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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Hound Owner Helps Sniff Out Crime

November 28, 2000|GAIL DAVIS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

OXNARD — Jeannie Bondio doesn't mind being summoned by police at 4 a.m. to march along some deserted road with a pair of drooling, excited bloodhounds. Bondio says she loves her volunteer police work almost as much as the hounds themselves do.

Aided by her two bloodhounds, Molly and Jake, Bondio, 47, has helped police here and in New Mexico track down bodies and pointed them in the direction of fleeing suspects. More and more Ventura County law enforcement agencies are putting her name on speed-dial. And she does it all for free.

It is her way of giving to her community, said Bondio, an Oxnard resident who sells medical supplies. It is rewarding to help put police on the right track, even if it's grim work, Bondio said.

"If you've never done it you wouldn't understand," she said one recent morning, her hand tightly clasping Jake's leash as he yanked her from bush to bush through her well-kept neighborhood. "You get an Adrenalin rush when you're running behind them."

Her two brownish-red hounds are unlikely detectives, with their loopy, dum-de-dum demeanor and penchant for flinging curiously adhesive saliva--which they produce by the bucket--as far as 20 feet away. They would seem more likely to drool criminals to death than hold them at bay.

But whereas German shepherd police dogs might track scents a few hours old, bloodhounds possess an extraordinary sense of smell that allows them to track down someone's presence days later, Bondio said. Jake and Molly have found bodies missing for weeks, in deserts and remote canyons. They've tracked cars down freeways, following them down an offramp and into homes.

And they don't give up. Bondio said that unless a bloodhound is called off or finds its subject, it will drop dead trying to track.

"They just keep on going with their noses to the ground," she said.

Once they find whatever they're tracking, they don't pounce or point. They just stop, like someone has flipped off their switch, and wait to be praised. A glance around Bondio's Oxnard home, where she lives with husband Michael, 43, suggests a deep affinity for the breed. There are bloodhound paintings, bloodhound statues and even bloodhound coasters.

Bondio got started with the dogs a decade ago, while living in Mesilla, N.M. As a young girl, she had a fox terrier. But the terrier was a lap dog, and Bondio wanted a gentle, hulking bloodhound like Duke, the hound owned by the Clampetts on her favorite 1960s sitcom, "The Beverly Hillbillies."

She heard about Jim Zarifis, a retired police chief from New York, who had moved to rural Ohio and was known nationally as a bloodhound breeder, trainer and courtroom expert. Bondio began corresponding with Zarifis, and in 1993 bought Jake as a puppy from a New Mexico breeder.

With Zarifis' guidance she trained Jake to track, giving him garments to smell. He eventually learned to find someone in another room, then in a neighborhood and beyond. After three months, she let local law enforcement agencies know she and Jake were available.

"They would say, 'Oh. A bloodhound. Yeah, right. We've got our own canines,' " Bondio said.

Eventually, she proved her bloodhounds could out-sniff German shepherds. Five years ago, Bondio took Molly to help police track an Alzheimer's patient who had been missing for weeks. Using an article of his clothing, Molly tracked the man's scent in the 100-plus-degree desert heat. Bondio stopped the search when Molly got overheated, but police continued in the direction she had sent them and found the man, dead.

Also in New Mexico, Bondio's dogs tracked a 14-year-old girl who took her father's horse for a walk and never came back. Molly led police to a field that had not been searched. The girl's dead body was there, accidentally dragged by the horse.

"A lot of the cases don't end up very nice," Bondio said.

Bloodhounds are aided by their unique anatomy, Bondio said. In addition to extremely sensitive noses, the hounds have folded membranes packed inside their sinuses that help enhance smells. Their long floppy ears and even their slobber help to keep scents around their olfactory nerves.

Bloodhounds sniff out skin cells that humans constantly shed, even if the person they're tracking hasn't been there in quite a while. Despite the dogs' skill, Bondio again found police skeptical when she moved to Ventura County in 1997.

She didn't give up, taking Jake and Molly to police breakfasts, department meetings, wherever she could speak about them.

Bondio and her husband, a health-food salesman, walk Jake and Molly two or three times a day around the neighborhood.

"Michael loves the dogs to death," Bondio said, tugging Jake's jowls as he gleefully shook his head.

In the past six months, the dogs have finally been put to frequent use. Police agencies in Oxnard, Santa Paula and Santa Barbara have asked to use the pair, she said.

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