MISSOULA – A Missoula man — Matthew Harold VanValin — remains behind bars after a pursuit that began late last Sunday night in Ronan and ended 36 miles later at the Gray Wolf Peak Casino in Evaro.
Lake County Sheriff Don Bell states the pursuit started around 11 p.m. when a Lake County deputy noticed a vehicle in Ronan that fit the description of a stolen vehicle out of Missoula. There was also a dog in that stolen car.
It wasn’t just a Jeep that VanValin took, it was a beloved pet sitting in the back seat — a dog that was suddenly on a terrifying road trip.
But it was a dog with his own Instagram page — and social media, along with a very determined owner, brought this part of the story to a happy conclusion.
Erika Spaulding loaded up her beloved black lab Onyx on Sunday afternoon to run a few errands.
She stopped by a downtown Missoula coffee shop and since it was a quick stop, she kept her Jeep running with the AC and left Onyx napping inside, something she’s done many times before.
But when she came back out, the unthinkable.
“And I found myself standing in an empty parking spot where I was parked before and I was so thrown off that I thought, ‘wait, did I park here? Have I lost my mind?’ And then thought, ‘I think there’s an emergency going on right now’,” Spaulding recalled.
She quickly called Missoula Police about her stolen Jeep, but her concern was for Onyx, the dog she’d raised since he was a puppy. And to complicate things, she’d just taken his collar off that morning so if the suspect in the car theft set her dog free somewhere, she might never find him again.
So Spaulding turned to social media and put up a post that ended up being shared almost 7,500 times. And since Onyx has his own Instagram page, thousands of people soon learned that he was in a passenger in a stolen vehicle headed somewhere.
“And I actually hadn’t been on Facebook for some time. I’d been de-activated for a while but I thought that’s the way the message is going to spread,” Spaulding said.
And when the suspect in the car theft let Onyx out of the jeep near Ronan, it didn’t take long for someone to notice.
“She said, ‘when my mom told me that’s the dog from Facebook, that’s the dog that’s missing, call his name.’ So she called his name and I guess he came running up to her,” Spaulding told MTN News.
“The woman was very friendly and we tried to offer any reward for her or something for her inconvenience, and she said ‘my birthday is tomorrow and this is the best thing that I receive, giving him back to you.’ The person who did this chose the wrong vehicle because it had something more precious than gold in it,” she continued.
In an ironic twist, as Spaulding and her family were on their way to Ronan to get Onyx, they actually passed her Jeep racing past her in the opposite direction as it was being pursued by law enforcement.
She’s also decided to not leave her car running unlocked again.
Reporting by Jill Valley for MTN News