The stranger showed up Tuesday morning at the Jacob family home in Sykesville in a black car with six chickens and a bundle of apologies.
The mystery of the Sykesville chicken heist was solved.
"I swear to you, you couldn't make this up," said Karen Jacob, counting the family's egg-laying hens Tuesday and finding that they once again added up to 20, not 14, as was the case late last Sunday.
She and her husband and two sons had come home from dinner at her mother's in Glen Burnie to find someone had left a note and $40 cash at the door, and six of their 20 egg-laying hens were gone.
Whoever took the chickens left a note in blue ink on a pale blue sticky: "Sorry I couldn't find you. Took 6 chicken. Left 40. Frank."
He had made off with six family pets, a source of fresh eggs worth much more than $40 and part of the two boys' 4-H project, including one hen that was a first-prize winner at the Howard County Fair last summer.
"I was like, 'Are you kidding me?' " said Jacob, a substitute teacher at Ellicott Mills Middle School. She said the family doesn't know anyone named Frank, nor do they sell their chickens, which would probably go for about $25 apiece. Assuming theft, albeit an unconventional one, she called Howard County police.
Officer Joel Henderson was dispatched to the scene, an 81/2-acre property near the Carroll County line. He quickly won Jacob's appreciation for taking the matter seriously.
"He didn't laugh it off as a joke — 'Lady, it's just chickens,' " said Jacob.
He took the blue note and the two $20 bills, mentioned a long-shot prospect of checking for fingerprints, and left.
Jacob, meanwhile was working her sources.
She called everyone she knew to find out if they knew anyone named Frank who might be under the mistaken impression that the family sells chickens. She posted notice on Craigslist for a "Frank" who might have recently been in the market for chickens.
And she and the family fretted. The family bought the chicks in Westminster about two years ago as a 4-H project for the boys, Erik and Evan, who liked the fact that they could sell the eggs, rather than the animals themselves, which is the case with many 4-H livestock projects.
"I'm really sick. I can't believe what happened," Erik, 11, said Monday afternoon, nearly 24 hours after the hens vanished. Without the Nintendo 2DS he had just received for Christmas, he said, "I'd be so stressed out."
Evan, 8, said he was especially fond of three of those taken, named Black Tail, Omedove and Madame Pooch, "because they were always friendly to me."
Social media worked their magic. A volunteer with Animal Advocates of Carroll County posted Jacob's Craigslist post on Facebook pages for the organization and on a Sykesville page.
Someone who was selling chickens in Sykesville responded Monday, sending a phone number for "Frank," which was then passed along to Jacob.
Jacob said she got the information in a message on her phone Monday night while she and her husband were out.
Jacob called and found an innocent man full of apology. Seems he had arranged to buy chickens for $6 apiece from someone on Deer Hill Road, right next to the Jacob driveway off Sykesville Road. When he spotted chickens in her yard, he figured it was the place.
He told Jacob he had bought his daughter a chicken coop for Christmas and was trying to stock it with birds for her to raise. On Tuesday morning, he returned with two birds in a box, four in a covered tub, and a burden of shame.
Jacob said the man apologized "repeatedly — 'I am sorry, I'm so embarrassed.' "
As he seemed "so mortified," Jacob said, she did not press him for his full name or where he lives. No harm done, she assured him, returning his $40, and eventually calling the police to explain the mixup.
The birds, meanwhile, seem none the worse for the ordeal.
"They knew it was their home," Erik said. "They were dashing toward the coop to meet their friends. … I'm very very happy."