doing."

The man, 38, tried to show a receipt for the same type of shark, "but it was obviously doctored," Salvaggio said.

On Monday night, the man confessed to taking Miss Helen, and a neighbour confessed to helping, he said. The two men, who were not identified, were charged with theft, he said. Officers expected to speak to the third person, a woman, Tuesday.

The local police are working with federal officials to determine if federal charges might be warranted, since transporting some animals requires permits, Salvaggio said. It was not clear why they took Miss Helen, who is valued at about US$2,000 (S$2723).

Salvaggio said that police didn't initially think the thieves planned to sell her and that the man once had a similar shark who died.

The aquarium staff arrived at the house Monday and took Miss Helen back to the aquarium, where she began her process of re-acclimating in a quarantine pool.

In a container roughly the size of a laundry tub, she wiggled in front of news cameras.

If not for the fast action of aquarium employees, it could have been a much darker story, Covino said.

The thieves found a bucket of bleach cleaning solution, used for sterilising tools, and dumped it out into a filtration system before apparently using it to gather water for the shark, Covino said.

The bleach could have killed hundreds of animals, including sea horses, jellyfish and starfish, but the staff used other chemicals to restore the water quality and eliminate the threat, he said.

The aquarium said one of the thieves, posing as an employee of the salt supplier, had said the company had sent bad batches of salt and needed to test the water in the aquarium's exhibits.

Officials complied, guiding him throughout the aquarium for hours. "We showed him every single back room," Covino said. "We basically gave him a behind-the-scenes tour."

That access, Covino believes, allowed the thief to find the secluded back room where he emptied the bucket, in a part of the aquarium most guests would never see.

Miss Helen could be back in her exhibit within a few weeks. In the meantime, she will be closely observed to make sure she has a healthy appetite and is free of parasites and illnesses.

"She's a tough little horn shark, I'll tell you that," Jamie Shank, the aquarium's assistant director of husbandry, told reporters Monday. "I'm really proud of her."