Cadaver Dogs Sniff Out the Clues

Highly Trained Canines Help Police Solve Mysteries, Including Murders

Chandra Ann Levy, a 24-year-old graduate student from University of Southern California, was last seen alive near her D.C. apartment April 30, 2001. (AP)

METRO (The Washington Post, June 11, 2002)
Dyed Cash Found Near Levy Site (The Washington Post, June 10, 2002)
METRO (The Washington Post, June 9, 2002)
Levy Find Casts Shadow on Police (The Washington Post, June 8, 2002)
Special Report: About Chandra Levy E-Mail This Article

By Susan Levine, Washington Post Staff Writer, Thursday, June 13, 2002; Page B03

They get called out on cases for one reason: They can smell death. It leads them to the bodies, lost in scummy ponds, hidden by dense brush, buried two feet under. It leads them to the bones, because even years later, a
telltale scent can linger on the skeletonized detritus of a human being. Nose to the ground, they catch a whiff -- and often help solve a mystery or a murder.
In the weeks since Chandra Levy's remains were discovered on a steep, tangled slope of Rock Creek Park, D.C. police have requested assistance from the four-legged searchers. Despite cheery names like Glory or Jolie, Allen Rossi's Beauceron bitch, as a group they are known by a decidedly chilling description: Cadaver dogs.
Some critics of how the department has conducted the Levy investigation say cadaver dogs should have been
deployed extensively during officers' initial sweep of the park last summer. Given the animals' smarts and skills, many find it ironic that an untrained pooch, merely passing by, was the canine to find the Washington intern's remains.
The men and women who own the search dogs are far too circumspect to voice such opinion. But they swear by
their partners, who proved themselves at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, who have been flown around the country and the world, to mudslides in Puerto Rico, earthquakes in Armenia. "She hasn't let me down," Jane Servais of Rockville said of Glory, her 7 1/2-year-old Australian shepherd. Servais does this as a volunteer; her day job is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In fact, the nation's search-and-rescue network is overwhelmingly an unpaid force. The searchers buy their own dogs, cover their own expenses, do their own training and take their own work leave when their support is needed.
That can be at any hour of the day or night. Last weekend, numerous teams spent hot and fatiguing hours trying to narrow territory for a pair of Maryland investigations. The greater Washington region has at least four prominent search-and-rescue organizations, including Mid-Atlantic D.O.G.S., to which Servais belongs. In 2001, members helped on 18 cases as far afield as the Midwest.
"They are very dedicated," said Officer Alice Hanan of the Maryland-National Capital Park Police, one of only two local departments with cadaver dogs. Hanan works with Stryker, a German shepherd with quite a reputation, yet she has nothing but praise for her volunteer counterparts. "In this area, they're top of the line, as good as any law enforcement canine."
The question is how the dogs do it -- how they trace the microscopic particles and unseen gases that a corpse gives off. To put it delicately, there are five stages of decomposition. A human nose can smell the pungently malodorous stage of major decay, as well as the cheesy or musty smell of a body on its way toward mummification. But a knowledgeable dog can perceive putrefaction from start to finish, and from a considerable distance if conditions are right.
The animals and their handlers may specialize. Some focus on water detection. A few have become adept at
archaeological searches. Eleven-year-old Eagle, a celebrated Doberman-pointer mix from Michigan, recently surveyed a golf course on Mackinac Island where American and British troops fought a bloody battle nearly two centuries ago. "We don't know what is too deep, what is too subtle," said Eagle's owner, Sandra Anderson, who several years ago took him to Panama to look for victims of Manuel Noriega's terrorizing reign. "We just don't know about that olfactory."
Not every canine has the talent, though, and even the best require lengthy and continual training. Stryker arrived from Czechoslovakia when he was 13 months old. A failed patrol candidate -- a "doggie-bite-school dropout," according to Hanan -- he immediately excelled in the pursuit of narcotics and, since 1998, bodies. She began with him by "imprinting" the odors of human remains through repetitive exercises.

Many handlers initially use a manufactured chemical that replicates some of the odors. Then they graduate to field work. Hanan keeps a strange variety of aids in the back of her police truck -- a bagged, rotting squirrel, human bones obtained through a legitimate Internet source, a knife with traces of her own blood, soil samples from past crime scenes -- and on any given workday, she may pull over as she drives her beat in Montgomery County and put Stryker through his paces in a convenient wooded area.
He generally works off leash, chest up, tail up, keying off her specific commands to find or seek. He knows to ignore other interesting smells and rarely disappoints, "indicating" his discovery in his unique way by pawing and barking excitedly. "He loves it," Hanan said, rewarding Stryker with his favorite tug toy.
Weather can greatly affect any dog's success. Heavy rain stacks the odds because it keeps scent down. A hot day moves the scent straight up, which also is not conducive to good searching. Still, in their career together, Hanan and Stryker have recorded 16 finds, from bodies and scattered remains of them to blood evidence and rape crime scenes.
Like other teams, they have made believers of onetime skeptics in law enforcement. "I never foresaw that it would gain as much acceptance as it has," said Andrew Rebmann, a retired Connecticut state trooper who taught one of the country's pioneering cadaver dogs in the late 1970s and is now the field's leading expert.
His phone in Washington state rings constantly with requests for searches and instruction. Hanan trained with him, and she in turn trained the three D.C. police officers who began working with cadaver dogs within the last year. King, another German shepherd, was among the first at the Pentagon after Sept. 11. As he went to work, finding tiny pieces of tissue that recovery crews had missed, FBI officials did a turnabout. "They'd said, 'Let's see what you can do,' " remembered his handler, D.C. police officer James Lugaila. Suddenly, the attitude was, "How many dogs can you get?"
Staff writers Petula Dvorak and Allan Lengel contributed to this report.

2002 The Washington Post Company