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Operation Teddy: Inside the Search for the Most Wanted Dog in St. Louis 

click to enlarge Teddy.

Teddy.

Teddy ran away on St. Patrick's Day.

It seems crazy now that it started so simply. Before the drone searches, the 900-member public Facebook group and then the smaller, secret one, before #TeamTeddy, motion-sensor cameras and K9 tracker teams from out of state, Teddy was just a ginger-haired dog who hopped over a chain-link fence in the suburbs of south county one evening and trotted away.

A pet detective hired to untangle the case would later theorize something on a nearby street spooked the eight-year-old shepherd and retriever mix, which made sense. Teddy had always been a nervous dog.

Mike and Carolyn Holden rescued him and his brother from a shelter in late 2008. The brother, a chubby fluff ball, was easily the more gregarious of the two. For Christmas that year, the Holdens showed both pups to Mike's mother and told her to pick one to keep as her present. She chose the brother, so timid little Teddy went home with them to O'Fallon.

He eventually made friends with the young couple's beagle and the revolving pack of kittens that Mike and Carolyn fostered. But he remained shy and cautious of strangers.

"That dog tucked his tail tighter than any dog I've seen in my life," Mike's mother, Mary Holden, recalls.

She had agreed to watch Teddy for eleven days in March while Mike and Carolyn went on vacation to Florida and the Bahamas. Two days after they left, on March 17, Mary left home for a bit, returning at 8:30 p.m. All the dogs were inside, except for Teddy.

Her younger son told her the dogs had been in the yard, but Teddy wouldn't come when he called. Knowing Teddy's personality, he decided to give him some space and try again later.

Mary Holden looked outside, but the yard was empty. The sun had already set, and the late evening was quickly growing dark. She and her son raced out into the neighborhood and called out for the missing dog.

"Teddy!" they yelled. "Teddy!"

They got in their cars and drove along the streets. Mary Holden recruited her brother-in-law to help them search. They cruised round and round, widening their search and doubling back for hours. They took flashlights out on foot.

"Teddy! Teddy!"

Near midnight, they finally returned home, exhausted and upset. Teddy was gone.

Carolyn and Mike's trip was already off to a rough start when they learned the news.

The couple usually love to travel. It's one of the few times when the two of them can spend much uninterrupted time together. Carolyn, who at 34 has long brown hair and a broad smile, runs her own business, making and selling high-end soaps from a storefront off South Main Street in St. Charles. In 2007, she had also been working with an organization that helps people with special needs get jobs. Mike, a manager at a Wehrenberg Theatre, hired one of the program's clients, and he met Carolyn when she came to help get the woman set up. They started to date shortly after and married in 2010.

They always seem to be running in different directions. At 32, with a touch of gray creeping into his beard, Mike keeps unusual hours as part of his job at the theater. He often spends his time off helping out Carolyn at the shop in St. Charles, but the only time they really get to relax together is when they travel.

In March, they spent a couple of days in Orlando and then drove south to Miami, where they boarded Flogging Molly's three-day Salty Dog Cruise. They'd taken the same cruise the year before and had a blast, but Carolyn caught some sort of bug this time and felt miserable.

"It was literally the worst trip of our lives," she says now.

She was still sick when the cruise ended. They picked up their rental car in a Miami parking garage, planning to spend another day in the city and then Key West before returning home.

Then they checked their phones. Mike had a voice mail and a text message from his mother, both telling him to call as soon as he could. He nervously dialed and spoke to his mom. Teddy had already been missing for four days.

"We were both in shock," Mike says. "I don't even know how to describe it. Carolyn was in tears."

They immediately canceled their trip and booked the first flight out of Orlando. Losing a pet was always one of Carolyn's worst nightmares, especially with the travels that sometimes took the couple out of the country. It worried her so much that she'd already designed missing posters in case it ever happened.

"I guess I'm kind of Type A," she acknowledges. Carolyn called her employees and asked them to start printing copies.

click to enlarge "We don't have kids. Our animals are like our kids," says Mike Holden, shown here with wife Carolyn and their beloved Teddy.
  • "We don't have kids. Our animals are like our kids," says Mike Holden, shown here with wife Carolyn and their beloved Teddy.

