AP NEWS
Related topics

Iowa women train dogs to recover those missing and dead

January 13, 2019

MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa (AP) — Marsha Patterson’s bloodhound, Bullet, walked in circles, sniffing.

The 6-year-old dog had been given the scent of a woman in the nearby woods, and he was smelling the ground and air, searching for the odor and its path. Patterson asked him, almost egging him on: “Where’d she go?”

Bullet’s head darted in one direction, briefly yanking Patterson.

“Here we go,” she said.

Running past the trees of Timmons Grove County Park in Marshalltown, she watched her dog, reading its body language.

The duo headed off the hiking trail when a woman hidden behind a large tree took off sprinting. “Get her, boy!” Patterson shouted.

It was an average December morning for the women. The routine was practice — the woman in the forest, Cheri Sorensen, was also a canine handler — but during a real emergency, people’s lives depend on their skills, years in the making.

The women are among a handful of independent canine handlers who rigorously train and swiftly deploy their man-trailing and cadaver dogs across Iowa as volunteers, assisting law enforcement in searches for the missing and the dead.

Their goal, as one handler put it: “Find the lost and bring them home.”

Search and rescue groups in Iowa have been evolving for more than two decades. Teams formed and split throughout the years.

Patterson, a farmer trained as a firefighter and emergency medical technician, and Sorensen, an artist known for her detailed paintings of animals, were once on “warring crews,” as they put it.

The two met through Kevin Kocher, a handler who co-founded a bloodhound training institute and wrote what one of the women called “the bible” for starting a trailing dog. Kocher, who lived in Virginia, taught them at separate seminars and suggested Patterson, of rural Jasper County, and Sorensen, of Des Moines, practice together.

For Tammy Hansen, who started training with Patterson and Sorensen six years ago, search and rescue was a “divine calling.” A number of missing-person cases had hit close to home, where she lived in northern Iowa.

There were the unsolved killings of cousins Elizabeth Collins, 8, and Lyric Cook-Morrissey, 10. Their bodies were found months after they were abducted in July 2012 from Evansdale.

There were the May 2013 kidnappings of Kathlynn Shepard, 15, and Dezi Hughes, then 12, in Dayton. Hughes escaped, but the abductor murdered Shepard — whose body was found weeks later in the Des Moines River — before killing himself, police said.

Four months after that, there was the disappearance of Ethan Kazmerzak, then 22, who vanished after a party northwest of Hampton. He has not been seen since.

The cases sparked something in Hansen’s heart.

Deployed through law enforcement agencies, Hansen is now among the handlers who take calls day and night, during blistering hot summer days and severe winter storms, the Des Moines Register reported.

The handlers work as volunteers; they can’t imagine charging law enforcement, with their tight budgets, or agonized families for their services. Some departments fill their gas tanks or feed them, but past that, they insist: “This is our way of giving back.”

The coalition has no name, no hierarchy and no drama — just the way the handlers like it. They are simply friends with a passion for pursuing the unaccounted for.

The handlers may be called as many as five times a month; sometimes they go weeks without one.

Unlike most law enforcement dogs, which generally detect drugs or track ground disturbances, the women’s animals trail scents and smell skin follicles. Humans shed cells, creating a cloud of odor, the way dirt flew off Pig-Pen, the disheveled “Peanuts” character, Hansen said. That’s what the dogs follow over roads and through waterways.

Their dogs have a range of skills, each its own superpower: Some find remains, while others hunt any living human in an area. Jenn Hirakawa, an Army veteran who runs a canine facility in Winterset, was training one to find flash drives and other electronics.

And the sooner law enforcement officials call them, the better. Time is of the essence in a search for a missing person.

They have assisted in searches in other states, including Illinois, Kansas and South Dakota. An agency investigating a cold case called Patterson for her cadaver dog, a German shepherd named Tazor.

At a scene, the handlers give their dogs a scent from the missing person — whether it be a swab of their clothing or shoes, a hairbrush or bedding. The dogs then detect the freshest path of the scent.

Each handler has stories about finding someone: a missing boy, hidden in bushes; a wandering dementia patient, discovered at a bus stop; a fugitive, nabbed in a cornfield after he stole a car and led police on an extensive chase.

Sometimes, when a canine arrives at a search, family members of a missing person are looking for a miracle; the women just tell them they will do the best they can. The mother of a lost child once told Sorensen: “Please, please, tell me you’ll find him.”

