LEON VALLEY, Texas – For Miss Helen, Saturday began like any other day. The young 16-inch-long female horn shark, just one of the animals in the San Antonio Aquarium’s interactive shark touch pools, spent the morning swimming around the exhibit receiving food and petting from curious visitors.
But three aquarium goers wanted to do more than just touch and feed the relatively harmless Miss Helen, police say. They allegedly planned to steal her.
By Monday night, two people had confessed to taking the shark from the aquarium, Leon Valley Police Chief Joseph Salvaggio told reporters. Miss Helen was found alive in the garage of a San Antonio home that looked like a “mock-up” of the aquarium, Salvaggio said. A 38-year-old man has been charged with theft. Charges against the other two suspects are pending Salvaggio said.
“Luckily the thief was somebody who knew what he was doing,” he said. “Luckily for the shark and for the aquarium, we were able to get that animal back in one piece.”
Salvaggio added that local law enforcement is working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to see if the theft involves federal charges.
It all began Saturday afternoon when two men and a woman with a baby snuck into the aquarium through its back entrance, the aquarium’s owner Ammon Covino told the Washington Post.
After milling around the aquarium, the trio made their way to the exhibit where visitors are allowed to feed and touch various types of marine animals, Covino said.
There they allegedly waited for the perfect moment to strike.
“They staked out that exhibit waiting for the employee to leave,” Covino said. “The minute she walked out the door, they grabbed that shark.”
The tools needed to pull off the heist? A net, a bucket, a blanket and a baby stroller.
Surveillance video taken at about 2 p.m., captures a man leaning over into the exhibit and emerging with the shark in a net. Cradling the shark in his hands, he walks past visitors looking at other displays and out of the camera’s sight, leaving a trail of water on the aquarium’s floor. Another man is also seen following closely behind.
According to a statement posted to Facebook, the aquarium said the suspects took the shark into one of their filter rooms. Once inside, they placed other animals in danger when they emptied a bucket full of bleach solution used to clean equipment into a display’s filtration system. The “sanitation bucket” was used to transport the shark, the statement said.
When the men reappear on video, one of them is holding a bulky cloth-wrapped bundle under one arm, which he loads into a baby stroller. The woman stands nearby holding the baby.
As this is happening, an aquarium employee can be seen walking by, stopping at least twice to stare at the group. Covino said the employee immediately reported the suspicious behavior to the aquarium’s general manager, Jenny Stellman.
Stellman told the Washington Post she found the man in the parking lot about to get into a truck. She said she told him she had seen water leaking from the baby stroller.
“He said the water was dripping because they had spilled a Yeti cup onto the stroller and they were leaving in such a hurry because their baby that was with them needed medication.”
But when asked if the vehicle could be searched, the man refused, “jumped in his truck and drove off,” Stellman said.
The theft was the first of its kind ever to be attempted at the aquarium, Covino said.
Even police had a hard time believing the crime was real, Salvaggio told KSAT.
“When we first got the call, we thought it was kind of a hoax being that it was Shark Week last week,” Salvaggio said, referencing the Discovery Channel’s week-long TV programming dedicated to sharks. “But it turns out someone actually went inside the aquarium there in Leon Valley and stole a horn shark.”
This year, Shark Week ran from July 22 to 29. Miss Helen was allegedly taken July 28.
Losing the shark was devastating, Covino said.
“Every animal is important to us and to have one taken right out of the aquarium, everybody, all of the staff, were just extremely upset.”
However, Covino said he knew the heist’s success would be short. In addition to the surveillance footage, the aquarium’s staff had a license plate number.
“From that point on I knew that we were at least going to get justice if we weren’t going to get the shark back,” Covino said.
Monday night, the aquarium announced that employees were on their way to retrieve Miss Helen – and she was alive. Stellman said she and Jamie Shank, the aquarium’s assistant director of husbandry, were present for the rescue. In a video, Miss Helen can be seen swimming near the surface of a large circular tank that also had an array of colorful corals inside.
“We’re so lucky they were amateur aquarium enthusiasts,” Stellman said, adding that she saw several other sharks in the garage’s tanks. “If it had just been someone off the street who had no idea about anything, we would have a dead shark on our hands.”
Speaking to reporters, Salvaggio said police believe the shark was stolen to be kept as a pet.
“We don’t think he was planning to sell it,” he said. “He didn’t say that, but from looking at the other animals there it was more than likely it was something that he wanted. He had had one of these in the past … obviously he likes those types of animals.”
Horn sharks are commonly found in warm-temperate to subtropical waters and can grow to be about four feet long. While they are carnivores, their diet mostly consists of small fish and invertebrates. According to the International Shark Attack File, a database of known shark attacks compiled by the Florida Museum of Natural History, only one incident of a horn shark biting a human has been recorded.
Video of Miss Helen’s return to the aquarium showed the staff waiting to greet her, bursting into raucous cheering and clapping when she arrived.
While the shark appeared to be in good condition, Stellman said she is currently in quarantine and being monitored.
“We do still have to watch her because some stress reactions can be delayed,” she said. “She’s not out of the woods just yet.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.