Blaze, a 4-year-old bloodhound, has some serious skills that have impressed his partner and colleagues with the Alabama Forestry Commission’s arson investigation team.
There have been times when Blaze has led investigators right to the front door of a suspected arsonist in woods fire cases, Donnie Parker, Blaze’s partner and handler says.
“When we find a trail, I’ll give out before he does,” Parker says. ” Statistics show that most woods arsonists live within a few miles of where they set fires and usually walk into the area where they set the fires. So if Blaze finds a trail, we usually find who made it.”
Alabama’s is one of a small but growing number of state forestry agencies going to the dogs when it comes to investigating arson fires. The dogs are generally sponsored by private foundations and businesses, including State Farm Insurance. Blaze, the only arson dog in the Alabama forestry commission, has been working about three years.
“People often leave evidence behind in a crime, and human scent is just as unique as a fingerprint,” said Craig Hill, chief of the commission’s law enforcement division. In March 2011, he said, Blaze helped track an arson suspect in connection with a series of woods fires in Baldwin County, Ala.
“Blaze got a scent and trailed the suspect to a nearby subdivision. He went past several houses before jumping on the door of the suspect,” Hill said. Other witnesses subsequently came forward and the case against the man is pending in court, he said.
West Virginia and Virginia were the first states to use dogs, starting in the mid 1990s, said John Miller, fire chief for the Virginia Department of Forestry. Virginia uses two bloodhounds, Lacy and Summer. Lacy has gathered 30 convictions over a career of seven to eight years and Summer has racked up 12 convictions in four years, Miller said.
It’s amazing what the hounds can do, said John Bird, a K-9 handler with the West Virginia Division of Forestry. West Virginia uses two bloodhounds, Sadie Mae, and Bird’s partner, Jessup. “The longest track I know of is seven miles, and the oldest track was 7 days old,” he said.
State Farm Insurance sponsors a program that trains 10 dogs each year — exclusively labradors — says Heather Paul, a public affairs specialist for the company. State Farm has been involved with arson dog training since 1993, Paul says, and there is a waiting list for the training program, which is held twice a year for four weeks at Maine Specialty Dogs. The next session begins Monday.
Even if the dogs do not find a suspect, just running them through a neighborhood has a deterrent factor, said Bill Donnelly, an assistant division warden and K-9 handler for the New Jersey Forest Fire Service. New Jersey works three bloodhounds: Brody, Cletus and Eo .
“Two years ago we had a rash of fires, about 30 fires in an area of about 3 miles,” Donnelly said. “We never caught the suspect, but everyone saw us working the dogs in the neighborhoods and word got around. The fires stopped shortly after we had the dogs out.”
Arson cases are especially difficult to prosecute, said Randall Houston, district attorney for Alabama’s 19th Judicial Circuit.
“If a prosecutor has physical or forensic evidence in an arson case, they are way ahead of the game,” he said.
Roney also reports for The Montgomery Advertiser
By Marty Roney, USA TODAY, April 4, 2012