Ex-Marine, dog help cops snare alleged thieves

Man’s best friend, and keen senses, led an ex-Marine in La Jolla to discover - and help apprehend - a pair of alleged car thieves.

The suspects, who broke into a vehicle outside the ex-Marine’s home about 2 a.m. Jan. 7 in the 600 block of Gravilla Place, woke the sleeping residents.

“My dog started growling a bit, and I was already awake,” said the victim in the case, retired Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman. “He growled a second time, and I went outside in my underwear and saw a van parked in the middle of our street with its lights off.”

Kopelman’s dog, Lava, is a shepherd-husky mix that he rescued from Iraq when he was stationed there four years ago. The stray dog, only five weeks old when it was first found, was given the nickname of the Hawaii batallion that discovered him.

Kopelman said when he went outside he witnessed a man near the back of his wife’s car, then saw him close the back of the car and get in the van.

Tracking them down

“I ran into the house, grabbed my jeans, my car keys and a cell phone,” said Kopelman, who followed the van up the street. When the van parked a few blocks up the street, Kopelman turned on his high-beam headlights.

At that point, the van’s occupants realized they’d been discovered and Kopelman said they took off at 50 to 60 mph fleeing the scene. Kopelman followed them through Bird Rock and into northern Pacific Beach.

“I had been talking to the 911 operator all the time,” he said. “They directed police to intercept us in Pacific Beach in the Tourmaline area.”

Facing charges

With the victim’s assistance, Northern Division patrol officers located the suspects at 800 Sapphire St. Joseph Anthony Verdugo, 29, and Leonard Eric Williams, 40, were arrested and booked into San Diego Central Jail early Jan. 7 morning.

Charges include burglary, conspiracy to commit a crime and possession of a controlled substance. Williams was also booked on an outstanding felony warrant.

San Diego Police Department officials recommend that crime victims not try and take suspects into custody on their own. In this case, SDPD said the victim did an exemplary job in notifying police immediately and allowing the patrol officers to handle the apprehension and arrest of the suspects.

Kopelman is executive director of Freedom Is Not Free, an organization that assists the families of wounded and mortally wounded soldiers, helping them with life enhancement and financial assistance. For information call (858) 847-9999 or visit