‘Dedicated’ volunteers, dogs find Zinkhan’s body

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Law enforcement officers spent two weeks looking for George M. Zinkhan III. In the end, it was a trained team of civilian volunteers and their dogs that found his body.

The former University of Georgia professor was wanted as a suspect in the April 25 killings of his wife and two men outside a theater in downtown Athens. The search ended Saturday morning in a rural part of western Clarke County, when cadaver dogs found Zinkhan in a shallow grave police believe he dug before firing a bullet into his head.

The grave was covered in enough debris and dirt to ensure, as the Athens-Clarke County police chief noted at a press conference Saturday, that Zinkhan would not be easily found.

A dog and handler team with Alpha Team K9 Search and Rescue located Zinkhan hours after the start of its search Saturday.

“We try to look at a search through the eyes of a person who’s lost,” said Stuart Sample, Alpha Team’s founder and president. “If it’s a child, they’ll try to find water. If it’s a person with Alzheimer’s, they’ll try to get home.

“We tried to look at it as a despondent person would,” who may seek more cover, he said.

The Athens-Clarke County Police and U.S. Marshals turned to the search team on Thursday for help. The Dallas-based team is made up of about nine dogs, each trained to detect by scent, plus 15 handlers and support staff.

A team of volunteers and two cadaver dogs spent 10 hours Friday searching the dense woods for Zinkhan. When one of the dogs — a 5-year-old German Shepherd named Circe — showed some behavior changes, causing the handlers to believe she was on to something.

They decided to cll off the search for the day and return on Saturday when the dogs were rested.

Saturday’s search lasted about 10 minutes. Madison, a 7-year-old Australian Shepherd, did what she trained two years to do when she led the volunteers to Zinkhan’s buried body at 9:50 a.m.

The team normally does not participate in law enforcement efforts that might put the teams in harm’s way. Dog and handler teams help look for missing children, people who have wandered off, and those people believed to be dead.

“Typically, we do not do fugitive work, unless there is the expectation that the person is deceased,” Sample said. “Our guys will only deploy for lost or missing persons, or persons likely to be deceased.”

Handlers and their dogs responded to an average of two to three requests for help a month, Sample said. The teams do not charge for their services.

The cost of training a search dog can run as much as $5,000. A nonprofit organization, the search team has been operating for five years. The handlers foot the bill for training expenses, Sample said.

“We tell people it takes 18 to 24 months to properly train the right dog to be able to do search and rescue work,” Sample said. “We’ve washed out a lot of dogs of good character and a tremendous amount of drive, that don’t have what we need.”

Handlers and their dogs spend about 15 hours a week on basic training alone, more hours on specialized training.

“At the operational level, they are truly the tip of the sword,” Sample said of the dogs, which he called some of the best trained and qualified in the country in their roles.

“As volunteers, that’s very difficult to maintain,” he said. “We take a lot of time from our families, and in some cases our jobs.”

Sample said the volunteers are dedicated to their roles and want to use their training to give back to the community.

“These are some of the most dedicated, toughest people you’ve ever met,” he said. “They never quit, they will never give up, and they will give every part of the heart and soul to a search effort, to bring somebody home.”

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