The couple returned to St. Louis about 9:30 p.m. on March 21, and all they could think about was finding Teddy. Carolyn's father and stepmother each drove a car to the airport to meet them, so Mike and Carolyn could take one of the vehicles and drive straight to south county to begin the search.

They spread through the neighborhood, freezing every time the beams of their flashlights reflected off the eyes of a cat or something moved in the weeds. Someone had reported seeing Teddy to the east of Mary Holden's home along Tesson Ferry Road, but Mike and Carolyn really had no way of knowing which direction Teddy had gone or how far he had traveled since his escape.

At first glance, the area where he went missing seems covered in asphalt and the neatly trimmed lawns of brick bungalows. But as they began to search, the Holdens began to see the topography in a new way. A network of streams, cloaked in thick walls of brush, crisscrossed Sunset Hills, Crestwood and unincorporated parts of south county. Clydesdale and Whitecliff parks were both nearby, along with Sunset Country Club, cemeteries and open construction sites. Teddy could be anywhere.

Mike still had about a week of vacation left from the shortened trip, and he spent it searching for his lost dog. Each night, he returned to his mom's house around midnight to sleep a few hours on her couch before waking at 5 a.m. to set out again. Carolyn shuttled around a 70-mile triangle between their house in O'Fallon, her shop in St. Charles and the search area in south county.

They laid out a paper map, stuck a pin on Mary Holden's house and used a string to trace a five-mile radius. Teddy was somewhere inside it, they were sure.

In the beginning, Carolyn and Mike did all the normal things the worried owners of missing dogs do. They tried to imagine where Teddy would go, and they searched there. They hung fliers with cute pictures of him, and they posted pleas for assistance on lost pet websites. Friends and family helped, and a few hardcore animal lovers began to notice their efforts and offered some assistance.

Most searches fizzle out at this point. The owners find their dog, run out of energy or lose hope. The search for Teddy, however, hurtled on like an asteroid, gaining mass and velocity with each rotation around the south county neighborhoods.

Carolyn and Mike proved to have a stunning amount of stamina for the hunt. At least one of them spent a portion of every day hiking through the woods or driving the streets and hanging fliers. If someone called with a sighting, they went. They searched on their wedding anniversary. Neither had to work on Easter, so they searched then, too.

One day, about two weeks in, someone spotted a ginger-haired dog and called. Mike's mother got there first and phoned them.

"Oh my God, it does look like him!" she told Mike as he and Carolyn sped toward the spot. "Oh my God, Michael. It's Teddy!"

They arrived in Sunset Hills and quickly spotted the dog. He was skittish and scampered off the road when they called him. Mike and Carolyn assumed he thought he was in trouble for running away. All they had to do was assure him everything was all right and bring him home. Their hopes soared.

Mike caught sight of him again in a fenced-in backyard, and he and Carolyn split up in hopes of cornering him. It wasn't until they closed in tight that they saw the dog was wearing a red collar, not a black one like Teddy's.

"A complete doppelganger," Mike says. "Dead-on."

The false sightings were exhausting, but a team of volunteers was quickly building up to support them. The fliers and a "Help Bring Teddy Home" Facebook group spread the word across south county. Some volunteers, like Tina Roe of the nonprofit group Missouri Lost & Found Paws, were search veterans, lending a hand in dozens of missing pet cases month after month, year after year. Roe was instrumental in the high-profile search for Matt the Cat that dominated social media in the Shaw and Tower Grove neighborhoods for two months last winter. When the elusive feline was finally located, it was Roe who confirmed the good news by scanning the microchip embedded in his skin.

Other volunteers, including Diane Fitzgerald, were first-timers. The 57-year-old bank teller noticed a flier one day in Schnucks. There was something about it that stayed with her. She asked her daughter to look up the Facebook page, and they both decided they could help out for a couple of hours. They met Mike and Carolyn shortly after, and Fitzgerald was struck by their dedication. The two had already been searching for weeks but seemed utterly incapable of giving up.

Fitzgerald remembers one moment in particular when she saw Mike, hiking alone, hoping to see Teddy around the next tree. He seemed such a tragic figure.

"To see him walking down the creek, calling his dog, would bring you to tears," she says.

