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COLUMN ONE

Dogged faith in these trackers

The family of Amber Dubois say the two canines who searched for the teenager were close to finding her. But bloodhound handlers are skeptical.

April 05, 2010|By Richard Marosi

Reporting from San Diego — The fliers for Amber Dubois were posted across Southern California, volunteers scoured fields and parks, police followed hundreds of tips -- but six months after the teenager's disappearance, her family still had no answers.

Then search dogs Quincy and Jack were put on the case, tugging their handlers down the same streets Amber strolled the day she vanished, and hopes lifted.

It didn't matter that some scientists and dog handler associations considered it highly improbable that canines could trace a human scent months old,or that Quincy and Jack weren't bloodhounds, the typical tracking breed.

Last August, Quincy, a yellow Labrador, and Jack, a German short-haired pointer, led the handlers 20 miles from Amber's suburban home to a remote Indian village, where the dogs went into an alerting frenzy. Her family thought it could mean only one thing: Amber.

"We believe in those dogs," said Amber's father, Moe Dubois, an electronics engineer. "We've seen it firsthand."

But police apparently weren't convinced. They shut down the canine search, and the case grew colder.

Six months after the dogs departed, authorities found Amber's skeletal remains on a scrub-covered hillside in northern San Diego County, about two miles from the Indian village.

Police in Amber's hometown of Escondido haven't disclosed what led them to the remains, though a registered sex offender is a focus of the investigation. But the dogs' tracking efforts, finishing relatively close to Amber's body, have added another layer of intrigue. Reactions have ranged from appreciation to disbelief, reflecting the dueling views over whether dogs can revive investigations that are months old.

Some Dubois relatives say they believe Amber would have been found months earlier if police had placed more faith in the dogs.

The handlers, Sarah Platts and Julie R. Jones, partners at Virginia-based VK9 Scent Specific Search and Recovery Unit, say their highly trained dogs possess specialized skills that have made believers of many families and police agencies.

"It's a revelation for some folks," said Platts, 48, adding that her volunteer organization has helped authorities gather evidence on numerous murder and missing-person cases.

Dog handler organizations are skeptical. Their profession, members say, has been undermined over the years by handlers claiming amazing crime-busting abilities who were later exposed as frauds. They say Quincy and Jack's work was an incredible coincidence or a calculated hoax.

Attributing heroic skills to lovable dogs is natural but invites false hope, said Roger Titus, a trainer with the National Police Bloodhound Assn.

"I understand the family. They're looking for closure," Titus said. "I would like to believe those [handlers] . . . but I wouldn't put my badge or reputation on it."

Amber, a 14-year-old with a passion for animals, was last seen Feb. 13, 2009, on her way to Escondido High School. By August, the increasingly desperate family was reduced to fielding calls from psychics claiming visions of the blue-eyed girl.

Among the groups offering help was VK9. Amber's grandmother, Sheila Welch, an attorney, said she hired the organization after checking its references. The handlers charged only for travel and hotel expenses.

"Many chiefs of police stated that they had helped in searches," Welch said.

Platts, a purchasing agent for the Navy, started the nonprofit group in 2006 to fill the cold-case niche in the search industry. Most police dogs work "hot trails," usually within 48 hours of the report of an incident. The organization's claims thrust it into a fierce debate over a central question: How durable is the human scent?

A scent trail is produced by the constant shedding of dead skin cells, a process that creates a minute vapor cloud behind every human being. No one knows how long the scent endures; there are few published studies. Some scientists and veteran handlers say it degrades quickly.

"I've never heard of a dog being able to follow 5-month-old scent under test conditions," said I. Lehr Brisbin, a senior researcher of animal behavior at the University of Georgia. Twenty-four hours, Brisbin said, is the oldest trail he's ever seen followed, adding that elements such as wind, heat and rain quickly dissipate scents.

Platts and Jones, 50, say they believe that scent is more durable than previously thought and cite a 2004 FBI study that suggests the same, though it doesn't specify an exact duration.

The handlers trained Jack and Quincy from their puppy days by sending them down scent trails left weeks or months earlier by family and friends. "We tried and were successful, and started questioning, 'How much else can we do?' " Platts said.

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