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  • Phone: 970-328-2680
    Fax: 970-328-2687

    Eagle County Regional Airport
    P.O. Box 850
    Eagle, Colorado 81631

    Physical Address:
    219 Eldon Wilson Road
    Gypsum, Colorado 81637  

Lost: diamond ring; Found: honest man and caring community

 Kathy Heicher, on behalf of Eagle County

Last February, part-time Eagle County residents Roger Ward and his wife, Janis Wackenhut Ward, lost an extremely valuable diamond ring … then found a caring community and an incredibly honest stranger. The payback took place over Christmas week in Vail, with happy endings all around.

The story started on a hectic day last February when the Wards, part-time Cordillera residents (a second home community west of Vail), headed to the Eagle County Airport to catch a flight back to their Miami home. In the car, Janis slipped off her diamond ring and dropped it into her lap in order to apply hand lotion.

The ring is unique. Roger, a retired businessman, had purchased the approximate 12 karat yellow diamond at an estate sale, then commissioned a jeweler to design a special ring commemorating the couple’s 30th wedding anniversary. “It was something that she cherished,” he notes.

Unfortunately, in the bustle of catching a plane, Janis forgot about the ring in her lap and exited the car at the airport. The ring dropped to the pavement in the baggage-unloading lane.
The Wards boarded their flight, unaware that the ring was missing until they reached their home in Miami late that evening.

Janis immediately realized what had likely happened to the jewelry. The distraught couple contacted American Airlines, who in turn placed a call to airport administration. The following morning in the midst of a heavy snowstorm the county’s curbside staff, along with American Airline employees began searching. They walked the ramps, scoured the parking lot and baggage area and dug through plowed snow, looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

They could not find the missing ring.

Unknown to the Wards and the airport staff, the ring had been found shortly after it was lost. Mark Epple of Minneapolis and his wife, Karen, were headed back home after a skiing vacation at Beaver Creek with friends. Hustling to catch their flight at the Eagle County Airport, Epple happened to look down at the curb as he unloaded suitcases. Something shiny caught his eye. He picked up what proved to be a sizable ring.

Initially, he assumed it was a piece of costume jewelry. In a hurry to depart, he dropped the ring into his pocket, figuring he would deal with it when he got back home. Once home, he took a closer look at the slightly dented jewelry, which appeared to have been run over by a car. Noting the weight and the shine of the jewelry, he locked in the family safe, then e-mailed the airport’s lost and found department and left a message indicating he may have found something of value.

Airport employees immediately put Ward in touch with Epple. Ward described the missing ring, and then sent Epple a photograph of the jewelry to confirm his story. A Brinks courier delivered the ring back to Miami, where the original jeweler made some structural repairs. All of the diamonds were intact.

Epple refused Ward’s offer of a reward, saying he knew it was right to return to the Wards what was rightfully theirs. He viewed the incident as a lesson for his three kids. His 11-year-old son, Jacob, had recently been the victim of a bike theft at school, and knew what it felt like to lose a valued possession. “You try to teach them the right thing. If you return something that belongs to somebody else, you shouldn’t expect to have rewards,” Epple says. He is a bit embarrassed by the attention the incident has generated. “I think most people would have done the same thing,” he notes.

The reward
Ward and his wife were overwhelmed by Epple’s honesty. “I travel all over the world. This is extraordinary. It never happens,” insists Ward.

In their phone conversations back and forth, Ward learned that Epple, an architect, had recently been laid off of work. The ring, Ward noted, likely has a value equivalent to a couple of years of salary for an architect. Their phone conversations (they have not yet met in person) also revealed Epple’s passion for Colorado skiing. Ward offered the use of his Cordillera home for an Epple family ski vacation.

In October, a hesitant Epple contacted Ward and asked if the vacation house offer still held. Of course, it did. “He and his family are most welcome. I’m sure he will take care of the house much as he did with the ring,” says Ward, who arranged for the home to be fully stocked for the visit. The Epple family (Mark, Karen, Jacob, Zoe and Soren) and a couple of family friends arrived for their ski vacation on Dec. 26. They hit the slopes at Vail and Beaver Creek and stayed in the Ward’s home.

Ward says that in addition to recovering the ring, he and his wife gained greater appreciation of the community that is their part-time home. “I wouldn’t have found the response I got at Eagle County Airport anywhere else in the world. This just shows that we are a community with values,” Ward notes.