Fitzgerald was never an outdoors person, but she began to join Roe on nightly hikes through the woods. She also drove the neighborhoods during her lunch breaks. Every day on Facebook, the volunteers analyzed each new piece of information and coordinated the next searches or flier postings. Carolyn and Mike would occasionally chime in with updates and thanks, but it was mostly the volunteers who kept the conversation going. They shared theories and frustrations, compared notes on miles logged and weight lost during their walks. There were inside jokes and plans for meet-ups. They called themselves Team Teddy.

"I can't explain it," Fitzgerald says of the newly formed community, "but once you're in it, you're in it."

As the search continued, they began to learn of other missing dogs. One, a golden retriever mix named Bailey who'd run away in the same area, looked so similar to Teddy that callers would sometimes confuse the two when phoning in sightings. Team Teddy and Bailey's owners shared info about the sightings to make sure no crucial tips were lost in the confusion.

Bailey had been missing ten days when her owners brought in an out-of-state pet detective with a team of scent dogs to help. Using a sighting from Team Teddy, the K-9 trackers were able to pick up Bailey's trail and led the investigator straight to her.

The news was bittersweet for Carolyn and Mike. They were overjoyed to see Bailey return home, but they assumed they wouldn't be able to follow the same steps to find Teddy. More than a month had passed since he disappeared, and they didn't have a dog bed or harness that hadn't been pawed over by their other animals. It didn't seem possible the K-9s would be able to isolate a scent for Teddy the way they had for Bailey. Would they ever be able to bring Teddy home?

click to enlarge Pet detective Karin TarQwyn on the hunt for a missing dog.
  • Pet detective Karin TarQwyn on the hunt for a missing dog.

Pet detective Karin TarQwyn spends her days driving cross-country to track missing dogs. Even when she's home in Nebraska, she surrounds herself with her K-9 team of nine dogs, all rescues, while coordinating searches for lost pets by phone and computer.

"I live in a pack," she says. "My children are grown. I don't do the marriage thing anymore. It's me with this pack of dogs."

Licensed as a private investigator in Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and California, TarQwyn has become one of the best-known pet detectives in the nation during the past twelve years. She's even expanded her business, Lost Pet Professionals, to include an additional team based in Arkansas.

The peculiar nature of her work has attracted the attention of Animal Planet and a wide variety of news organizations. In 2006, the New York Times ran a picture on the front of its Metro section of TarQwyn and her lead dog, Cade, hustling across a pedestrian bridge in Queens during the search for a missing whippet named Vivi, who'd bolted from Kennedy International Airport after competing at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show.

After TarQwyn's dogs found Bailey in south St. Louis County, Carolyn and Mike eventually decided to call Lost Pet Professionals to see if it was even possible to track Teddy.

TarQwyn's dogs have picked up scents as long as nine months after pets have gone missing, she says. The challenge with the Holdens' search would be pinning down a location. Teddy is what TarQwyn calls a STARS dog — shy, timid, aloof, reserved or skittish. He was also an "extreme roamer" who'd been sighted in areas miles apart during his time on the run.

There was also a grimmer possibility. The area where he'd disappeared is cut through with busy roadways — Interstate 270 to the west, Highway 366 to the north and Tesson Ferry right through the middle — and he was probably sharing the woods with predators, such as coyotes, TarQwyn says.

"Sometimes," she says, "we come out for closure."

If Teddy was still alive, he had probably learned to hunt and was following creeks or other sources of water, she told Carolyn and Mike. He was also likely to be wary of people, even his owners, and could be spooked by searchers tromping through the woods shouting his name.

TarQwyn couldn't make it to St. Louis right away, but she agreed to dispatch the team from Arkansas, run by Angie Rutherford. Carolyn and Mike were to prepare for a ground search by wrapping Teddy's harness in gauze and sealing it in a Ziploc bag for 24 hours to transfer his scent into the cloth.

Rutherford arrived on the morning of April 29 for what would be a two-day search. The dogs circled the backyard where Teddy was last seen, taking in the atmosphere to give them a baseline before they were shown strips of the gauze to smell.

Forty-three days had passed since Teddy disappeared, but the trained trackers quickly honed in on the back corner of the yard, where it was easy to imagine an eight-year-old shepherd mix hopping over the three-and-half foot chain-link fence.

Rutherford's team worked for hours checking locations where callers had reported seeing Teddy during the past six weeks. Carolyn and Mike had plotted every sighting on a map, and the K-9 trackers were able to confirm some and discount others. TarQwyn helped guide the search by phone. From her computer, she zoomed in on the area with Google Earth, using a water overlay as she relayed the location of creeks to Rutherford on the ground.

