To hear Paul Barthel tell it, it was a beautiful chance encounter — one that still triggers tears of joy.
Or, as his estranged wife asserts in a Will County Circuit Court order of protection, the 50-year-old Carol Stream man somehow got into her house in March and kidnapped the dog the couple shared in happier times — a black Lab/German shepherd mix named Pepper.
The dog is back with Susan Barthel now, but Paul Barthel hasn’t given up — not by a long shot. In a divorce that’s stretching into its second year, Pepper’s fate is the key sticking point for his former master.
“People will say, ‘Get another one,’” Barthel explained earlier this month, as he prepared for yet another hearing on the matter at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet. “To me, that’s like saying, go get another child.”
All Barthel wants, he says, are visitation rights. He faces long odds. In many American households, nothing is too much for Fido — from spa treatments to organic chow to designer booties. But in most divorce courts, pets are treated like just another piece of furniture.
“Judges don’t want to add pet support and pet visitation to their roster . . . because dockets are so full already with people complaining about children,” said Debra Hamilton, a New York-based lawyer and pet custody expert.
Hamilton, who owns seven dogs, recommends couples try to work out their differences outside of court, with a mediator; otherwise, they have to hope for a pet-friendly judge.
The worst-case scenario is when Fido becomes a pawn in the fight over property. “So if you want sole custody of the pet, leave $20,000 on the table,” Hamilton says, repeating the kind of argument fighting couples often use.
Pepper has become just such a pawn, says Susan Barthel.
“He keeps filing orders, using the dog to drive up attorney costs,” she says. “He’s using it to prolong the case.”
Susan Barthel says she has no intention of giving her future ex-husband visitation.
“We don’t ever want to see him again — me and my girls,” Barthel said, referring to her two grown-up daughters.
In the meantime, Paul Barthel can’t move on. He’s tried bonding with his girlfriend’s Chihuahua, but to no avail.
“It’s hardest at night time when I go to bed because the dog slept with me,” says Barthel, who works in sales.
Last March, a feeling of “nostalgia” seized Barthel, prompting him to drive along the Lockport street where his wife still lives. Pepper was out frolicking in the snow unattended, Barthel said.
“He jumped up and down on me, climbing in the vehicle,” Barthel said. “It was crazy. It brings tears to my eyes.”
“Absolutely false,” says Heather Nosko, Susan Barthel’s divorce attorney. “We believe he entered the residence to get the dog.”
So now, Susan Barthel has a court order of protection barring her estranged husband from going to Pepper’s home — or having any contact with her whatsoever.
But that didn’t stop him from going to court last week, accompanied by Palatine-based pet mediator Aleksandra Nejman.
Barthel was on edge as he waited to be called before Judge Dinah Archambeault.
“Just calm down and be yourself,” Nejman whispered to Barthel.
When it came time to hear his request to allow Nejman to mediate the pet dispute, Archambeault told Barthel he was wasting his time.
“I’m not going to allow mediation when there’s an order of protection with regard to the pet,” she said.
Afterward, as he walked down the courthouse steps, Barthel seemed slightly disappointed — but resolute.
“I don’t want to frustrate the court system, but I don’t see an end soon,” he said.
The couple’s divorce trial is set for Aug. 7.