Top of the world, Ma -- for a few hours

Times Staff Writers

Reggie the alligator -- the John Dillinger of semi-aquatic reptiles -- was returned to custody Wednesday after having busted out of the slammer at the L.A. Zoo overnight.

Reggie, who had won international fame while eluding capture in a Harbor City lake for almost two years, was last seen in stir about 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. About 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, zoo personnel discovered he’d blown the joint.

It was an hour and a half later when a search party of zoo handlers discovered him hiding out near a zoo loading dock.


“He’d found a comfortable bush to hang out under,” said handler Ian Recchio, who participated in the bust. “He was just sleeping there. Reggie was pretty heated up this morning. As the weather gets warm, alligators get more agile and stronger.”

Recchio said the 7 1/2 -foot, 120-pound fugitive “put up a little fight” as authorities laid hands on him. He then went quietly as he was hustled off to quarantine while zoo investigators tried to dope out his escape route and tightened security at his luxury cell.

At 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, a yellow truck pulled up to his habitat and five zoo personnel emerged carrying the fugitive, whose face was wrapped in a white towel. Once inside, while Reggie hissed loudly, they removed the towel and a black band that bound his mouth, then scattered, at breakneck speed, to safety.

As 50 visitors watched, Reggie swiveled his head and crawled slowly into the water. As onlookers yelled, “Reggie! Reggie!” he showily swam the perimeter of the pond, then buried himself beneath vegetation in one of its murky corners.

Initial indications were that Reggie had climbed a chain-link fence at the back of his enclosure, then clambered over a series of brick ridges above it to freedom. Once on the ground, he followed another chain-link fence about 500 yards to the loading dock area.

“It’s been so warm lately, and alligators are all nocturnal, so Reggie was just moving around, checking things out, just exploring when he escaped,” said Zoo Director John Lewis. “It just goes to show that he’s an extremely healthy, agile animal. We’ve certainly learned our lesson.”

The inmate had been on display at the zoo since only last Thursday.

He’d been kept in solitary confinement, isolated from the facility’s eight other alligators, in what officials termed a “luxury suite” with shade, vegetation and a pond and waterfall of filtered water.

Authorities had expanded it to accommodate their celebrity prisoner, and they speculated Wednesday that some of the improvements might have contributed to his escape.

“It’s just speculation,” Recchio said, “but I definitely found areas where he used his tail for leverage.” Alligators’ short legs, he said, ordinarily discourage climbing.

Wednesday, workers added chain-link overhangs to low spots in Reggie’s habitat. Zoo authorities said the escapee would be placed under 24-hour watch to ensure he didn’t repeat his caper.

Reggie’s jailbreak generated media attention worthy of Dillinger’s legendary escape from the county jail in Crown Point, Ind., in 1934.

Television reporters climbed into his enclosure to deliver their reports.

Zoo officials begged that TV helicopters give the facility a wider berth because they were spooking other animals.

It was a continuation of the circus-like atmosphere that has attended Reggie since he was discovered in the water of Lake Machado in August 2005, having allegedly been dumped there by owners who thought him too large to keep as a pet. For the ensuing two years, a parade of would-be captors -- official and unofficial -- tried unsuccessfully to seize him. Finally, on May 24, Recchio wrangled him with a dog-catcher’s pole. Officials ran up a bill of $200,000 pursuing him.

His fame spawned children’s books, T-shirts and other merchandise.

“He may have a brain the size of a walnut, but he’s outsmarted every man I know,” said Councilwoman Janice Hahn after hearing about Reggie’s escape.

All the hoopla attending Reggie’s return Wednesday attracted the attention of passing children, several of whom were heard to ask, “Where’s Reggie?”

Anthony Montes, 14, of Studio City said he had come to see Reggie for the first time and brought along his 12-year-old brother, Zachary.

“Reggie is getting more publicity than Paris Hilton’s arrest,” he said. “I’ve been following the story from the start, especially because Reggie’s around my little brother’s age.”

Zoo visitor Celia Ramirez, 28, of Sylmar said Reggie’s escape showed “it’s obvious he’s not meant to be in captivity. He went from a home to a huge lake, to a very small enclosure. He should be released back to the wild or a refuge where he has more space. He’s used to being free.”

After 10 minutes buried in the pond vegetation where he’d taken refuge upon his return, Reggie emerged and swam the pond again. Wearing a hat of leaves that had stuck to his head. Probably pondering his next move.

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.