Kristi Schiller was watching the 10 p.m. news when the grief-stricken figure of Harris County deputy constable Ted Dahlin filled her TV screen.
It was clear what had happened: Man and dog had been in pursuit of burglary suspects when the dog sped ahead. The highly trained canine cornered at least one of four young men, but a fifth came up from behind and choked the dog to death.
That December 2009, Schiller started learning as much as she could about police dogs and their officers. She hoped Dahlin’s dog, Blek, would be replaced swiftly, but she discovered that was highly unlikely. Dahlin would have to do desk duty until he himself could scrape up the $10,000 to $15,000 it would take to replace his partner. And fundraising efforts tended to be low-wattage affairs – bake sales, barbecues and car washes.
Schiller, a lifelong volunteer, decided to wade in. In 2010, she started K9s4Cops, a nonprofit group that helps law enforcement agencies here and across the country buy top-quality police dogs. Today, K9s4Cops has put more than 60 canines on the streets, and an offshoot, K9s4Kids, is helping to beef up security at nine school campuses across the state.
Early on, Schiller and her husband, Energy XXI chairman and CEO John Schiller, underwrote the program. Over time, however, generous Houstonians and law enforcement officers from across the country have opened their wallets, too.
Supporters want to strengthen the ties between communities and the men and women who work to keep them safe.
Also, it’s hard to resist Schiller and her king shepherd, Johnny Cash.
The dog, who doubles as a mascot and security guard, is 140 pounds and an expressive, gentle giant. At 43, Schiller still looks like the media personality and model she used to be. She’s been compared to both Marilyn Monroe and Lucille Ball. She looks like Monroe, acts like Ball and makes visitors feel as if they are a part of her high-society world.
She’s all business, however, when she’s talking about the important roles dogs play in police work.
“Blek died,” Schiller says, “but Ted Dahlin went home to his wife and children.”
Ready for fame
Schiller grew up in Brazosport, where, she says, the road meets the Gulf of Mexico. Her family was in the offshore-boat business, and she ate raw oysters for snacks.
After earning a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Houston, Schiller took a job in an early version of entertainment TV.
The show, “Day and Date,” was canceled after 13 weeks, but Schiller couldn’t imagine failure when she arrived in the Big Apple to start work. Her maiden name was Hoss, and she introduced herself to everyone she met: “I’m Kristi Hoss, and I’m going to be famous in about a week.”
After a few months, she was back in Houston, working at radio station KL0L, 101 FM, where she dished out entertainment news and relationship advice starting at 5 a.m.
On the air she was known as Lucy Lipps, and partly because of her easy on-air persona and partly because of her interest in technology and social media, her reputation grew.
Forbes magazine named her “Queen of the Internet” in 1997.
“I loved it,” Schiller says. “And then I realized things were getting out of control. People knew me, and I didn’t know them.”
Schiller briefly worked as a stockbroker.
“But that didn’t last,” she says. “So I moved to New Orleans.”
In the matchmaking department, Schiller was surprisingly effective – she fixed up nine couples who actually got married. But she herself was single, rich in friends but poor in boyfriends. Then, when she was 30, a friend tried to fix her up. “Oh, honey,” she told him, “this isn’t going to work. I’m the matchmaker.”
Finally, however, Schiller agreed to meet the wildcatter who would be her future husband. It was July 2001, a hurricane was brewing in the Gulf, and the French Quarter was flooding.
“John was completely wigged out,” Schiller says. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry. I’ve lived through 150 of these things.’ ”
The date didn’t last long, but both were smitten. They met again the next week, and they’ve been together ever since.
Sinclair, their daughter, was born in 2006. She was 6 in 2012.the year of the Sandy Hook, Conn., school shooting That’s when Schiller decided to start K9s4Kids, which she is hoping to expand along with K9s4Cops.
She is not opposed to guns – she’s a member of the National Rifle Association and has a license to carry. But, she says, one protection dog is a better investment than a school full of armed teachers.
“They are underpaid heroes,” Schiller says, “but they’re not in the business of reading, writing and Remingtons. When they were hired, nobody asked them, ‘How’s your aim?’ ”
Expanding her charity
Today hundreds of volunteers are involved in Schiller’s organization.
One is Bill Stanton, who describes himself as a private eye and former cop from the Bronx.
“Kristi reminds me of a modern-day Lucille Ball – she creates a tornado wherever she goes. But it’s a tornado for good, and her energy and enthusiasm are infectious. She has this down-home-iness that people just love.”
Sgt. Mike Thomas, in charge of the canine unit for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, appreciates Schiller’s can-do attitude.
“She may have a ditzy, blond persona in public, but she’s intelligent, and she’s learned the dog business,” Thomas says. “People respect that.”
Early on, the sergeant says, Schiller gave his department five dogs. They were trainable but the equivalent of C students, he says. Later, Thomas took Schiller to Indiana and showed her where he prefers to buy police dogs. In the middle of the kennel tour, she grabbed him.
“I’m sorry, so sorry,” Schiller told him. “I just realized I went to the Dollar Store to buy dogs, and this is Saks Fifth Avenue. These are the dogs that you need.”
To Thomas and the dozens of other lawmen and -women whom Schiller has helped, she’s a hero.
“Of course I’m not,” Schiller says. “The heroes are in uniform.”