Sunday, July 13, 2003

Mystery of stolen rabbit statue solved

Student yanked couple's hare

By Jeremy W. Steele
The Cincinnati Enquirer

LEBANON - Lawn ornaments in this Warren County community can rest a little easier.

The six-month mystery of who rabbit-napped Tom and Erica Burnett's cottontail statuette and took it on a hop across Europe has been solved.

The 11/2-foot-tall lawn ornament - or "L.O.," as it likes to be called - disappeared in January, and soon after began sending home letters and photographs of itself at European landmarks. It was returned stateside on Easter.

The identity of L.O.'s traveling partner stayed secret until this month, when a 22-year-old college student, located by the Enquirer through a neighbor of the Burnetts, admitted he was the culprit.

Eric Roark, an education senior at Lee College in Cleveland, Tenn., concocted the abduction before a study abroad trip to Cambridge University in England.

But before anyone tries to whisk the villain off to jail, keep in mind that the bunny thief - who carried a 10-pound lawn ornament in his backpack for 14 hours through the streets of Rome - might have served his penance.

"At first I thought this was really funny," said Roark, who's working this summer at the Ralph J. Stolle Countryside YMCA. "But then once I got carrying this rabbit, I was like, 'I hate this rabbit. I'm not liking this rabbit anymore.'

"But I couldn't just throw the rabbit away because it was somebody's lawn ornament."

The prank is a version of the "roaming gnome" gag, so called because of the type of lawn ornaments first used.

Roark, who had never met the Burnetts, took the rabbit after searching the Miller's Crossing subdivision for a suitable travel companion. The neighborhood is near his church, Praise and Worship Center, on Miller Road.

Roark's mother, Brenda Roark, however, assures that the church does not condone stealing. And although she didn't exactly punish her son for the prank, she was worried someone else might.

"I was a little nervous about it because he didn't know the people," she said. "I thought he might get caught that night" he took it.

Mom can rest easy. The Burnetts have said they don't intend to press charges, especially because their bunny made it back safely.

Of course, although L.O. wrote weekly to the Burnetts, the bunny didn't mention every detail - like the time it missed disaster by a hair. While atop the Cliffs of Moher, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in Ireland, the winds were so strong Roark said he had to stand at an angle to remain upright.

"It's so windy up there, and I'm sitting there, looking at the rabbit through the (camera) lens and see the rabbit fall over," Roark said. "I grabbed the rabbit by the ear just before it fell off the cliff."



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