Cadaver: Underground Scent Flow
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Cadaver Recovery Location

A Story of Underground Airflow

By Will Rothenberger


Several years ago, I bought a dog and training from ASCT. I flew to Virginia and attended the cadaver recovery program. My lab, Chelsea, and I bonded together quickly and worked day and night to get through the technical school. We certified and were on our way home when I was suddenly overcome with feelings of euphoria. I was finally able to do what I had always wanted to do…work a dog for investigation assistance.

I have never been in law enforcement. In fact, prior to training with Chelsea, I never had a whole lot of dog experience. But that all changed very quickly. After I returned home, I trained hard. I was well aware that with cadaver recovery work, it could be months before I was called out and years before I was able to really make a giant hit that would bust a case wide open. Regardless, I loved the work and the technical knowledge was second to none.

I was surprised when less that two months after retuning home from Virginia; I was summoned by a local authority to conduct a search. Though beneficial to my experience and impressive to the detectives on the scene, my search didn’t produce any real valuable evidence at the specific location. However, about a week later, the senior detective again asked me to conduct a search at an old service station - long since closed down - that was located about half a mile due south of the property where I had recently searched.

I climbed from my Dodge pickup at daybreak. The senior detective, who was alone this trip, met me. The New Mexico day was going to be blazing hot and I could already feel the sweat start to race down my back.

Chelsea came out of the truck ready to work. I had kept her quiet the evening prior and it was paying off.

The old building and property totaled about two acres. I mapped my coordinates and reference points, checked my scent windage, and started sweeping the property as a whole. After the first sweep, I was drenched with sweat. The sun was beaming down and the detective had retreated to his air-conditioned car. But Chelsea kept working - hard. I completed the first sweep with two interest areas. First, Chelsea gave a weak alert near the rear corner of the building, where the exterior rest room had been. Inside, there were crumbling walls and several small trees that had forced their way through the cracked concrete. Then, Chelsea gave a decent interest near a tall, rusted, steel pole that probably held a sign for the service station back in the early sixties.

Chelsea and I took an hour break, sipped water from my camel pack (yes she drank from the same pack), end enjoyed the air conditioning. Then, we returned to work.

This time we had an audience. Two curious patrol officers, a unit captain and one of their patrol K9 handlers joined the senior detective. The group of by-standers followed the property perimeter while Chelsea returned to the same interest areas as before. This time, she gave me a solid, convincing alert near the restroom. I summoned the observers over to conduct a visual search of the area while I moved Chelsea forty feet away to search the pole.

Chelsea gave me a weak alert at the pole, swirled her body around, and began to lower her head (as though tracking). I thought she may be trying to scent me back the direction we came but when she continued to spin in circles, I knew this was no track. She was onto something.

The senior detective called to me and advised that it looked like there was freshly poured concrete underneath the plumbing crawlspace that was directly below the restroom. I marked all of the alerts and worked my way back to the restroom. Upon joining the group of supporters, I looked back and saw a perfectly serpentine path that Chelsea had worked. Red flags weaved right to left and back again from the tall pole all the way to the restroom.

The police captain produced a hammer. As the senior detective kicked and tore at the crawlspace foundation, Chelsea began to show great interest. Her nose became active with every piece of concrete that was tossed aside.

The detective stood back and I sent Chelsea in. Within seconds, she was alerting to the gray colored concrete pad that was roughly set.

Within three hours, the concrete pad was removed and as expected our victim’s body lay exposed. Still intact but with hands and feet bound by a poly cord, the female victim of nineteen years old had been brutally raped and murdered. Her killer had already been arrested. He had refused to give information on the body location and denied ever having killed the young woman. But his mother suspected her son and gave the police her information. That information had led to the cadaver searches.

As the work crews removed the structure of the building, so that investigators could obtain evidence, they had dug the entire path that Chelsea had alerted to - all the way to the metal pole. Below the surface, directly where she had carved her serpentine path, was a large, cheaply installed, septic line. The rusted metal fabric carried the waste from the old service station out into the nearby property. The line was barely a foot under the surface and where it joined the restroom was directly below where the victim’s body had been placed. Only a few inches of soil spaced the body from the large pipe and the airflow that breezed through it.

I learned a valuable lesson about specific airflow that day and the knowledge has remained with me on several other positive searches.

I was fortunate to have a find so early in my career as a handler. I must give credit to Chelsea, my baby pup, and to the training I received from ASCT. I always wanted to be an investigator. This allows me to be just that. I am still thrilled about that first find - even after five years.


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