By the end of the second day, they had narrowed the focus to a swath of woods and subdivisions in and around the Sunset Country Club. Teddy was clearly covering some ground. The search area was three to five miles from the point of escape.

When TarQwyn returned two weeks later to re-canvass the area with her team, she followed a creek northeast into Whitecliff Park where the dogs again hit on his scent. A one-way trip was about two-and-a-half miles, but no one thought Teddy was staying put. Callers reported sightings in short succession up and down the search area and beyond.

Tina Roe, the veteran searcher from Lost & Found Paws, had never seen a lost dog act like Teddy. They couldn't bait him with food. They couldn't catch up to him. Teddy always seemed to be a day or two ahead.

"I was like, 'Oh my gosh, what is he doing?'" Roe recalls. "He was just running."

As the search dragged on for months and costs ballooned, Carolyn began to envision an old segment of The Price is Right. A tiny yodeling man would slide up a ruler like he was climbing a mountain. The more the contestants were off in their guesses, the farther the little man would climb, until finally he reached the peak and toppled over the edge. Game over.

"Are we crazy?" she asked herself. "Are we just spinning our wheels?"

TarQwyn's services were invaluable in re-orienting the search and giving them hope that Teddy was still out there running, but they weren't cheap. The combined cost of the two searches topped $3,500, the couple estimates, and then there were the fliers. Carolyn and Mike slipped them inside plastic covers to protect from the weather and fastened them to poles with plastic zip ties. Each cost about $2, and they had plastered a couple of thousand across south county. The bills surpassed $6,000 by late summer. Even after a volunteer set up an online fundraiser that raised more than $1,500, Carolyn and Mike questioned themselves. Were they crazy? Were they the yodeling man, about to topple off the ledge?

And then there were the phone calls.

They always came from blocked or re-routed numbers. Some of the voices told them to get over it. Others scolded them for cluttering up the neighborhood with their signs. The worst was a particularly sadistic kid with a surfer accent who claimed he'd was watching Teddy running along the side of a busy highway.

"Oh, holy shit!" he shouted into the phone. "He just got hit! Your dog's dead!"

The volunteers were trying not to overwhelm neighbors with their endless searching, but some residents had begun to cut down the fliers. Lakeshire Police Chief Wayne Neidenberg says many of the fliers had become weather-beaten and unreadable, so he had officers pull them down.

"It had become an eyesore," Neidenberg says. "We have a small city, and there was like 30 of them. They were on every corner."

At the same time, the Help Bring Teddy Home page on Facebook had become a little unwieldy. More than 900 people had joined. They were well-meaning, but Carolyn and Mike soon learned if they mentioned a sighting, a crowd of people were likely to show up, shouting Teddy's name and probably scaring him out of the area before they could reach him.

They had become more strategic. Instead of sending out search parties, they set live traps in the areas outlined by TarQwyn's searches, hoping to capture him in tall wire cages. They also installed motion-sensor cameras through the woods. Quietly, with Mike and Carolyn's blessing, a core group of volunteers set up a second, secret Facebook page where they could share more sensitive information about the strategy while the larger group continued to spread awareness.

These 30 insiders coordinated daily missions to move and bait traps with bacon grease, hot dogs and rotisserie chickens. They hauled buckets of ice water into the woods and took turns with Carolyn and Mike hiking between the seven motion-sensor cameras, plugging the video cards into laptops and checking the footage for any signs of Teddy.

They even had air support. A member of the group had a drone hookup and arranged for periodic flyovers in hopes of spotting Teddy from the air.

All that walking and searching did turn up some results. They trapped and returned a missing cat, Torts, who'd run away seven months before. A report of a possible Teddy sighting led Mike to capture a lookalike on a golf course. The dog's microchip listed owners in Oklahoma, but they said "Bear" was too hard to handle, so they'd given him to new owners who must have dumped him in St. Louis. Mike and Carolyn decided they couldn't just pass him along like the others, so they adopted Bear and took him home. They started to think of him as Teddy's brother and dreamed of the day they'd all be together.

