Friday, September 21, 2012

Seeking by Scent

FBI Contract K-9s Sniff Out Lost Graves

Earnest Gardner was only 5 at the time, but he remembers standing graveside as his 4-year-old brother Lucious was lowered into the ground. It was 1940 and in a small segregated cemetery across the dirt road from the family church on the eastern outskirts of Tallahassee, Florida. A temporary marker was placed with intentions to put in a more permanent stone, but life went on and, like many of the surrounding graves in the once-abandoned Munree Cemetery, the wooden marker decayed, leaving the plot unnamed. Seventy-two years later on a recent sticky summer morning, Gardner returned to watch a coordinated effort of volunteers uncover and properly preserve the resting places of his brother and an estimated 250 others buried on the five-acre site.

Working the scene of oaks and tangled vines were two unexpected volunteers named Maggie and Dixie. One an Australian shepherd, the other a German shepherd mix, the two human remain detection (HRD) dogs dodged back and forth through the underbrush, noses to the ground. Their handler and trainer, Lisa Higgins of Louisiana, watched closely as her canine partners separately worked the scene.

“To the dogs, this is like scent overload. It’s everywhere,” she explained. “They have to find the little places where the scent is strongest. That’s where they’re going to give us indication points.”

A veteran of HRD, Higgins has been working on a contract basis with the FBI since 1991. The job has taken her from Alaska to Puerto Rico and many points in between to assist with various cases. Her dogs have located human remains dating back to the late 15th century and have worked sites with suspected remains as old as 800 A.D. Watching closely while Maggie circled an area of interest, Higgins explained the extensive training she goes through with her dogs to get them to the point of discerning between scents.

“It’s not pleasant,” she said, smiling.

It requires a steady supply of decaying flesh, which is usually supplied by road kill she picks up. At the scene of an investigation, she refreshes the dog’s sensitivities with a sealed sample of human remains she packs with her gear. Despite the potential “gross out” factor, Higgins has gotten her granddaughter interested in the field. At only 12, Haylee Carney travels with her grandmother to various scenes and has even taken a few college-level forensics classes. At Munree Cemetery, she got a chance to let her own HRD dog-in-training, Jayda, sniff the grounds.

Among the crowd of volunteers was FBI Special Agent Michelle Wyckoff. She scanned the terrain with a metal detector to look for rusting spars of iron, commonly left behind as temporary grave markers. A member of the Panhandle Archeological Society at Tallahassee, Wyckoff helped coordinate the use of the FBI canine resource after seeing Higgins and her dogs on the job for past cases.

“The Munree project is truly a unique example of the FBI working with the local community to recover the history of a Florida cemetery while exposing Florida archeologists and anthropologists to proven recovery tools and techniques,” Wyckoff said.

The data collected at Munree Cemetery, including scans with ground-penetrating radar taken by the National Park Service’s Southeast Archaeological Center, is still under analysis, according to the Florida Public Archaeology Network outreach coordinator Barbara Hines. Many local residents and others involved are hopeful the effort with give a more complete picture of those laid to rest at Munree Cemetery. For Earnest Gardner, just seeing so many people come together for the cause is a success in itself.

“God let me live to walk the ground where my brother was laid,” he said. “It brought him back to me to see all these people honor him by searching.”

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