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St. Paul couple's connection to suspect in show dog theft helps reunite dog with owner

James and Tara Wirtz say they saw an image of the man believed to be the suspect online, and immediately recognized him as a close family friend.

ST PAUL, Minn. — It was a reunion three days in the making from a heart of gratitude for Michelle Baker. 

"You saved my dog's life," said Baker as she hugged James Wirtz, the man credited with locating her dog. 

It was over the weekend that Baker’s minivan was stolen in South St. Paul, and in it, her prized boxer, Jasper.

"The amount of love for this dog and just everybody; everybody was praying. I mean, this is a miracle," said Baker. 

A miracle because Jasper spent 60 hours locked in a cage inside Baker’s van in subzero temperatures, as people across the community tried to find him. 

"So much good has come of this. I have never experienced the amount of humanity and support from people I don’t know," said Baker. 

People like James and Tara Wirtz, who saw an image of the man believed to be the suspect posted online, and immediately recognized him as a close family friend. 

"He was my best friend and I grew up with him. He became my best man in my wedding," said James. 

James and his wife say they immediately started making the rounds to every location they knew where the suspect spent his time, leading them to St. Paul’s Payne-Phalen neighborhood. 

"Luckily enough, we ended up seeing the van," said Tara. 

In it was was a shaking and thirsty Jasper. 

"As soon as we seen him pop his head up, I'm like, 'He's alive, he's ok.' Like, 'We got him,'" said Tara.

It’s a happy ending to a story that gripped the hearts of many across the community, saving not just a dog’s life, but perhaps the life of a friend gone astray. 

"He’s been stuck in survival mode for a long time, you know, being on the streets, bouncing house to house, not having anywhere to go when it's ice cold out," said James of his friend and the suspect. 

He went on to say with tears in his eyes, "I hate that it got to this point. I mean, he’s been there for me in rough times for me so I guess it just hurts to see him go the way he did.”

"I really want to believe that this is going to change his life for the better. It's easy to go down a bad path to make a bad choice, and make another, and maybe he’s going to get the help that he needs," said Baker. 

James and his wife Tara were able to talk the suspect into turning himself in and he is now in custody. 

On Wednesday, the Dakota County Attorney's Office charged the man with one count of theft of a motor vehicle and one count of driving after cancellation of inimical to public safety.

His first court hearing is scheduled for Thursday morning. 

RELATED: Prize-winning show dog, stolen van recovered

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