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Local dog teams join search for teen in Aruba

A Hernando dog trainer and a Pasco deputy bring their shepherds to help look for a trace of the Alabama girl missing since May 30.

Published June 29, 2005

SPRING HILL - The owner of a Hernando dog training school and a Pasco County sheriff's deputy have joined the search in Aruba for missing Alabama teen Natalee Holloway.

Mary Peter, 53, of Stillwater Dog Training on Jacqueline Road, and her shepherd, Ruger, were recommended by the National Narcotic Detector Dog Association to join the search squad.

Also with the group that arrived on the Caribbean island Saturday evening is Pasco County sheriff's deputy Sam Pepenella of Spring Hill and his shepherd, Bosca. Pepenella has been with the Sheriff's Office for five years. A third dog handler, Lynne Parsons of Largo, and her Labrador, Rudy, complete the Florida team.

The American searchers were pulled together by EquuSearch of Houston, Texas, at the request of the Holloway family. The volunteer organization is paying for their airfare and accommodations. The handlers and their dogs are working free of charge.

"Everybody here is voluntary," Peter said by phone from Aruba Monday. The 35-member EquuSearch team also includes contingents from Texas and New Mexico. "We're all working together."

They were preparing to set out again about 5:30 p.m. Monday after resting the dogs during the heat of the day, Peter said. They had spent five hours on the job that morning.

"We've been assigned several areas to check. We're working land and water," she said. "We've been searching waterways, desert areas, areas of interest we've been escorted to."

Holloway, 18, disappeared May 30 while on a five-day end-of-school trip with 124 classmates from Mountain Brook, Ala. She was last seen leaving a popular nightclub the night before she was scheduled to return home.

As Aruba officials continue their investigation, they have released two of the five men in custody in connection with the teen's disappearance. Three young men, who were alleged to have been with Holloway on the night she disappeared, remain behind bars. With no sign of their daughter or her remains, Holloway's parents hav e enlisted help from the outside searchers and their dogs.

"Now we're just looking for evidence of any kind, looking for anything that might give us some idea of where she might be," Peter said. "We really don't know what the possibilities are."

The dogs aren't given instructions.

"They're already trained," she said. "We tell the dogs to do their job. They know what to do."

Peter expects the EquuSearch group will be in Aruba until today or Thursday.

Peter, a certified master dog trainer, is founder and instructor of K9 Forensics Recovery Team Inc. Pasco deputy Pepenella is a member of that team.

Peter's dog, Ruger, is certified as a human remains detector dog. Dog and handler have assisted the FBI and Florida Department of Law Enforcement in various investigations.

Peter is experienced in this line of work. Her school has trained dogs in personal protection, for police K9 patrols, for attack, retrieval, utility and disability, since 1987.

Although Peter has not worked overseas before, other members of her K9 Forensics Team have. In 2003, team members were invited to Panama to search for the bones of Father Hector Gallegos, a Roman Catholic priest who was thought murdered in 1971 by Gen. Manuel Noriega.

--Beth Gray may be contacted at

[Last modified June 29, 2005, 01:18:19]

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