WATERBURY, Vt. — For 559 days he avoided capture, crisscrossing the backyards and backwoods of this tourist town in old sawmill country, skirting tumbledown barns and farm-to-table restaurants, nosing amid rusting vans and blown-glass art galleries, while swiping food and sleeping in snowbanks.
On his way to folk hero status, long before he reunited with his family last weekend, Murphy the golden retriever appeared multiple times outside the Ben & Jerry's Factory, hunkered down at a Fairfield Inn construction site — a 3-year-old enchanted by excavators — and dashed out of the woods at the local reservoir to swipe a training dummy a woman had tossed into the water for her bird-dog pups.
With his saucer eyes and russet coat, Murphy had quickly won over Ed and Pat Hamel when their granddaughter brought him back from Vermont's Northeast Kingdom in 2011. He fetched Pat's slippers and lazed on the linoleum when she tinkered in the kitchen; he joined Ed for long walks in the woods to find moose antlers, never needing a leash.
Until June 29, 2014, that is, when Murphy bolted after enduring a car crash in Stowe with the Hamels' granddaughter, Kirstin Campbell. Traumatized, he kept running — immune to the cheerful calls of, "Here, Murph!" that had always brought him skipping back with his tail wagging.
He did not go far, but for 19 months — through a ferocious winter — he wouldn't return. The crash probably triggered a "survival mode" in which he saw even his owners as a threat, said Erika Holm, an animal control officer who spent hundreds of hours on the search. If they could get Murphy home, she hoped, a "light bulb" would go off.
He resisted the allure of favorite squeak toys and blankets sprayed liberally with the perfume he once loved licking off of Pat. He outsmarted a series of pressure- and electric-eye-activated safety traps. It got to the point that Ed, a 64-year-old electrician, spent several nights lying in a pasture under an overturned canoe, waiting with a bazooka-style net gun that would, if successful, entangle the dog. Murphy appeared in the moonlight, Ed pulled the trigger — and that failed, too.
With his frequent appearances, Murphy became the talk of Morrisville, where the Hamels live, and the ski-resort haven of Stowe and especially Waterbury, where Murphy favored a few square miles off Route 100.
In a village evoking Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," an ensemble cast pitched in, relaying sightings by phone and sharing tips via the online Front Porch Forum. Anyone who had owned a dog shared the Hamels' anxiety and sense of loss; everyone who spotted Murphy wanted to help.
They tried a pet detective and an animal psychic, but still Murphy remained a furtive fugitive, moving around mostly at night, retreating once more into the woods.
His adventure began on an ordinary afternoon when Campbell, living with her grandparents, took Murphy tubing on the Little River. As usual, the dog splashed in a life jacket as the 23-year-old sipped beer and floated amid friends.
Driving back, Campbell caught a tire on the side of the road, swerved, and slammed into a tree. She climbed out and opened a rear door to check on Murphy, who immediately ran.
People started spotting the dog, plotting a scattershot course to Waterbury, 20 miles from home. He lit up motion-activated backyard "game" cameras, foraged in a mobile-home park, and bedded down in a Christmas tree farm. So many people spotted him that Wilson Ring, a 58-year-old Associated Press reporter, felt a tad left out. Then he saw Murphy from his kitchen window.
With a bucket of food, Ring began luring Murphy closer to his house, a day at a time. He contacted Hamel, and the men constructed a trap with a pressure plate to trigger the door. They left it open for days, allowing Murphy to grow comfortable eating inside. But whenever they set the trap, they got foiled — by a door that froze open, by Murphy's fast reflexes.
With each failure, they had to start anew, taking weeks to regain Murphy's trust. "He was so aware of his surroundings that if you changed anything, it would upset him and he wouldn't come," said Hamel, a no-nonsense Vermonter awed by everything Ring did for a dog and a family he'd never previously met.
Finally, on Feb. 12, Murphy crawled in, and the door dropped behind him. But when Ring went to check the trap, he learned Murphy had gnawed through the wire and escaped.
To help, a feed store donated better wire. A butcher contributed overripe prime rib to put out for him, and a company called Vermont Raw ponied up sustainable pet food. The would-be rescuers persevered.
"Once you start this, you can't stop," Ring said. "You either catch him or you quit when he's dead, and we were really worried."
Sometimes Murphy would stay away for weeks, giving them all a scare. "Then, bang!" Hamel said. "He'd pop up."
They switched to an electric-eye sensor. But like a cinematic thief crawling under light beams, Murphy consistently extracted the food dish without tripping the electric eye.
Ring started spreading food directly on the trap's floor — which caused Murphy to linger while he ate. Eventually, the dog caught the electric eye and the trap closed.
"We've got him!" Ring said when he called the other searchers late last Saturday night. Though some feared Murphy might have turned vicious, he gently licked Ring's hand through the mesh.
Arriving quickly, Holm, the animal control officer, erected temporary fencing around the trap, climbed in, and let Murphy out. He lapped her face. She slipped a harness on him, attaching two leashes. Then she and Ring led Murphy slowly to the garage, for a reunion with the exulting Hamels. He sniffed cautiously at first, but soon he was ready to jump into Ed's truck — on a leash, of course.
Though Murphy's tail was splayed from sticky burrs, his coat was full and glossy; he even seemed to have gained weight. Back home after 3 a.m., he followed the Hamels upstairs. Then he curled up at the foot of their bed, like he'd never been gone at all.