TOPEKA (KSNT) – A Midwest charity group’s search for various treasured things they lost with a stolen car has 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 with nonprofit Operation Fetch. The van contained things like clothes, sleeping bags, medical supplies and some more expensive items like a brand new iPhone and a defibrillator. The van’s owners said some items that were taken were irreplaceable: two handmade quilts and a box containing the ashes of Gander the Service Dog.

A photo of Gander, “America’s Service Dog” (Courtesy Photo/Bob DesRuisseaux)

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 he passed away in 2020 from cancer. He has been recognized with several awards and even two documentaries that highlight the kindness Gander showed. The dog formed incredible bonds with people, and his owners said he was known to have a special talent.

“It’s hard to describe Gander,” said Bob DesRuisseaux, an advisory board member of Operation Fetch. “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 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 meant to be given away for charity and personal possessions, were taken when their van was stolen.

“It crushed everyone when these things got stolen,” Hodge said.

The van was found trashed around 1 a.m. the next day, according to DesRuisseaux. All of the items they meant give away were gone. Luckily, however, the small cedar box containing the remains of Gander was still there when they found the stolen van.

The recovery of Gander’s ashes and the stolen van was the beginning of a search that has lasted for months, as DesRuisseaux and Hodge continue to look for any sign of the missing quilts and other items that were taken the night the van was stolen. They posted a $500 reward asking for the return of both quilts, no questions asked. The two quilts feature unique pieces of art that each took a year to put together through the efforts of people from around the world. They donated individual squares that Tennessee woman Margaret Murphy then put together.

A close-up of the stolen quilt. (Courtesy Photo/Bob DesRuisseaux)

“The squares for the quilts were made all over the world,” DesRuisseaux said. “Those obviously mean a lot to a lot of people. Those and the ashes were really irreplaceable.”

The quilts were meant to be gifts to Hodge, who is a disabled veteran and was Gander’s handler or “Battle Buddy.” Many of the squares were covered in personal messages in remembrance of Gander.

Since the initial theft, the members of Operation Fetch have only had some success. They recovered the new iPhone after traveling around 650 miles to Cincinnati, Ohio, where someone sold it for $100 in a resale shop. The members think many of the items that weren’t worth were simply been thrown away.

“They found a trash can full of stuff when Bob and I went out,” Hodge said. “Anything they couldn’t pawn or sell right away were thrown away.”

The story has taken a turn recently though, as Operation Fetch said one of the two missing quilts was found on Tuesday this week. A Topeka man turned in the quilt on April 5, collecting $250 – half the reward for the two quilts – after reportedly 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 staked with a tent. The quilt also smelled strongly of campfire smoke. DesRuisseaux remarked that there was some irony in the quilt having ended up in a homeless camp.

“We had a feeling that it was very possible that someone had found them that really needed them,” DesRuisseaux said.

For Hodge and DesRuisseaux, they said the situation showed them not just the worst that the community has to offer, but also the best. The theft of the van, the charity items and the quilts has been brightened by the generosity and goodwill of the people who helped search and who raised money to post a reward for the quilts.

The quilt will be sent back to the Tennessee woman who made it. She will repair it while the search continues for the second quilt. The $250 reward for the second quilt still stands, and Operation Fetch asked anyone with information regarding the location of the other quilt to reach out to DesRuisseaux via Facebook here or to Hodge on his Facebook here.

A photo of the stolen quilt shortly after it was found on Tuesday. (Photo Courtesy/Bob DesRuisseaux)

To learn more about Operation Fetch and the story of Gander the Service Dog, go to their Facebook here or their website here.