Marine Corps veteran Lana Whitner and her family were on their way from Illinois to Florida this week when, during a pit stop on the long journey, their SUV was stolen, according to a police officer who worked on the case. Their dog, Wrigley, was inside -- and he went missing along with the vehicle.
Police officer Justin Lawrence told CBS News that the incident unfolded when the Whitners stopped at a rest area in Indianapolis during their move to Florida. Lana got out of her SUV to talk to her husband, who was driving another car. Almost all of their belongings were stuffed inside the two vehicles.
The moment Lana stepped out of her car, thieves jumped in and three suspects sped off in the SUV, with Wrigley, according to Lawrence.
The devastated family called the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department immediately. Lawrence said they also used a "find my iPhone" app, since Lana's daughter had left her cellphone inside the vehicle. That helped authorities locate the SUV on the city's East side.
"We approached the vehicle and the suspects had already fled the scene," Lawrence told CBS News. "I don't know if they saw us and ran off, but we later caught two of the three suspects."
Lawrence said he and his partner found almost all of the Whitners' belongings still inside the vehicle. While some money was stolen, their laptops and the daughter's phone were inside.
The service dog was not.
Lawrence said he then discovered, while speaking to Lana about what they found, that she is a Marine Corps veteran.
Lawrence himself served in the Marine Corps for 17 years. He said he would've helped anyone in this situation, but the fact that Lana and her husband, Tim, were both Marines made it even more important to him.
He started reaching out to the police department and community members to try to locate the lost service dog, who Lana said is "trained to sense oncoming seizures and migraine headaches."
"He's my lifeline right now," Lana said, according to Fox59 News.
Lawrence said he got a picture of Wrigley from Lana's daughter "and sent out an email to the whole department saying, 'Hey guys, do me a favor and share this with whoever. ... Let's get it out there and find this dog.'"
Sgt. Jim Gillespie, the Indianapolis Metro Police Department's public information officer, asked if he could share the photo on social media.
Lawrence told him "of course."
Within hours, the department's plea to find Wrigley went viral, and they were getting tons of calls from people who thought they saw the missing dog.
"News stations picked it up, we did interviews," Lawrence said. "The outcry was amazing. Everybody wanted to find this dog."
A gas station clerk called in and said he remembered seeing a dog that matched the description. Officers checked the gas station's surveillance cameras, and sure enough, Wrigley had been there.
"He went from the Southwest side of town to the East side. That was a big footprint. We didn't even know where to start [looking]," Lawrence said.
Police officers and the Whitners then started walking around the neighborhood. They thought they zeroed in on the dog's location, but still couldn't find him. They were about to take a break from patrolling and get something to eat when Tim had an idea to leave one of his shirts behind.
He left the shirt on the ground, hoping Wrigley would walk by it and pick up his scent.
A police officer went back to the site later to see if the trick worked. And it did -- the officer found Wrigley there, rolling around on the ground with Tim's shirt.
"The rest is history," Lawrence said.
Video that the department took shows Wrigley barreling toward Tim and Lana. The pup jumps around excitedly and sprints between his two owners. The heartwarming reunion soon went viral.
"Everybody pulled together overnight for this veteran, for Wrigley," Lawrence said. "Within 24 hours we found this dog. That's amazing."