A four-day police search for a prizewinning pooch named Lord Wilton, a Pomeranian who disappeared from a show in Western Maryland, came to an end this week when authorities learned that he hadn't been dognapped but was caught in a custody dispute.
Champion Candyfloss Lord Wilton vanished Friday from the Allegany County Fairgrounds in Cumberland after winning the best-in-breed prize at a dog show there. Searching for what they thought was a dognapper, authorities set up roadblocks around the fairgrounds to check exiting vehicles and called airports and rental car agencies, asking if anyone had seen the missing dog.
Lord Wilton, held by handler Maynard Wood after winning at a previous show, is the subject of a custody battle between his two owners, one in California and the other in Ohio.
Not until Monday did they learn that Lord Wilton was in the possession of one of its owners, Hideko Strasbaugh, who lives in California. Police said Strasbaugh and co-owner Bonnie Stetson have been feuding and that Strasbaugh or someone cooperating with her managed to spirit Lord Wilton away from the show while Stetson was in the restroom.
"I find it amazing that anybody with any responsibility on earth would have this dog and not inform someone," Stetson, who lives in Ohio, said yesterday. "It's like an act of terrorism. Everybody at that dog show is terrorized because the dog was gone."
Sgt. James Pyles, an Allegany police detective, said the department spoke with an attorney for Strasbaugh late Monday and is satisfied that no crime was committed. "It's a custodial issue on the dog," Pyles said. "It's going to be strictly a civil matter."
Hideko Strasbaugh's husband, James Strasbaugh, would not comment on the nature of the custody dispute, referring questions to the attorney, who did not return a telephone message.
The weekend of intrigue surrounding Lord Wilton offers a glimpse into the close-knit, competitive world of dog shows. Owners and handlers often invest heavily -- financially and emotionally -- in breeding and caring for their high-maintenance animals. As many as four or five people might share the responsibility for one dog, all in the hopes that it will achieve national recognition and bring in high prices for breeding.
Stetson first laid eyes on Lord Wilton at a national show for Pomeranians in March 2003. He was just a pup then, part of the Candyfloss kennel in California, run by Strasbaugh, a longtime acquaintance of Stetson's.
"It was instant love," Stetson later wrote of Lord Wilton on a Web site that she maintains for the dog.
When Strasbaugh became ill, she gave Stetson co-ownership of the dog. Stetson said that since April, she has spent more than $50,000 on Lord Wilton, advertising him in dog magazines, paying his handler and other helpers, transporting him all over the country and entering him in shows. "I told [the police] he was worth six figures overseas," Stetson said yesterday. "Wilton was going to be a top show dog."
His handler, Maynard Wood, runs a 5 1/2-acre dog care center in Waynesboro, Va., where Lord Wilton lived, running in the woods and playing with one of his favorite toys, a stuffed lavender puppy. Stetson and Wood have traveled widely together to shows, and Lord Wilton has earned enough points to be considered a champion Pomeranian, Stetson said.
Last weekend's show was supposed to bring Lord Wilton a step closer to the title of the nation's top Pomeranian. With his fluffy, reddish-gold fur and sparkly personality, Stetson said, anything was possible.
He was named the top in his breed Friday by the Laurel Highlands Kennel Association, which organized the show with the Upper Potomac Valley Kennel Club. Wood put Lord Wilton back in his crate, then brought the crate to the grooming area, where Stetson was waiting proudly. Wood then left to show a miniature Pinscher, and Stetson walked around the corner to use the restroom.
When she returned, Lord Wilton and his crate were gone.
Stetson said she immediately called the police. Other dog owners ran to make sure their own four-legged loved ones were safe, then began hunting for the three-pound Pomeranian. Terry Carpenter, Lord Wilton's assistant handler, began to cry.
" 'They kidnapped my son,' " Stetson recalled him saying. "That's how much this dog meant to him."