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


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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?

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