The Peculiar Case of the Veterinarian’s Missing Handbag

Years ago, when I was just starting out as a veterinarian, my Italian leather handbag was stolen. What happened next felt like a twisted TV crime show.

“Are you Debora Lichtenberg?” He asked like this was a criminal interrogation.

Years ago, I worked in a lovely veterinary hospital where my office door opened up to a country field in the back of the building.

One day, I rushed back from making an emergency house call, threw my pocketbook in my office and ran to my next appointment. My bag was stolen from my office that day. I had forgotten to lock the back door.

The loss of the bag was more of a nuisance than a heartbreak because it contained no money (typical for most young veterinarians), but I had to cancel my credit card, get a new driver’s license and change the locks in the hospital. Plus, I needed a ride home because I had no car keys.

Alas, the thing I missed most was the actual bag. It was a beautiful Italian gray leather one that I got a great deal on while doing intense outlet shopping the year before. Boy, was I mad at that guy who stole my bag. “Waaah! Call the police, and call me a wambulance!”

The police, as you can imagine, were unimpressed with my Italian leather tragedy. They had bigger fish to fry in this quiet university town. “Sorry for your loss, miss. Next time, lock your doors.”

A Break in the Case

Fast-forward 2 years. I receive a phone call from the police department the next town over.

“Is your name Debora Lichtenberg?” This sounded official. “We have located your bag.”

“My what?” I said. A grocery bag? A bag of laundry? What bag of mine is in the police station?

“We found your pocketbook,'” Sam Spade said on the other end.

Oh, that bag! Wow, that sure was speedy police work. Fortunately, I kept the sarcasm to myself. “Thank you, sir,” I gratefully said to the detective. “I’ll be right down to retrieve it.”

“Hold on,” said Sam. He was curt. “You have to make an appointment.”

An appointment to retrieve my own pocketbook? I thought I would show an ID and reclaim my bag from the police property room. “Okay,” I said respectfully. “When can I have an appointment?”

The policeman told me where to go and when to show up. The next day, I arrived, all smiles and giggles, happy to be reunited with at least the bag if not its contents, assuming they were long gone. When I arrived at the station, I announced to the officer who I was and why I was there. I was told to take a seat and wait. Clearly, the officer was not sharing my joy of pocketbook reunification.

I waited. And waited. I was getting uncomfortable. Nervous. After all, they called me, right? It was my pocketbook, and it had taken them 2 years to find it. I began to doubt they had not been searching for it every day of the past 720 days.

After 20 tense minutes passed. a large man in plain clothes with a big gun in full view approached. He was terrifying. He spoke Mickey Spillane. Too bad I wasn’t a dyed blonde in a red cocktail dress and pumps that would knock your socks off. I was wearing a lot of fur — but not the kind you’d find on a gun moll. My drab black coat looked liked dogs and cats had been using it for a pet bed since 1979.

I knew I would break if they started the good cop/bad cop thing.

The Interrogation

“Are you Debora Lichtenberg?”

He asked like this was a criminal interrogation.

“Yes, sir.” I was in full subservient mode now.

“This way.” I followed him out of the public area to a private room — like those rooms they have on Law & Order.

Another detective was in there waiting for me. He looked even bigger than the first one. He had the same gun. I knew I would break if they started the good cop/bad cop thing.

The second detective shut the door. The bigger detective placed half a buttocks on the cop desk and peered down at me. “Where do you work?”

I’m definitely being interrogated now. “I’m self-employed,” I said. I told him the name of my hospital.

“What kind of a hospital?” he said.

“A veterinary hospital,” I repeated. Please just let me see and feel that Italian leather so I can get the hell out of here! I’d never been in a police station in my life.

Sam Spade and Mike Hammer made eye contact. With each other. Then they both looked at me.

Okay, sister, it’s showtime, I thought to myself. Where was Barney Miller when you needed him? He was so nice! Even Columbo. Were they going to offer me coffee soon, or did that come later? Would I have a toilet in my cell? I had quickly turned from vic to perp, but I had no clue how this had happened. I wanted to ask them if they thought I stole my own pocketbook.

“Did you murder Mrs. Peacock with a candlestick in the drawing room?”

My Bag

Then Sam gave Mike the nod.

Was this when I should lawyer up? Should I tell them I was sorry I forgot to lock the office door, and this would maybe get me a lighter sentence? Mike went and got the bag and laid it down on the evidence table. Then he placed a plastic baggie with some of my things in it next to the bag.

“Are these yours?” he said. He might as well have said, “Did you murder Mrs. Peacock with a candlestick in the drawing room?”

“Yes sir,” I said as I began to see the light at the end of the crime tunnel. I stared at the evidence bag that Sam and Mike had shoved in front of me, filled with my used syringes, a tourniquet and some empty drug bottles.

“We found your bag in a dumpster with this stuff in it,” Sam stated.

I got it now. They thought I was a drug user. Or seller. My bag was full of drug paraphernalia. How could they know these were vaccine syringes, antibiotics and anti-nausea medications mixed in with eye makeup, lip gloss and an extra pair of pantyhose?

Then my eyes turned to my pocketbook. I suddenly became conscious that the Italian leather bag now looked like Italian dry salami. My bag had been dumpster-iced 2 years ago and only uncovered when the construction site dumped the dumpster last week.

“Those are my syringes from my house call,” I stated in a professional tone. I needed to prove my case now. No time for a lawyer. (Did I even know a lawyer?) “My veterinary license is in my wallet in the bag. If you had just looked further in the wallet after you found my driver’s license, you would have realized this all belonged to a veterinarian.”

My desire to explain and therefore acquit myself of any wrongdoing came off like I was telling Sam and Mike how to do their job. They looked displeased. I had stuck my foot in my big fat New York mouth again. Hadn’t I learned anything from those 3,000 hours of Law & Order binge watching?

Law and Order Prevails

The detectives handed me back my Italian dried sausage of a bag, the drug paraphernalia, a crusty wallet and dumpster-soaked cosmetics. They turned out to be really nice guys. They didn’t apologize for anything. In straight detective speak, they said, “There’s been a misunderstanding.”

In the end, I am happy to say there was no criminal intent, no Hill Street Blues — and law and order prevailed.

“The Case of the Handbag in Needle Dumpster” had been closed, and this veterinarian started carrying an appropriate medical bag to all house calls and locking all doors at all times.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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