A nose for forensics: Local canine group brings closure in cases of tragedy

Written by Eliza Ridgeway - Town Crier Staff Writer
Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Los Altos Police Detective John Korges and his dog, Karson, prepare for forensic search practice in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Karson is training for certification as a human-remains detection dog with the Santa Clara County Sheriffs Department. On a sunny afternoon last month, a group of local dog owners and their canines converged at a tree farm off Highway 17 with some unexpected training tools. In addition to liver treats and tennis balls, they brought human teeth and bones and vials of donated blood. The dogs were alert as they waited together in the grass, sharp-eyed collies and shepherds, with a rottweiler and a Doberman pinscher in the mix.

These working dogs, and their handlers, specialize in an unusual kind of search and rescue - they practice forensic human remains detection.

More than a dozen locals, including Los Altos Police Detective John Korges and Los Altos Hills resident Dick Taylor, volunteer with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department as a Canine Specialized Search Team (CSST).

The teams help communities recover remains at disaster sites, and can bring resolution to missing-persons and suspected murder cases.

Korges investigates criminal cases in Los Altos by day. In his off hours, he trains the family dog, 3-year-old German shepherd Karson, as a forensic specialist.

“He (is) very quiet, very stable. But you can tell he’s in the mood to work,” Korges said. “I love the ability of this dog to tell me what you and I can’t see.”

Korges and Karson’s extracurricular study comes in handy for everyday Los Altos police business as well. When a resident brought a big bone to the police station, exhumed from the backyard, Korges whipped out his textbooks to rule out human origin at the same time he forwarded it to the medical examiner’s office for an official ruling. The verdict: probably a long-lost cow.

Two weekends ago, CSST members including Korges and Palo Alto resident Shirley Hammond headed north to the Redding area to assist in the search for a 70-year-old man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease who had been missing for a month. Local authorities wanted to find remains and definitively identify the deceased after a domestic dog brought home a human skull suspected of belonging to the missing man. Hammond’s Doberman pinscher Twist found the remains in question in a drainage area 400 yards from a road, Korges reported, though official identification is pending.

“It just shows you the effectiveness of the dogs,” Korges said.

Hills resident Dick Taylor took up volunteer work as a dog handler upon retirement nearly 20 years ago after reading about search and rescue in a veterinarian’s office. He and his golden retriever Hooper have more age than some of the other volunteers, but they are still active in wilderness searches throughout the state.

“He’s as healthy as a puppy and runs miles with me,” Taylor said. “He may outlast me – I’m going to be 72 pretty soon and he’s going to be 9.”

Taylor said he and Hooper prefer searching for living people, and he volunteers with the California Rescue Dog Association and Yosemite Search and Rescue as well as doing forensic searches with CSST. Having both kinds of training is important for a search team. In the past, Taylor saw searches where dogs didn’t alert on a body because they were looking only for a live human.

Hooper goes along on canoeing trips – he has even run rapids with Taylor – and is certified to search for submersed bodies. Taylor paddles along a lake or river while Hooper hangs his nose over the side of the boat. He can sniff out humans as far as 40-50 feet below the surface.

“You never get used to it,” Taylor said of the intense work. “One day I was searching in a lake across from where an 18- or 20-year-old had fallen out of a boat and drowned. Sitting up on the bank all day, watching us, was her father. All he wanted was to recover his daughter. You know you are doing something useful, even though it is not the highlight of your day.”

Searching for bones, hoping for tennis balls
At the recent training session amid the trees of the Santa Cruz Mountains, handlers brought grave dirt, a blood-soaked rag and a human vertebra and tibia to hide in the forest. Bones can be purchased legally online, and the group receives donations as well – teeth from a dentist, a placenta from a midwife and cremains donated through a funeral home.

During the training, CSST member Kris Black’s German shepherd Klaus hung out in the back of her truck nursing sore paws – he had just returned from a vigorous missing-person search in the mountains at about 8,500 feet and needed to rest.

Sometimes it’s a glamorous life – Klaus once air-deployed out of a Black Hawk helicopter in a missing-person search – but a visitor wouldn’t know it, watching the dogs loll in the grass at the tree farm waiting to search.

“They have an interesting job, but they’re still just pups,” Korges said. “(Karson’s) big reward is a tennis ball with a parachute cord on it. … Play is critical.”

Karson gets a little food treat every time he alerts on a piece of remains, and he gets to party with the ball at the end of the search.

These human-dog teams specialize in a subject that is difficult to talk about, and handlers watch their word choice as they try to express practical details with an understanding of the human tragedies they evoke. Forensic search dogs are called in high-risk missing persons cases, where age and infirmity, mental illness or evidence of potential suicide suggests that searchers might be as likely to find a body as a living person.

The dogs help answer families’ questions, find evidence in murder cases and identify unanticipated fatalities in building fires.

“He gives closure to a family,” Korges said of Karson’s work.

At disaster scenes, such as the World Trade Center after 9/11 and the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building after the Oklahoma City bombing, the dogs help retrieve bodies for burial. Local CSST dogs flew to New York and Oklahoma, as well as to Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake and to the crash site of the shuttle Columbia in 2003.

Many of the dogs receive cross-training – some of them specializing in finding living humans as well as the deceased, while others have a particular knack for finding centuries-old graves or bodies submersed in water. The dog handlers in this area, all of them volunteers, have been developing standards and methodology for the work as they go, and take their certification processes seriously – the dog’s ability to identify human remains accurately needs to be able to stand up in court.

“I searched for Polly Klaas early in my search career, later Laci Peterson and many lost people in between. A lot of us went over to search for Nina Reiser,” Taylor said, referring to the recent East Bay case of a missing mother whose remains were found in an Oakland park.

Because the dogs sometimes search people’s homes and vehicles for evidence during criminal investigations, they are taught to be delicate and not damage personal property.

Trainers develop their own individualized “alert” languages with their dogs – Karson indicates a find by sitting down on his haunches and pointing his nose or paw at the object of interest. They log all the dogs’ training, because the records come into play when the dogs must “testify” in court cases – their credentials build their credibility.

Karson is completing an 18-month certification course to become an official volunteer for the Santa Clara County Coroner’s Office. As such, Korges said with pride, “my dog can formulate probable cause.”

Human-remains detection dogs learn to ignore fresh human scents and animal scents, and are trained to canvass an area methodically, sniffing for older biological traces. The dogs can detect buried bodies, bodies in many pieces and residual blood, hair or teeth. The handlers also get an education, learning orienteering, criminal procedures and report writing, hazardous materials awareness and canine first aid.

Some of the CSST volunteers train their dogs to perform historical forensic searches, finding lost or forgotten burial grounds from different groups that populated the early American West, including Native Americans, Chinese railroad workers and Caucasian settlers.

Canine archaeologists are new to the scene, and the Bay Area is home to some of the earliest pioneers in canine historical forensic work. Dog handler Adela Morris and other CSST members are directors at the Institute for Canine Forensics.

“There’re probably 15 teams in the world doing this. We’ve developed this technique,” Morris said.

Dog handler Eva Cecil has been working with her border collie Nessie at ancient gravesites in Europe. First she had to convince the local archaeologists that Nessie wouldn’t dig, retrieve or chew on the bones she found.

“I’m not helping them at this point,” she said, “they’re helping me imprint this dog.”

But the training paid dividends last year, when Nessie found an undiscovered gravesite outside Prague dating back to approximately A.D. 400. It included the skeletal remains of a man – probably of Slavic origin – as well as an intact glass vase.

Contact Eliza Ridgeway at elizar@latc.com