August 19, 2010
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Every prison escape movie worth its salt has a scene of fugitives crashing through the underbrush, looking over their shoulders in desperation as a pack of baying bloodhounds close in on them, just out of sight.
Bloodhounds have been used to track escapees for as long as folks can remember and even though prison breaks don’t occur as often (the last prison break in Florida was back in 2006) the 37 K-9 teams fielded by the Florida Department of Corrections still have plenty of work (about 2 calls a day statewide) chasing down fleeing suspects, and helping out in other emergencies too.
Corrections Sgt. Charlie Price has been on the K - 9 team at Jackson Correctional Institution in North Florida for 12 years, and has been the team supervisor for five of those years. He has been on many chases but at the top of his memory list is the case of a one-and-a-half year-old girl he and his favorite hound Sassie were called out to find a few years ago.
“Her dad was taking her on a walk, pulling her in a wagon,” Price said. “They were out in the woods in a pretty isolated area, but they saw a kitten cross their path and the little girl wanted to catch it.
“Her dad said he would find it and left her alone in the wagon. Well, I guess he had a time trying to catch that kitten and when he came back, the wagon was tipped over and the little girl was gone.
“Now the dad did what any dad would do. He went out into the woods to find her, but couldn’t. Then he called in his family and neighbors and before long there must have been 20 people trampling around out there looking for the little girl. They even got a helicopter up looking for her, and that’s about the time Sassie and I got called in.
“By that time the entire area was contaminated. We had the little girl’s blanket and a sippy bottle for Sassie to catch her scent, but the entire scene around was filled with too many scents of other people.
“So we went out to the perimeter and started cutting a big circle, trying to catch her scent, and then we found a little shoeprint in sand around an ant pile and then we were on her trail. It wasn’t too long after they spotted her from the helicopter.
“It was such a relief to find that little girl. I remember that case more than I do a lot of the others,” he said.
At eight-and-a-half years, Sassie is now semi-retired but Price says the dog has a proud record of 50 felony apprehensions.
Price said that his institution’s kennel of bloodhounds are exercised and trained daily. “We don’t use punishment to train them, it’s all about rewards.”
“It’s the dog that does all the work. It’s our job to stay in shape so we can keep up with them.
“And, as I learned early on,” he said, “they are not always successful. So much depends on the weather, the temperature and the barometric pressure, and how old the trail is. If it’s a day old trail and the weather conditions aren’t right, it will definitely be harder to follow the trail,” he said.
Florida’s institutional canine tracking teams are located at prisons around the state, on call at all hours to assist sheriff’s offices, police departments, the Florida Highway Patrol and others.
Statewide this year, Florida Department of Corrections officials say the bloodhounds and their handlers have handled over 611 calls.
Those officials say a typical call might be like the one on August 11 when the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office called in the K-9 team from Holmes Correctional Institution to track a man who was fleeing through the woods.
The man had been sitting on the porch of a house where 25 marijuana plants were growing in the front yard ; they had been spotted by a National Guard helicopter team tasked with locating such plants. As the helicopter hovered, the man took off into the woods.
The Holmes Correctional K-9 team mobilized quickly and was able to track the man through the woods ,catching up with him five miles from the residence.
Interspersed among such callouts are more humanitarian calls for aid, like one recently in which tracking teams from two correctional institutions were brought in to find a wandering Alzheimer's patient in Alachua County.
A family member of the 89-year-old man contacted the Alachua County Sheriff's Office to report that the man had walked away from his home located on a 30-acre tract spotted with ponds, swamp lands and alligators.
Bloodhounds from Baker Correctional Institution in Olustee and the Reception and Medical Center in Baker launched an almost immediate search for the man.
It took the bloodhounds only 45 minutes to find the confused man in a swampy area, and after he was checked over by an ambulance crew , he was returned to his family, uninjured.
Experienced trackers say their dogs are perfect for finding lost or runaway children and adults with dementia because unlike security dogs that are trained to take down and savage suspects, the tracking dogs are delighted to find those they track, tending to overwhelm their ‘targets’ with snuffling, howls, jumps and lots of licking.
Bloodhound Sadie leads Florida Department of Corrections K-9 Sergeant Charlie Price and Correctional Officers Jarrod Barfield and Craig Alexander on a practice chase on the grounds of Jackson Correctional Institution.
Sgt.Charlie Price with Sadie