A casual Sunday coffee meet-up whipped into a search mission for a woman's dog after a 29-year-old man allegedly stole her car — with the dog in it — and led law enforcement on a high-speed chase hours later.
Erika Spaulding had left her car running with the air conditioning on for Onyx, her black Labrador retriever, Sunday afternoon outside City Brew on West Broadway. She was meeting friends for coffee and returned in about a half-hour to see her car had vanished.
"Honestly, my first thought wasn't my car, it was my dog in the front seat," Spaulding told the Missoulian on Monday. "He's just such a happy dog I couldn't help but think that he was just happy to see whoever opened the door."
Spaulding quickly made a report to Missoula law enforcement, animal control, dog shelters and any local social media page with a lot of eyes on it. She also posted a plea to area residents on Facebook. As the sheriff's office searched the riverbanks nearby, Facebook spread Spaulding's post like wildfire, reaching more than 7,000 shares by Monday — 6,000 or so within five hours of making the post, Spaulding said.
About six hours after the dog and car had disappeared, a woman in Ronan called Spaulding: Onyx had been picked up at a gas station there and was safe.
The next twist in a strange Sunday came as Spaulding and her mother drove north to retrieve the Lab. On the two-lane Highway 93 North, she saw about 11 law enforcement vehicles heading south in pursuit of a vehicle — her stolen car.
"I just saw a line of flashing lights and turned to my mom and said, 'Wouldn't it be funny if that was my car,'" Spaulding recalled Monday morning. "And it was."
According to a press release from Lake County Sheriff Don Bell, a deputy had seen the stolen vehicle in Ronan and initiated a pursuit at about 11:15 p.m. Sunday. The driver of the stolen vehicle fled south for 36 miles with law enforcement in pursuit until spike strips laid by the Missoula County Sheriff's Office brought the vehicle to a halt near the Gray Wolf Peak Casino.
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Matthew Harold Van Valin, 29, was taken into custody shortly after a foot pursuit that ended around midnight.
Spaulding and her mother opted to pursue the dog and let law enforcement handle the alleged car thief. When they reached Ronan, she said the reunion was overwhelming.
"Thank goodness," she said. "The woman who found him just hugged me and we cried together.
"I don't have children but I imagined what it might be like," she said. "It's the closest thing I think I can relate to having a child go missing. Anyone who knows me, Onyx and I, we're a team. The whole time he was gone it felt like a large part of my heart was missing."
Ronan Police, Confederated Kootenai and Salish Tribal Police, Montana Highway Patrol and the Missoula County Sheriff's Office all assisted Lake County authorities during the incident.
Back in Missoula, Spaulding said she could hear people Sunday afternoon calling out for Onyx during the search.
"I'm incredibly grateful for all of the good people, especially in my hometown, coming together to help me find him," she said. "There's no better feeling than having the people around you have your back."
Van Valin is now being held at the Missoula County Detention Center on bail of just over $200,000. His initial appearance in Missoula County Justice Court was rescheduled for Tuesday afternoon.