TOPEKA (KSNT) — A Midwestern charity group’s search for various valuables they lost with a stolen car had some success two months later.
On Feb. 1, someone broke into and stole a van containing charity items for homeless people in Topeka, according to two members of the nonprofit Operation Fetch. The van contained things like clothes, sleeping bags, medical supplies and more expensive items like a brand new iPhone and a defibrillator. The owners of the van said some stolen items were irreplaceable: two handmade quilts and a box containing the ashes of Gander the service dog.
Operation Fetch was created in memory of Gander, a Labradoodle service dog who is credited with touching the lives of thousands of people around the world throughout his life, before passing away in 2020 from cancer. He has won several awards and even two documentaries that highlight the kindness that Gander has shown. The dog bonded amazingly with people and his owners said he was known to have a special talent.
“It’s hard to describe Gander,” said Bob DesRuisseaux, member of Operation Fetch’s advisory board. “He touched a lot of lives across the country. He had this unique ability to identify the person in the area who needed help. There was a soul in Gander that you just can’t explain.
It was heartbreaking when DesRuisseaux and Operation Fetch founder Lon Hodge realized that Gander’s ashes, along with a number of items intended to be donated for charity and personal property, had been taken away when their van was stolen.
“It crushed everyone when these things were stolen,” Hodge said.
The van was found ransacked around 1 a.m. the next day, according to DesRuisseaux. All the items they wanted to donate were gone. Luckily, however, the small cedar box containing Gander’s remains was still there when they found the stolen van.
The recovery of Gander’s ashes and the stolen van was the start of a months-long search, as DesRuisseaux and Hodge continue to search for any signs of the missing quilts and other items that were taken the night the van was stolen. They posted a $500 reward requesting the return of the two quilts, no questions asked. Both quilts feature unique works of art that each took a year to put together through the efforts of people around the world. They donated individual squares which Margaret Murphy, a woman from Tennessee, then put together.
“Quilt squares were made all over the world,” DesRuisseaux said. “These obviously mean a lot to a lot of people. These and the ashes were truly irreplaceable.
The quilts were meant to be gifts for Hodge, who is a disabled veteran and was Gander’s handler or “Battle Buddy”. Many squares were covered with personal messages in remembrance of Gander.
Since the initial flight, the members of Operation Fetch have had only limited success. They picked up the new iPhone after driving about 650 miles to Cincinnati, Ohio, where someone sold it for $100 at a resale store. Members believe that many of the items that weren’t worth having were simply thrown away.
“They found a trash can full of stuff when Bob and I came out,” Hodge said. “Anything they couldn’t pawn or sell immediately was thrown away.”
The story took a turn recently, however, as Operation Fetch said one of the two missing quilts was found on Tuesday this week. A Topeka man returned the quilt on April 5, collecting $250 — half the reward for the two quilts — after finding it in a trash can.
DesRuisseaux said it looked like the quilt had been used by the homeless, as it had four holes in each corner as if it had been pitched with a tent. The quilt also smelled strongly of smoke from the campfire. DesRuisseaux remarked that there was a certain irony that the quilt ended up in a homeless camp.
“We felt it was very possible that someone found them who really needed them,” DesRuisseaux said.
For Hodge and DesRuisseaux, they said the situation showed them not only the worst the community has to offer, but also the best. The theft of the van, charity items and quilts was brightened by the generosity and goodwill of those who helped with the search and who raised funds to post a reward for the quilts.
The quilt will be returned to the woman in Tennessee who made it. She will fix it while the search continues for the second quilt. The $250 reward for the second quilt still stands, and Operation Fetch has asked anyone with information regarding the location of the other quilt to contact DesRuisseaux via Facebook. here or to Hodge on his Facebook here.