K9 Con Man John Preston cases: innocent jailed, scandal blooms again

This is a kudzu vine of a story, with roots twisting back more than two decades. Innocent men have gone to jail, a Florida judicial system is again under scrutiny, and valid German Shepherd dog capabilities were discredited in a scandal that's back in the news.The tale of German Shepherd handler John Preston has involved Geraldo Rivera, Anderson Cooper, and, at one time, me. It's a story of broken lives, prosecutorial craziness, and the fabricated claims of a dog who could track under water, track old scent, and, in general, do everything but whistle Dixie while typing out a thesis--if you believed Preston.It wasn't the fault of the dog, Harass II, or any dog ever owned by Preston. They were simply income and glory-producing tools used in an ongoing self-promotion that netted Preston, now deceased, thousands of dollars.He zoomed around the country, dropping in to work with police, then testify about his dog's "finds", first having been court certified as an expert. The only problem: he wasn't an expert, and neither his tracking evidence nor his testimony was reliable.Preston put innocent men behind bars and, in some cases, on Death Row. Among them: Bill Dillon of Florida, who spent 27 years in Florida's toughest prison for a murder that he was later exonerated for. Now, the Innocence Project of Florida is working to free Gary Bennett, another inmate who fell across the tracks of Preston's incredible road show.I'm going to take a long, hard look at Preston, a former Pennsyslvania Highway Patrol Trooper, and the cases. Along the way, you'll see video disproving Preston's actions more than 20 years ago--while Brevard County and Florida authorities rolled merrily along, using him in dozens of cases to support prosecutor's cases.And I'll tell you the story of how I contributed my small bit to try and disprove Preston's self-aggrandizing claims while he was testifying in one case. My research caught him flat-out lying--but the state continued to use him as an expert.Many are asking why Preston earned so much fame--now infamy--and money from Florida police departments and state attorney's offices. Not that Florida was the only place where Preston waved his magic dog, who he claimed could perform tracking feats that frankly, aren't even physically possible for a tracking dog, no matter how well-trained, or how good that dog is.I thought the John Preston issue was done with years ago. But now, two Florida news organizations--Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel--have opened up their files to examine the K9 con.I'm going to unpack some boxes and open up my files, too. And I'll tell you some of Preston's big lies--that prosecutors bought--literally--as keystones of their cases.It's a story of ego, greed, rush to judgment, and a K9 con man who, after all, was an expert--at conning cops and prosecutors. But some also ask--were some of those judicial system officials victims of cons, or part of them in a rush to rack up case wins?And, another vital question--if men convicted of brutal crimes like rape and murder were actually innocent--then what criminals may still be at large? The revelation of innocence for one means another unsolved crime.I'm going to tell you the shocking details of a 1980's scandal that in 2009 is rocking even the Florida governor's office. Stay tuned for upcoming stories in this series.

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