A prize-winning dog was found safe and returned to his owner three days after being stolen — thanks to a family who apparently recognized the suspected culprit.
Hours after her dog, Jasper, a boxer, had won Best of Breed at a speciality show in St. Paul, Minnesota, last Friday, Michelle Baker watched in horror as she saw her van stolen with her beloved dog inside.
She was grabbing coffee at the hotel Saturday morning when she saw someone head outside and drive off with her vehicle.
"This guy who stole my van was sitting on the couch in the lobby and got up and walked out," Baker told CBS News in a Zoom call. "He got up, walked out, got in my vehicle and I saw it happening."
All she felt was grief, worry and fear.
"I cried for three days straight," said Baker, who lives in Iowa. "I didn't sleep much, didn't eat anything — you know, it's just, kind of surreal."
Baker turned to Facebook in her efforts to find Jasper, even offering a $10,000 cash reward.
"He's done incredibly well in the show world, but none of that mattered," she said. "All I wanted was the dog back, because he's a good dog. He's part of our family, and we loved him very, very much."
When local police released a surveillance photo on Monday, one family recognized the person of interest as a childhood friend, Baker told CBS News. They even knew where he lived.
Tara Wintz immediately called Baker.
"She just kept begging me, 'Please find him,'" Wintz told CBS Minnesota. "And I sent this in a message, 'You know what? I will be out here all night and you are going to have him back.'"
Luckily, they didn't have to search far. Baker said the suspect had driven nine miles away from the hotel, parked on a side street two blocks away from where he was going and left the van there. "So he only had possession of my vehicle for about 15 to 20 minutes," she said.
But by the time the Wintz family spotted the van Monday evening, Jasper had been in the freezing cold for about 60 hours.
"She [Baker] gave me permission to break the window," James Wintz recalled. "I shattered the window quick, got inside. The dog was still in the back shivering."
"I just screamed to her, 'He's alive!' And she lost it, and I lost it, and I'm bawling and she's crying. And it was just like so crazy," Tara Wintz told the station.
Jasper and Baker were reunited later that night.
"Jasper was saved by the most amazing family," she wrote on Facebook, expressing her gratitude. "And they will for the rest of my life be part of our family."
She also acknowledged the role that social media played in finding her dog.
"We got the suspect's picture out on social media," she told CBS News. "Enough people shared it that the right person saw it and recognized him and got in contact with me and the police."
South St. Paul police told CBS News they arrested a 34-year-old man Tuesday afternoon. He has not been charged yet.
"It tugs at the hearts of lots of people when we think of animals that are suffering," Police Chief William Messerich said. "It was cold and hungry for a couple days."
The $10,000 reward will be given to the Wintz family, Baker told CBS News.
Andrew Laub contributed reporting.
for more features.