Rambo, a 3½-year-old black Labrador retriever mix, found himself more than 900 miles away from home last week after he jumped out of a pickup in the parking lot of a Perry restaurant while his owner was at lunch.
Two well-meaning women found Rambo outside the KFC on Sam Nunn Boulevard and mistook the collarless dog for a stray. Thinking they were saving him, they picked him up and took him with them -- all the way to Lansing, Michigan, where they live.
Rambo's multi-state adventure began after Richard Stephens, of Rochelle, and his brother stopped at the restaurant March 11. Rambo, who goes everywhere with Stephens, normally rides in the bed of his master's pickup and waits for him there. But not that day.
After walking out of the restaurant, Stephens didn't see Rambo in the truck. He whistled for him, but he didn't come. Stephens went back inside to ask if anyone had seen anything.
An employee said she saw two women putting a black lab in the back of their car, Stephens recalled. He appealed to Police Chief Steve Lynn to help him find his four-legged best friend. Lynn assigned the missing-dog case to police Capt. Heath Dykes, head of the detective division.
Stephens said that when he sat down with Dykes, he knew he "had the right man to find that dog if he could be found."
He said Dykes told him, "Either today I'm going to exhaust every avenue and find this dog, or I'm going to satisfy you that we don't have anything to go on and that he can't be found. And you can go home and lay your head down and know that everything was done that can be done and put it in God's hands."
Dykes said he could tell Stephens loved his dog.
"He told me right out the gate, 'I'm going to tell you this dog is like a family member. I don't know if you've got a pet or not, but he's just like one of my kids.'"
In the days following Rambo's disappearance, Stephens returned to Perry each day to look for him. He put up fliers and posted Rambo's picture with a $1,000 reward offer on Facebook. The Perry Police Department also posted the reward and the dog's photo on its Facebook page.
Meanwhile, Dykes enlisted the help of police Detective Jason Jones. The detectives were able to pull the surveillance video from the restaurant from the day Rambo went missing. The video didn't reveal the women's license plate but showed they paid with a credit card. Going through receipts, the detectives hit on a name and made contact through Facebook, Dykes said.
"It was kind of an unusual circumstance," he said. "We kind of lucked up on that one. We got that little break."
A meeting was arranged at a Michigan dog park after Stephens produced proof that Rambo was his dog. Stephens and his brother made a nearly 2,000-mile round trip to retrieve Rambo. They left for Michigan at 2 a.m. Wednesday.
But Stephens would have to pass one final test: Rambo would have to come to him when called before the woman was fully convinced of Stephens' ownership.
Needless to say, it was a tail-wagging happy ending for Rambo.
"I do respect what she did," Stephens said of the woman who thought she was rescuing Rambo. "I like dogs, too. Might have done the same thing myself."
Stephens returned home with Rambo on Thursday morning.
"It was a pretty happy reunion," he said.
Stephens said he was grateful to the restaurant employee, Perry police and everyone on Facebook who helped in Rambo's search. He said he plans to divvy up the reward money between the restaurant employee and Perry police -- or at least buy Perry police officers lunch.
He said he also got something for Rambo: a collar.
To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559 or find her on Twitter @becpurser.