Hot on the trail: K-9 units track escaped inmates, search for missing persons
Department of Corrections maintains eight teams of dogs for tracking purposes across the state and one K-9 drug-detecting team at Easterling Correctional Facility
BY Marty Roney
Montgomery Advertiser, Ala.
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The four-legged man-trackers of the state prison system stand ready to answer the call, anytime, anywhere.
The Department of Corrections maintains eight teams of dogs for tracking purposes across the state and one K-9 drug-detecting team at Easterling Correctional Facility in Clio, said Brian Corbett, spokesman for the prison system.
The purpose of the K-9 units is to track escaped inmates and conduct searches for wanted persons. But they also have “free world” duties, Corbett said.
“They have been used to search for missing children or adults who may have dementia and who wondered off from their homes,” he said, adding there is no charge for using the teams. “It’s what they do. The dogs and officers of the tracking teams are very well-trained.”
The prison system has its own breeding program to supply dogs to the teams and their training starts early, said Capt. Chad Law, commander of the dog team at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore.
“We look for dogs that want to be out in the woods tracking more than anything else,” Law said. “These are not attack dogs. They aren’t aggressive in that sense, but they do love to track. When they find somebody, the only danger they face is they may be licked to death by the dogs. They are happy when they track and find someone.”
About two weeks ago, the dog teams tracked a wanted man in the Pine Level area of Autauga County over a period of two days. The fugitive was ready to give up after being hounded from one hiding spot to another, Sheriff Herbie Johnson said.
“The dogs can do amazing things,” Johnson said. “It’s very rare that we don’t have a successful search. Usually if someone eludes the search, they have been on a cellphone to call somebody to pick them up, and they get out of the perimeter that way.
“The dog teams are a valuable resource.”
The iconic image of packs of bloodhounds baying and howling as they track through fields and forests usually isn’t the reality in Alabama. Beagles are the hound of choice, but the teams use both breeds. Some teams might have other breeds in the lineup as well.
“Beagles are more durable in the hot, muggy conditions of an Alabama summer,” Law said. “They are easier to train, and we can begin training when they are just a few months old. The bloodhound can run an older track.
“We use the bloodhounds in a lot of the missing persons calls. Usually somebody has been missing for several hours before we get brought in, so the bloodhound works better in those situations.”
The current tracking team at Staton has one 10-year-old beagle and three 11-year-olds.
“They work just as good as the younger dogs,” Law said.
As the dogs do their jobs the handlers, all certified corrections officers, are close behind. That means the human portion of the team has to deal with negotiating through briar thickets, often crawling on their hands and knees, close encounters with snakes and a myriad of stinging, flying insects, as well as unseen hazards such as old barbed-wire fences.
“The worst thing for me is people with guns, big guns,” Law said.
Property owners and nearby residents often will track the tracking teams in an effort to find out what all the commotion is about.
Unseen holes and drop-offs are the bane of Lt. Adam McDaniel, another member of the Staton team.
“Tracking at night, it’s hard to see cliffs,” he said. “Like the Autauga County search, you are running at night following the dogs, and the next thing you know you’ve run off a cliff and fell 12, 13 feet into a creek bed. Sometimes the holes are deeper, much deeper.
“Then you have the problem of climbing out of the hole and catching up with the dogs.”
While out in the boondocks, the officers find plenty of interesting things.
“Mostly we find pot plants,” Sgt. Michael McBride said. “We usually have an officer from a local agency with us when we find the marijuana. The officer marks the location, and we keep on with the search. They will come back later to get the plants.
“A couple of years ago, up in Chilton County, we came across a chicken fighting operation out in the woods. There were pens and cages for raising fighting roosters. That was a little unusual.”
When not out in the woods doing their thing, the dogs go through constant training. Trusty inmates are used for the dogs to follow. Handlers are never used to lay down a trail.
“We don’t want them to learn to track us,” Law said. “They need to follow the bad guy.”
The K-9s lead a pretty plush life. The only real on-the-job threat they face is tracking in built-up areas and running across streets and busy highways where they could be run over, McBride said.
Criminals being tracked usually don’t pose a threat to the dogs, handlers say. They are more concerned with trying to get away, Law said. Also, the ground teams and other law enforcement officers typically are so close behind that the dogs face little danger.
And when their tracking careers are over?
The dogs are put out to pasture, literally.
“We have a kennel behind the office for the retired dogs,” Law said. “We take good care of them all their lives.”
• The Department of Corrections maintains eight teams of dogs for tracking purposes across the state and one K-9 drug-detecting team.
• Each team is made up of an average of 30 dogs and three handlers.
• Since 2010, the Staton tracking team has assisted in the following: 15 Department of Corrections inmate escapes, 11 Department of Youth Services escapes, 50 manhunts from various law enforcement agencies and four missing persons searches — three senior citizens and one child.
• The tracking teams operate from Limestone, St. Clair, Donaldson, Bibb, Staton/Draper, Kilby Ventress and Fountain correctional facilities. The drug-detecting team is based out of Easterling Correctional Facility in Clio.
• The teams are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
• There is no charge for the use of the teams when tracking wanted persons for local law enforcement or tracking as part of missing persons searches.
Source: Alabama Department of Corrections