Smells like it's stolen

An antitheft program uses dogs to track a tell-tale chemical.

Published June 27, 2007

SAFETY HARBOR - If it's hot, Petey can smell it.

With his remarkable sniffer, the 4-year-old Jack Russell terrier can detect a steak on the stove, meatloaf in the oven and a cheeseburger on the grill from clear across the yard.

So what, you say? Your dog can do that.

Okay, but can your pooch also detect the aroma of hot copper wire?

A hot laptop computer?

A hot Rolex?

Petey can - as long as the stolen item is marked with a new substance that could take crime fighting to a higher level.

"Petey's a seasoned dog, " said James Acevedo, a consultant for StrataGem, the company that is using Petey, who was rescued three years ago from a local animal shelter, as part of a new crime-fighting tool. "He's the best at what he does."

For years, dogs have been used to detect drugs, bombs, fire accelerants in arson cases, termites, mold, bats, bedbugs and even people - both alive and dead.

"Now they can detect theft, " said Bruce Wimmer, a director of StrataGem, which has offices in Tampa, Denver and the Philippines.

Here's how it works: Someone who has something that's vulnerable to theft and resale - copper wire is a hot item these days - buys an antitheft program from StrataGem.

Part of the program consists of a chemical marker that can be applied to items you want to track. The chemical, known as calidus ("hot" in Latin) also includes synthetic microdots as small as a grain of sand that hold information such as an 800 number for StrataGem or a Web site.

When a marked item disappears, the owner reports the theft to StrataGem.

Then, once items suspected of being stolen turn up at a scrap yard or pawn shop, Petey or a similarly trained dog could be brought in to find any items marked with calidus. Investigators would then use a microscope to read the microdots and call the owner.

The program is new and the prices haven't been completely worked out, but the program could cost up to $50, 000 a year.

* * *

At a news conference Tuesday at Florida Canine Academy in Safety Harbor, officials had set up a mini salvage yard to show off Petey's abilities.

On the floor were laid out groups of identical bundles of copper wire, insulated wire, cell phones and tools.

Master trainer Bill Whitstine applied what amounted to less than a baby's teardrop of calidus to selected items.

The calidus has a scent that cannot be detected by humans, but an excited Petey, fortified by a small ham sandwich, was brought into the sun room and set to work. He was brought by each grouping, and when Whitstine prompted him - "Petey, see, see" - alerted at each marked item by momentarily lying down next to it.

Each time he alerted, he was given a doggie treat. His score was 100 percent. He wagged his stub of tail.

He was less successful when brought out to the carport for another demonstration, but he had an excuse.

Company officials had placed a drop of calidus on the driver's seat in a blue Honda S2000 and closed the doors. Petey was led to the car and appeared ready to alert, when cameras began clicking and he became distracted. After getting a moment to refocus, Petey came back and almost immediately alerted at the driver's side door.

Another success.

So far, StrataGem has created just the one scent, but doesn't rule out creating others in the future. The smell is trademarked. It cannot be washed away or burned off. Florida Canine Academy has trained six dogs to sniff out the calidus.

The dogs, which are not for sale, are worth between $20, 000 and $30, 000. It takes between four to six months to train the dogs and the handlers.

* * *

The program is so new, no company has bought it yet.

But it could attract attention, say law enforcement professionals who specialize in investigating theft.

"It would be something probably a lot of construction companies might be interested in purchasing, " said Marion County sheriff's Detective Gary Bush, who was at the news conference.

Theft in his area is "pretty serious" with about $1.8-million worth of metal stolen or damaged last year and 120 construction theft related arrests over the past two years, Bush said.

Metal theft has become so prevalent, many law enforcement agencies have detectives assigned full time to that specialty.

Hillsborough County sheriff's Detectives Jason Roberts and Dillon Corr, who specialize in metal thefts, hope a program like the one StrataGem provides will provide a solution to the problem.

"Since May of 2006, we've lost $1.5-million in metals - just metals, that's all, " Corr said.

"They go after copper, aluminum and stainless steel, " Roberts said.

Beth Nelson is a corporal in the narcotics division at the Annapolis Police Department. She happened to be at the canine academy to buy a mold/bedbug detecting dog for a private business she wants to start with her husband. She was impressed with Petey's demonstration.

She compared him with her dog, Bosco.

"A kilo of (cocaine) was shipped through the mail service wrapped in 17 layers of masking agents, fabric softener sheets, cayenne pepper and ketchup - Bosco found it right away, " she said.

Nelson wants to tell her department about Petey's work.

"This was very, very impressive, " she said.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com.

Fast Facts: 

- A tiny amount of the substance calidus "hot" in Latin, will not wash or burn off once applied to an item.

- The calidus can't be detected by humans.

- Inside the substance, contact info can be stored. - Police can see it using a microscope and get in touch with the rightful owner.