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Almost Done With Collars : Retiring Top Dog Igor Will Be Difficult, Costly for Costa Mesa Police to Replace

December 17, 1995|TINA NGUYEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COSTA MESA — He's almost 63 years old but he can still track down fugitives and hidden drugs in no time.

Igor, the top K-9 dog for the Costa Mesa Police Department, has sniffed out numerous suspects and hundreds of thousands of dollars in drug-related currency, said Sgt. George Yezbick, who heads the department's canine program.

But as he's approaching his 9th birthday, or 63 years in human terms, Igor's wag is lagging and he's being groomed for retirement.

A Belgian Malinois, Igor has been with the Police Department for five years through its community-funded canine program. But as the 65-pound dog is about to give up his badge, the department is scrambling to raise enough money to replace him with another Belgian Malinois.

"We buy the dog through public donations," Yezbick said.

But funds are low. The department needs $5,000 by February; it's raised only $500. And after the replacement dog is purchased, the costs will mount with bills for its training, medical care and maintenance.

Along with most other police departments, Costa Mesa relies on public donations to pay for police dogs, and the city covers the cost of patrolling equipment. But because their canine program, adopted in 1998, is newer than those of most Orange County police departments, the donations are not always there, Yezbick said.

For instance, Cypress' 13-year-old program is paid for through money gained during asset seizures and police investigations, Cypress Police Officer Scott Foster said.

Garden Grove police, who established their program more than 15 years ago, generate much of the funding through the city's annual Strawberry Fest. The department recently won a corporate grant for its dog program.

In Santa Ana, a restricted $600,000 donation was given to the city's canine program two years ago to help care for its six police dogs, officials said.

Costa Mesa police, however, are relying solely on fund-raising efforts targeting local businesses and residents.

"We may lose the canine program if we can't raise the funds," said Senior Officer Paul Ellis, Igor's handler, trainer and guardian for the past three years. "These dogs save us . . . man hours during narcotics detection, tracking and searches of suspects."

Just last month, eight Costa Mesa officers spent an hour looking for an armed suspect who mugged two people and was beaten by his last victim during a failed robbery attempt, police said.

The injured man fled and officers were unable to find him. But when Igor arrived, he sniffed out the bleeding suspect hiding in the bushes after only 10 minutes, police said.

"He was impossible to track in the dark," Yezbick said. "Igor found him and saved the crook's life. He was all bleeding when we found him. Even though the suspect may not have appreciated being in jail, I'm sure he appreciates the fact that he's alive."

A dog trained in methods of sniffing out both drugs and suspects, Igor also works in a narcotics deterrence program at Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools. Several times each year, he and a second Costa Mesa police dog nose around student lockers for drugs.

"Belgian Malinois have noses that are a million times more sensitive than the human nose," Yezbick said.

The dogs, bred in the Netherlands, also are suited for police work because they are slender and more agile than German shepherds and bloodhounds, which are used at some agencies.

Igor has won 13 trophies in canine competitions over the past two years, including top narcotics dog in the Southwest trials. He also swept four medals in the 1994 Police Olympics in Sacramento.

"He's the best partner I ever had," Ellis said. "He always gives me 150%. Even with all his physical injuries, he still has a heart of gold."

Igor suffers from an eye disease that causes blindness and an irreversible spinal disease that stiffens his back.

"But he still can outrun any officer in short distance," Yezbick said with a chuckle. "Igor's been a real good dog. He'll be hard to replace."

Igor will leave the department in January for a peaceful retirement at the Ellis residence.

*

Donations to Costa Mesa Police Department's canine program can be sent c/o Sgt. George Yezbick, P.O. Box 1200, Costa Mesa, CA 92628-1200, or call (714) 754-5690.

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