Earning a track record
By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
Darrell Eugene Chamberlain had been missing for more than a year when Orange County detectives got a tip he had been murdered and buried at an abandoned pig farm.
For two days last fall, investigators scoured the muddy, wooded area with help from dogs and a forensic anthropologist. But the 22-year-old remained missing.
That's when detectives decided to call a Dunedin-based group of volunteers who have dogs with special training for finding dead bodies and missing people. The private, nonprofit group, K-9 Search and Rescue Teams of Florida, showed up on the third day of the search with two of its most experienced German shepherds, Ted and Kato.
In less than 15 minutes, Ted began barking and digging at a spot, a sign that the 5-year-old dog had picked up the scent of a corpse. Kato, too, picked up the scent.
Investigators dug a few feet and found Chamberlain's body. The find led to murder charges against five people.
"It's pretty safe to say that without their help, we probably would never have solved that case," said Sgt. John Allen, who supervises the Orange County Sheriff's Office homicide squad. "I've got nothing but good things to say about them. They're an amazing group."
Formed in 1998, the group consists mostly of civilians and their dogs. They make themselves available around the clock to assist law enforcement agencies throughout the state at no charge. Training, travel and veterinary bills, however, can total $6,000 a year.
Most members probably got started with the idea of finding a missing child, said Sharon Scavuzzo, the group's founder and director of operations.
In reality, most of the group's assignments are "cadaver work," she said. But that has its own reward.
"There is as much satisfaction in locating a victim's remains as bringing a missing person home because the family needs closure," Scavuzzo said. "It's gratifying even though it's depressing."
K-9 Search and Rescue has nine dogs, mostly German shepherds, although there is a golden retriever, a Malinois, a bloodhound and two mixed breeds. Their owners mostly live in Pinellas, but some come from as far as Charlotte County.
These are not police dogs. They don't chase bad guys. And they don't sniff for bombs or drugs or evidence of arson.
They are specialists trained only to find people, dead or alive. That means they can focus on those skills instead of trying to learn too many "disciplines," Scavuzzo said. The skills of some dogs in the group are even more finely tuned: some specialize in finding live people, others in locating submerged drowning victims.
The training is lengthy, several hours a night at least three nights a week. To the volunteers, it's a worthwhile investment.
"One day, we'll find a lost Boy Scout or somebody lost in the woods and all the training will be worth it," said volunteer Leslie Patterson.
And to the dogs, it's a romp.
On a recent training night, about a dozen members of the group met behind Our Lady of Lourdes church in Dunedin. The church is next to a neighborhood park where the group simulates search-and-rescue situations.
The dogs' reward is praise and a favorite toy.
"You make it such a game and so much fun," said Patterson, who works as a paralegal. "They think this is the coolest thing in the world. Their motivation is pleasing their owner and they love it."
First up is Ted, who has to practice obedience skills with owner Bruce Rao, a graphic arts teacher at Seminole High School. Ted must be able to stay by Rao's side as he walks around the parking lot. The dog also must sit still for at least five minutes until Rao gives the command to get up.
Ted breezes through the exercise and is rewarded with a quick game of fetch.
"He is so happy to have that" tennis ball, Rao said.
Next is Mantra, a 4-year-old German shepherd who specializes in finding missing people. His exercise is a mock search-and-rescue, with the group's technical team leader Mike Pici playing the part of a lost person.
Pici, who is an outdoors guide, rubs a piece of cloth on his body and then disappears into the park's woods. After waiting a few minutes, Mantra's owner Suzanne Ames give her dog the cloth to sniff and they are off to find Pici.
With his nose to the ground, Mantra pulls Ames and two group members through a brisk jog in the woods, lasting several minutes before finding Pici hiding next to a tree.
"Good find!" Ames says as she pets Mantra.
Part of the dogs's reward is seeing their owner happy, Scavuzzo said.
"They are inherently geared toward pleasing their handler," said Scavuzzo, an administrator at Stetson University College of Law.
The group also practices by burying a small rag soaked in a chemical that, for dogs, simulates the odor of human remains. The scent is not detectable to humans.
Ted, who has trained to be a search dog since he was a puppy, finds the buried rag in a few seconds. But it's hard to tell who is more excited, Ted or his owner, Rao.
"Good bones!" Rao says, using one of the group's terms for a successful find. "That was too easy."
The group offers a good opportunity for owners to be able to spend time with their pets, meet other dog-lovers and be a part of something that has value to the community, Rao said.
"We get a lot of satisfaction with what we do because we are helping the community," Rao said.
Confessions and cheeseburgers
Members of the group usually go on 10 to 12 searches a year. Typically they break up into smaller groups during a search, consisting of the dog, its handler and one or two technical support assistants who are responsible for communications and navigation.
The dogs also are capable of detecting the smell of a submerged body. That skill came in handy in May 2000, when the team helped investigators in Winter Haven find a drowning victim.
The group also was called to help with the recent Pasco County case involving the missing 2-year-old Bobby Nystrom. The boy was found floating in a lake after a 21-hour search. The group was heading to the search area in Dade City when the boy was found, Scavuzzo said.
In another local case, the dogs scoured the woods at John Chesnut Sr. Park in early December for 43-year-old John Paul Skirta. Although they didn't find the missing East Lake man, Skirta's father said he no longer had to drive by the park and wonder, "Maybe he's in there."
Each member of the group has to be certified by the National Association of Search and Rescue. They also have to know first aid skills, crime scene preservation, outdoor survival skills and other requirements.
Members have to attend 80 percent of the monthly training and be ready to go at a moment's notice, storing their equipment and 24-hour packs in their vehicles.
The group has rigid standards, Scavuzzo said, so it can build credibility with law enforcement agencies.
That's something the group doesn't have to worry about in Orange County.
"I can tell you that we will continue to use them," said Allen, the Orange County Sheriff's Office sergeant. "If put in a similar situation, we will call them first."
All five suspects, who are in custody awaiting trial in the Orange County case, have admitted to their part in the murder, said Allen. They confessed, "to some degree, because they knew we had the body," he said.
Although there's no way to tell Ted and Kato that they possibly helped put five people in jail for murder, the dogs were rewarded on the way home from Orange County with a feast: McDonald's cheeseburgers, minus the pickles and onions.
"We have often said that they are the stars," Scavuzzo said. "It's the dogs who do the job. We just follow behind."
-- Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4183 or email@example.com.
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