Cadaver dogs aid agencies in searches for missing

Published July 12, 2009 11:52 pm
Volunteers » Work may be sad, but it is rewarding, handlers say.
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For nearly a month, the family of 7-year-old Trejon Fite walked the banks of a Jordan River surplus canal in Salt Lake City, hoping for closure.

Fite fell into the canal on June 13 while attempting to cross a pipe over the water near California Avenue and Redwood Road. He is presumed drowned.

Since that day, teams of divers and rescue workers in motorized rafts have trolled the murky water of the canal, looking for signs of Fite. And on July 2, 10 agencies and 100 officers with cadaver dogs and sonar equipment launched a massive effort that came up empty.

The official search has now been called off.

But volunteers are continuing to donate their time to try to bring Fite's body home to his family. And teams of cadaver dogs will occasionally look for Fite, as they did earlier this week.

Volunteers such as Patty Vaughn and her dog Jake may be the key to finding Fite's body, said Salt Lake County Sheriff's Detective April Morse, who assists in organizing teams of dogs and handlers to help in searches.

Vaughn spent Wednesday with Jake walking the banks of the canal in another effort to find Fite.

For volunteers who donate their time and go through what is usually a year-long process to train their dogs to track the scent of human decomposition, the opportunity to help in a search is sad, but rewarding, Morse said.

"Anything to help an agency or to bring a family closure, that is why we spend all the hours and time doing it," said Morse, who helped in the search for Fite with her 8-year-old yellow lab, Lacey.

Carbon County Sheriff's Office Deputy Wally Hendricks organizes the cadaver dog program for Utah. Most volunteers who participate have a search and rescue or other law enforcement background, Morse said.

There are about seven teams of dogs and handlers who are called upon to help with searches, Morse said. Most of the dogs are border collies and Labrador retrievers, but any dog with the right personality and training can learn to be a good search animal, she said.

Despite what can be a grueling task, the dogs often think the search activities are a game, Morse said.

"It's fun for the dog. They want to continue to hunt," she said, noting dogs are rewarded by their handlers when picking up on scents during the search process.

She said handlers are careful to make sure their dogs don't become overworked and have plenty of water during long search days.

Cadaver dogs and their handlers are assets to Utah law enforcement agencies, said Salt Lake City Police Department spokeswoman Robin Snyder. Salt Lake City doesn't have its own team of cadaver dogs, so they rely on volunteers organized by Hendricks and Morse.

"It's invaluable that they come down on their own time," Snyder said.

Hendricks' teams helped recover the body of Lori Hacking from a Salt Lake County landfill in 2004, Snyder said. Hacking's husband, Mark Hacking, was later convicted for her murder.

Volunteers and the Fite family are hopeful the dogs can assist in another recovery by finding Fite.

The boy and a group of friends were playing on the pipe, which crosses the canal east of Redwood Road and south of California Ave, when Fite, who was trying to scoot across on his butt, fell off and was swept under the fast current.

While Fite's family has come to terms with his death, they're hoping his body will be recovered so they can organize a memorial service.

"I'm just hoping for closure," said Trejon's grandmother, JoAnn Brown, 53, said earlier this month.

"I loved him a whole lot, and it's really hard to see him gone," she said.

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