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Retired Marine credits smuggled dog from Iraq with alerting him to thieves

January 7, 2009 | 12:49 pm

Me_kd4eawnc A retired Marine officer is crediting the dog he smuggled home from Iraq with alerting him this morning that two thieves were trying to burglarize his wife’s car outside their La Jolla home.

Retired Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman said the 4-year-old dog, Lava, began growling and barking about 2 a.m. When Kopelman went outside to investigate, he saw two men inside his wife’s Subaru looking for items to steal. After running inside to grab a cellular phone, Kopelman followed the men in his car and called police.

Police arrested Joseph Anthony Verdugo, 29, and Leonard Eric Williams, 40, on burglary and drug charges, officials said. Williams has a felony warrant for a drug offense, officials said. While police officials discourage crime victims from attempting to make arrests, they said Kopelman acted properly by immediately calling police and letting them handle the apprehension.

Kopelman found Lava in Fallouja when the dog was a “flea-ridden mutt” and, against military rules, smuggled him home with the help of Marines, reporters and Iraqis. The tale is explored in his book, “From Baghdad, With Love.”

Kopelman is now executive director of the nonprofit Freedom Is Not Free foundation, which helps military personnel who have been wounded and the families of those who have been killed. He said he plans a steak dinner for Lava as a reward.

“This is the most fun I’ve had since I left Fallouja,” he said.

-- Tony Perry

Photo: Retired Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman and Lava in 2005. Credit: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times