Cool Hand Luke's Long Trek Leads to a Short Leash

Times Staff Writer

It was a scene straight from the movies.

He races, panting, across the hot airport tarmac, joy in his eyes, a grin plastered across his face. As she holds out her arms, the breeze ripples through her blond hair. For a breathless instant the two embrace.

Then she stands, brushes the dog hair from her jeans and reaches for a Milk-Bone.

"Come here, Luke," Sherry Lomeli croons to the dog at her feet. "Here's the baby. Cool Hand Luke, I thought we'd never, ever see you."

Ten days after the dog disappeared from Lomeli's Westminster home, he turned up 2,300 miles away, in the Toledo, Ohio, suburb of Maumee. On Saturday, Lomeli and her prodigal pup were reunited in the air cargo yard of Los Angeles International Airport.

Like his cinema namesake played by Paul Newman in the 1967 prison classic, Cool Hand Luke is a hard dog to keep in one place. Usually, Lomeli said Saturday, he confines his escapes to short jaunts in search of female companionship.

But on St. Patrick's Day, Luke broke out of Lomeli's gated backyard and vanished. For days, Lomeli and her son, David Elliston, combed the neighborhood and searched the county dog pound for their beloved Labrador retriever-boxer mix.

Their efforts were in vain. Then on Friday, the telephone rang--long distance from Ohio--and Cool Hand Luke's long journey home began.

Last Monday morning, Maumee police were alerted that a large dog had startled a small child, and a concerned parent had confined the fugitive canine to his backyard. An animal control officer was called in, checked the dog's rabies vaccination tag and ultimately contacted Lomeli by telephone.

An anonymous donor chipped in the $300 for a plane ticket and a traveling cage. Early Saturday, Cool Hand Luke was loaded onto Piedmont Airlines Flight 3. Six hours later, he was gamboling in California again.

"It's him, it's him," a delighted Lomeli crowed. "He looks exhausted and he's lost weight. . . . Oh, God, it's wonderful. He's like family to us. Doesn't he look happy to see us?"

The dog was back, but the question remained: How could a mid-size dog travel 2,300 miles with no wear and tear on the paws?

"Where have you been all this time, and how did you get there?" a drooling Luke was asked, as his loved ones hugged and petted him in the airport parking lot.

Cool Hand Luke looked up, panted and drooled some more. He sat mute and uncomprehending. The mystery may never be solved, for what we have here is a failure to communicate.

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