On June 20, they seemed to be closing in. One of the motion-sensor cameras clicked on at 3:34 p.m., showing a ginger-haired dog wander past one of the traps placed in a clearing in the woods. He spun around and poked his nose into a blue water bucket to take a drink.

"Guys, meet Teddy," Carolyn wrote on the secret Facebook page, posting a ten-second clip.

He sure looked like their lost dog. He wore a black collar, and the ginger coloring was right. He even had the same bushy tail. But days and then weeks passed without further videotaped sightings. The Team Teddy volunteers analyzed the footage frame by frame, checking for ear shape and muzzle pattern. They compared stills of the dog in the video with a neighborhood doppelganger.

Carolyn and Mike were almost positive it was Teddy. Even so, where had he gone?

click to enlarge Fliers begged for clues.
  • Fliers begged for clues.

Carolyn and Mike had almost made it home to O'Fallon on the night of July 31 when a man called with a possible sighting.

It didn't sound promising. The man claimed Teddy was behind his apartment complex near River Des Peres, a little outside of the search area. Over the past four-and-a-half months, dozens of callers had claimed to have seen their missing dog. One guy was positive he'd seen Teddy on the side of the road, but when Mike showed up, it was actually a dead deer.

Still, this caller said he was sure. He and his daughter had driven past the Teddy fliers every day, and she'd persuaded him to call.

Mike and Carolyn thought for a couple of seconds, and then turned the car around.

"We're a young couple," Mike says. "We don't have kids. Our animals are like our kids."

The man wasn't around when they pulled into the Cedar Creek Lodge Apartments, but they stopped a couple of neighbors and showed them Teddy's picture.

Absolutely, they had seen him, they said. They'd been leaving out food for him for weeks. He was skittish, though, and seemed to be scared of people.

It sure sounded like Teddy. Carolyn and Mike decided they'd pick up some bug spray and Mike would spend the night in the parking lot in case the dog came back.

Before they could even make it to the store, the man called again. He could see Teddy in front of him, he said.

Carolyn and Mike raced back to the apartment complex and hopped out. It was dark, so they aimed their flashlights in the direction the man pointed. There at the edge of some trees was a ginger-haired dog.

"Teddy," they called. "Teddy Bear!"

Animal experts had warned them that a dog who's been in the wild for so long wasn't likely to respond to the sound of his name. Should they see him, Carolyn and Mike were supposed to sit down and act like they were upset or injured to play to the dog's empathy.

"Teddy, come to Mommy," Carolyn called, dropping to the ground.

"Come to Daddy," Mike echoed.

The dog zigzagged up the hillside, closing in slowly. Carolyn and Mike turned their flashlights on their own faces so he might recognize them.

Slowly, slowly, the dog crept to them. When he was an arm's length away, he hopped into Carolyn's lap and she wrapped her arms around him. Mike hugged them both, and they cried. Gone for 136 days, smelling like death, Teddy had come to them.

click to enlarge Teddy enjoys the spotlight at his welcome home party. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Teddy enjoys the spotlight at his welcome home party.

At the welcome-home party a week later, Team Teddy members wore T-shirts printed with Carolyn's text message from that night: "We have him!!!!!!!"

Over hot dogs and drinks, they laughed about the wild nights in the woods as storms hovered on the horizon. Diane Fitzgerald, the rookie searcher, recounted the time she had to jump over a snake while on patrol with Tina Roe. They were all still sort of stunned and giddy about what a bunch of strangers had been able to do together.

"The amount of miles put on their shoes," Roe says. "Oh, my goodness gracious."

Teddy, on a leash, worked his way through the crowd. He'd lost nearly twenty pounds during his woodland adventure. More than one of the volunteers said they just want to know what he was doing all those days. Did he see them coming? Was he watching from his hideout?

He's a little bolder since his return. The strangers didn't seem to bother him as they bent down to rub his ears or feed him a special dog cake.

They all vowed to stay in touch, and weeks later, new messages for pub crawls and Cardinals games continued to pop up on the secret Team Teddy Facebook page. Fitzgerald, who gave up her lunches to drive around looking for Teddy and became friends with animal advocates like Roe, posted a message on August 26.

"Just want to put it out there!" she wrote. "I really miss everyone!"

click to enlarge Team Teddy: A rescue effort has become a community. - PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • PHOTO BY DOYLE MURPHY
  • Team Teddy: A rescue effort has become a community.

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