Hank was hard at work, his nose to the ground, scouring a targeted location around piles of dirt, gravel and boulders last Monday.
About a half-hour after being unleashed, the 3-year-old golden retriever and cadaver dog lifted his paw, scratched the dirt. Then, he fixed his gaze directly at his owner and barked.
“I could tell immediately from his behavior he found a scent,” said Hank’s handler, Philadelphia Police Department K-9 Officer Richard Treston.
Storm, a German shepherd and cadaver dog from the same department, targeted the same patch of dirt with her nose 15 minutes later. More than 12 feet beneath the animals’ paw marks and buried inside an old oil tank converted into a cooker were the bodies of three of the four young men who vanished earlier this month.
“It was a bittersweet moment, sad for the families and the outcome, but happy to be able to bring them closure,” said Philadelphia police Officer Alvin Outlaw, Storm’s handler.
Investigators leading the multiagency search said the cadaver dogs and their unique ability to detect human remains were key to the swift discovery of Dean Finocchiaro, 19, of Middletown; Thomas Meo, 21, of Plumstead; and Mark Sturgis, 22, of Pennsburg, Montgomery County. A quarter-mile away, the dogs also assisted in the discovery of Jimi Taro Patrick, 19, of Newtown Township, whose remains were located in a single grave near a hillside.
For days, search teams from local, state and federal agencies combed the sprawling Solebury farm, deploying technology that the district attorney said he “didn’t know existed” to search for the four men. While investigators didn’t divulge the high-tech equipment — contributed by the federal government — to scan the farm, they did praise the effectiveness of the dogs.
“The dogs were incredibly valuable,” said Bucks County Deputy Chief Detective Mike Mosiniak. “When dealing with an 80-acre property with 90 percent woods and cornfields, it’s difficult to see above ground let alone beneath it. They were able to pinpoint the locations where they were found. There was no mechanical equipment out there that could do what they did.”
Treston and Outlaw said their search began July 9, when they were called to a property on Aquetong Road in Solebury. Investigators in surveillance helicopters, however, moved the search after they spotted a backhoe and several dirt piles on a nearby property at 6071 Lower York Road.
Once the dogs were let loose that next day, July 10, both Hank and Storm signaled to their owners, scratching the dirt, and the excavation began, officers said.
“It was nerve-wracking; they were banking on our dog’s indications,” said Outlaw, who said excavators dug for two days in the location the dogs identified.
Hours after human remains were discovered more than 12 feet beneath the ground on July 12, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub credited the dog’s abilities.
Though he said he couldn’t understand the science behind the dogs’ tracking capabilities, one national expert detailed just how such dogs work.
For these dogs, finding bodies is not an innate ability but the result of intensive, dedicated training on real cadavers paired with the animals’ natural, instinctive abilities: high energy, the ability to focus without getting distracted, and the power of their noses, police and K-9 experts said.
“It’s not like they have X-ray noses. Clearly the scent managed to find way to the surface, possibly through loose soil, and the dogs were able to isolate it,” said Cat Warren, author of “What the Dog Knows: The Science and Wonder of Working Dogs.”
She said cadaver dogs have been able to track bodies buried more than 70 feet below ground after a mudslide wiped out a community in Oso, Washington. They’ve isolated the smell of a fingernail and tooth among a mountain of wood chips after a grisly Connecticut homicide. And after drownings, some have detected bodies 250 feet beneath the water.
Warren said cadaver dogs are trained to pick up the scent of human remains and detect odors emitted from decomposition or through drops of blood, a bone fragment, a piece of human tissue and especially fat. Warren’s German shepherd, Joco, is trained to pick up even cremated remains.
The dogs follow a scent that rises to the surface, she said.
“We’ve had many cases, where even with lime or a slab of concrete over the body, a scent will come up around the edge and into an area that is traceable to a dog’s nose,” Warren said.
Cadaver dogs have the ability to isolate the smell compounds and gases unique to human decomposition and human remains — whether they are intact or even burned. While they are often used for criminal investigations, they are also used to track down people who have gone missing and victims of all kinds of disasters, including explosions or natural disasters.
Warren said that no technology can compete with a cadaver dog’s abilities.
“A well-trained dog can’t be replaced in most of these cases,” she said.
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