Search dogs help officers

BY KEVIN JENKINS • kevin@thespectrum.com • January 28, 2010
HURRICANE - Martin "Marty" Chris Nelson of Beryl Junction faces sentencing next week in 5th District Court for the murder of two Washington County residents found buried on his property.

While the Iron County Sheriff's Office and county attorneys did the investigative work that led to Nelson's conviction Dec. 8, it was the training of a 7-year-old black Labrador retriever that unraveled Nelson's attempts to hide the bodies.

Mike, a cadaver dog that works with Zion K-9 Search and Rescue, responded to the scene with his handler Jean Hooks in November 2007 after deputies executing a warrant on an unrelated case noticed a dismantled pickup truck that turned out to belong to one of the victims.

Chad Grijalva and Derek Davis, both 34, had disappeared in October 2007 after an apparent drug deal that turned violent.

"We had suspicion that the people we were looking for were on the property," Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower said Wednesday.

Hooks, a doctor of veterinary medicine in Hurricane, said the cadaver dogs are trained to put their feet around the strongest source of "dead scent" and lie down on the spot, which is called "indicating."

Mike indicated first on seats from the pickup, where blood and a bullet hole were found. Hooks said that conflicted with Nelson's story the shootings occurred in a trailer in self-defense.

"I let him free-search the area and he showed interest in an old beat up shed and went to search it," Hooks said in a news release. "The shed had a dead cat, human feces and (toilet paper) as well as garbage and junk. Mike searched the shed...and then turned and did his down indication on what later showed to be the place where the torsos of the two bodies were."

Two younger cadaver dogs then confirmed the find, she said. At least one secondary dog is used in the searches as a backup system.

"We like to use as many as we can because we don't often get these opportunities," she said.

Hooks said it takes two years for most dogs to be trained as cadaver dogs, but Mike gained his certification when he was 2 and is the most experienced dog in the search unit. The team has six certified dogs and three in training.

The dogs are trained to ignore the scent of anything that isn't human. Hooks said some companies manufacture artificial "dead scent" but she prefers to use material from other cadaver sites to train the animals.

"Where a body has been laying for a while, when the body's been removed, we use the soil," she said. "That always works the best for me."

The handlers train with the dogs and practice each Saturday with a variety of search exercises, all of which is paid for by the handlers. And while German shepherds were once preferred, most cadaver dogs now are retrievers.

"They want to go out. It's their play," she said. Although the situation is somber for those investigating a crime scene, the dogs are challenging themselves and working for a reward when they find what they're looking for.

"Once we discovered the bodies where they indicated, we brought the dogs back in just to have that closure, just to let the dog know he did a good thing," Gower said.

While some handlers have law enforcement experience, most are private citizens who want to do something with their dogs, Hooks said. One member of the team works at Bradshaw Chevrolet in Cedar City and after learning about the program and meeting Mike, he went and bought a dog and underwent the training, she said.

Hooks said Mike is her third Labrador retriever. She started in search and rescue in Virginia in the 1980s, and worked with FEMA at the Oklahoma City bombing site in 1995.

"We rely on her a lot. We're fortunate to have her on our side," Gower said.

Gower said his department has called on Zion K-9 a couple of times since the Nelson investigation.

In one case, a dog returned to its home carrying a shoe that was found to have a human foot in it.

"We knew at that point there was a human body," Gower said. "(Hooks') dog came up and within a few minutes had found the body. It was a missing person out of California."

Hooks said her organization is the only one in Utah to train the search dogs south of Salt Lake City and some county officials are still slow to call on her team's services. But she expects that will change in time.

"We're more forensic than rescue, searching for the victims of foul play," she said. "We're probably going to see more and more of that here, as we did out East."

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