Mercy and Grace eventually found atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
Those were the names of Vi Hummel Shaffer’s two cadaver recovery dogs that in 2001 recovered the skeletal remains of America’s most well-known atheist and founder of the American Atheists movement. In 1995, she along with a son and a granddaughter disappeared in Austin.
It was later determined they were murdered, dismembered, placed in a barrel, burned and their remains scattered on a 5,000-acre rural ranch in Real County, about 90 miles west of San Antonio.
“The irony is my dogs Mercy and Grace found the atheist,” said Shaffer, a Mineral Wells resident considered one of the nation’s top K-9 search and recovery experts.
Over 27 years, Shaffer said she worked about 400 body search and recovery efforts across the nation for law enforcement. She and Mercy were called to Washington, D.C., in 2001 to help search rubble from the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks to find remains of victims.
Ten years in the making, Shaffer has completed a book titled, “K-9 Teams: Beyond the Basics of Search and Rescue and Recovery.”
She is quick to note the 384-page book, which will be available in late August, is not about her filled with stories about the recovery efforts she has worked. It is an educational guide.
“The book is for everybody interested in detection dogs,” Shaffer said. “It talks about every aspect of search and recovery teams. People see them on TV looking for a missing person or see them on disasters but they don’t know what goes into training them, what all is involved. It is extremely beneficial for law enforcement, fire departments and emergency management organizations.”
The book will be sold worldwide, and pre-sales orders are being taken now. Autographed copies are available by contacting Shaffer through her website www.k9vihummelshafferk9.com. She said she is receiving contacts about the book from people in places like India, Holland and England.
The book will be available online at SarShop.com, Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It sells for $44.95 with an ebook version available for $34.99.
Shaffer says the book explores questions, ideas and opinions from handlers around the world and across the U.S. It looks at topics and sensitive issues such as fraud, glory seekers and credentials along with her methods and tips derived from 27 years of training and field work.
Forensic anthropologist Dr. William Bass wrote the prelude on human remains detection.
“There is so much in it. It covers just about everything,” Shaffer said of the book.
Asked if there is a certain breed of dog that is best for human search and recovery, Shaffer said not really though canines with long snouts genetically have a better nose for searching. Mercy was a Labrador retriever and Grace was a Belgian shepherd.
“It depends on the dog,” said Shaffer. “It is not one specific breed but the dog has to have certain characteristics to be a search dog.”
Her dogs are not used for finding live victims, such as ones trapped in rubble from an explosion or an earthquake. That requires a differently trained dog, handler and skill set.
She said there is two years of extensive training with a search dog before it is ready to go in the field and the dog must pass an evaluation test for use in forensics or law enforcement search efforts.
Shaffer is not only a K-9 handler and instructor, she is a speaker, qualified court subject matter expert and a law enforcement consultant.
“I only go out when I am called by law enforcement,” she said. “I have never charged for my services.”
She said God led her to her calling of K-9 search and recovery.
“I’ve always worked with animals in one way or another and at one time I assisted in training wild animals,” Shaffer said.
While living in Nemo, Texas, she said she read about a search team starting in the Glen Rose area.
“I contacted them and started training with them,” she said. “I gravitated from what is called a ground pounder (searching areas by walking) to working with dogs, going to seminars and training all over the United States,” Shaffer said.
She joined a team in the Metroplex and eventually became an independent handler.
Over the years she has worked a number of cases in the Palo Pinto County area. In the days after the disappearance of Shonda Townsend in July 2010, Shaffer worked the southeast Mineral Wells neighborhood where Townsend’s car was found. When some of her remains were found in late 2011 in a remote area southwest of Mineral Wells, she worked the area for the Palo Pinto County Sheriff’s Office trying to recover as many remains as possible.
Shaffer has worked with practically every branch of law enforcement in the U.S. She is an associate instructor with Texas Forensic Associates. She has served on the executive board of the Homicide Investigators of Texas and has over 550 continuing education hours in advanced homicide investigation through the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement.
She was a member of the FBI-Southeast Texas Evidence/Crime Scene Working Group for four years; and a member of the National Volunteer Advisory Board/University of North Texas Forensic Services Unit-Center for Human Identification from 2006-2014. Shaffer was a logistics specialist with the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team for 19 years, a two-term board member of DMORT Region 6 in addition to the Mass Fatality K9 Unit.
In 2002, she was appointed the national chair of the federal “Mass Fatality K9 Standards and Requirements Committee” by the Director of the United States Department of Health and Human Services/National Disaster Medical Systems/Office of Emergency Preparedness. Shaffer and Mercy were recognized by the federal government as the First Mass Fatality K9 Team in the United States. By way of commendation from the Division of Emergency Management-Texas Department of Public Safety, Mercy was regarded as the first nationally recognized forensic cadaver K-9.
In addition to assisting in hundreds of homicide searches for agencies across the state of Texas and beyond, Shaffer has been deployed to seven mass fatality incidents including the Shuttle Columbia Disaster and the Pentagon attack.
The writer of many articles, she was a contributing author to the book, “Ready to Serve-Ready to Save, Strategies of Real Life Search and Rescue Missions,” and acknowledged in Susan Bulanda’s book “Ready.”