“It’s always a heart-wrenching situation,” Hansen said. “Always.”

But when they do find a person’s loved one, it’s a rush. It’s why they practice for hours a week and spend hundreds of dollars of their own money to travel to the body farm at Western Carolina University and to a seminar put on by the Shreveport, Louisiana, fire department.

When Hansen first met the other trainers, she was unsure what to do. Now, she said, her 5-year-old Bracco Italiano, Tessa, is the only of her breed in the country that is certified in human remains detection, and other owners call her with questions.

The handlers’ training has created confidence in one another.

“I trust them with my life,” Hirakawa said. “If I was lost, I would hope that one of these people would be looking for me.”

During a November training at Ankeny’s Heritage Park, Hansen pulled a box out of her truck that contained charred bones and human teeth, among other things. She put on gloves to protect herself from biohazards and avoid contaminating the remains.

She placed some remains in a container near a tree and a rusty grill. To find a corpse, blood or bones, they practice with real body parts, which they legally obtain from medical examiners, other trainers and online stores with names like the Bone Room and Skulls Unlimited, Hansen said.

When a dog finds remains, it is trained to stop and, depending on the animal, bark, dig or sit, among other responses. The handlers reward their dogs with food.

Though it can be gruesome, the handlers rejoice with their dogs when they find remains. If they act disgusted, the dog might think it did something wrong.

When Hansen found Patterson, a Jasper County reserve deputy, silently crouching in a tree during an exercise, she patted her dog and cheered in a high-pitched voice.

“Good girl!” she hollered.

The extensive training has earned the women respect among law enforcement officials.

Jasper County Sheriff John Halferty, whose agency has a canine for detecting narcotics, called the coalition credible, the women humble and their work a public service. He has been a reference for the handlers, letting others know: “These people will help you.”

“These are some of the best working dogs I’ve ever seen,” said Halferty, who has been in law enforcement for more than 30 years. “They are an invaluable resource to us.”

It was a busy 2018 for the handlers, Hansen said, likely because more and more police personnel have learned of them through word of mouth. Recently, some assisted in searches for a kayaker among two overturned on a Cedar Rapids creek and Mollie Tibbetts, the University of Iowa student whose disappearance and killing drew national attention.

During the Tibbetts search, one of the largest in state history, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation said the number of missing juveniles was in line with historical trends, despite concerns spurred when the Brooklyn woman vanished.

More than 4,300 juveniles were reported missing in the 2017 fiscal year, an average of about 12 per day, the agency said. Typically, the lost children are runaways, a vast majority of whom were found or returned home within 24 hours.

Jake Wilson disappeared 60 hours before some of the handlers were called to La Porte City, about two hours northeast of Des Moines in Black Hawk County.

A 16-year-old boy with autism, Jake told his family he was going for a walk in April near Wolf Creek, which flows through town. He never came home.

After talking with Jake’s parents, Patterson gave a scent swab taken from the armpit of one of his sweatshirts to her bloodhound.

In a matter of minutes, Bullet went down the driveway and headed straight for the creek — the same path Jake’s stepfather had provided. The handlers then sent out the cadaver dogs, which again indicated he was in the water.

“The dogs say he is here,” Hansen said, “and they don’t lie.”

La Porte City Police Chief Chris Brecher followed the handlers as their dogs, which ran past dead rabbits and raccoons without flinching, sniffed for Jake’s scent. Hansen and one of her dogs worked on a boat while others searched the banks.

Brecher called the creek his team’s “main culprit” throughout the search, which was assisted by the FBI, DCI and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The dogs kept pointing to the water.

Police met the canines’ indications with a bit of skepticism, as they usually do, Brecher said. But divers squeezed in dry suits, poking the stream bed with poles.

The handlers returned to the city of 2,200 people four times, the last of which was in August when recreational kayakers found remains in the waterway. The women helped law enforcement refine the search in the hopes of recovering more bones.

The remains were identified as Jake two weeks later, bringing a close to the search that, at its peak, brought out more than 800 volunteers despite snowfall.

Brecher wanted other agencies to learn about the coalition, which he called an asset in law enforcement’s tool belt, hoping future searches would result in better outcomes.

The “ladies with the dogs,” as Brecher called them, were dispatched to the town by Iowa Task Force 1, a Cedar Rapids-based search and rescue team. Brecher, who gave the women permission to discuss the case, said he was grateful for their efforts.

“I can’t thank them enough,” he said.

___

Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

AP RADIO
Update hourly