OKEECHOBEE — Sixteen K-9s and their handlers were in Okeechobee this week for training and certification with the Police Work Dog Association of Florida (PWDAF).
Those teams were from different law enforcement agencies and were in Okeechobee Oct. 26 through Oct. 29.
Wednesday, handlers put their dogs through their paces as they searched for illegal narcotics — marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy — in five different cars staged in the parking lot of the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office (OCSO).
OCSO Detective Sergeant Jimmy Mills said the K-9s also had to search a sixth vehicle, but no drugs were hidden in that car.
Sgt. Mills, who is training to become a K-9 evaluator, said 23 grams of heroin was hidden in the firewall on the driver’s side of one vehicle; 15.6 grams of cocaine was hidden in the bottom door seam of another car; 8.3 grams of meth was hidden in the front grill of a vehicle; 16.7 grams of ecstasy was hidden in the driver’s side rear-door seam of an OCSO patrol unit; and, 10.7 grams of pot was hidden under the rear bumper of yet another vehicle.
The K-9s were hindered in their search Wednesday morning because of the gusty winds.
“The wind makes it extremely difficult for the dog because the odor is continually moving,” said Sgt. Mills. “When the odor is changing (due to the wind) or it’s a difficult hide, you (the handler) have to help out your dog.”
OCSO Deputy Bart Potter and his K-9 Kiki were first to search the vehicles Wednesday and, despite the wind, Kiki had little trouble finding the hidden dope in the first four vehicles. And, she wasn’t fooled by having to search the blank car. However, finding the ecstasy in the last car gave the soon-to-be 5-year-old Belgium Malinois some trouble — partly because she was tired, partly because of the wind and partly because ecstasy is tougher to sniff out.
“Ecstasy is harder for the dog to smell,” said Sgt. Mills.
The veteran detective and K-9 handler said there are four basic odors for which dogs are trained to find — pot, cocaine, methamphetamine and heroin.
“Finding ecstasy is an extra,” added Sgt. Mills.
PWDAF evaluator Tony Cavallaro, from the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s Office (SLCSO), said Kiki had earned her certification.
Deputy Cavallaro, a K-9 handler since 1989, has been an evaluator since 1992 with the PWDAF. He is also certified by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) and is an FDLE subject matter expert.
His current K-9, R.J., is a 5-year-old male German Shepherd. R.J. is a drug dog as well as a patrol K-9, which means he does tracking, searches and apprehension.
All of the teams gathered at the KOA Convention Center Tuesday evening for a dinner reception. Also, OCSO’s K-9 Nero and K-9 Barco were honored for their years of service.
Nero’s handler, Deputy Matt Crawford, and Barco’s handler, Deputy Brian Cross, received shadow boxes containing their dog’s leads, harnesses, badges and various pictures of their time with the sheriff’s office.
Also recognized for her years of service was K-9 Sandy from the Glades County Sheriff’s Office (GCSO). Her watch ended Sept. 11 of this year. Her handler, former GCSO detective and current FDLE Special Agent Steve Harris was also given a shadow box containing memories of Sandy.
“I’m very proud of the job these K-9 teams have done for our community, including former-Detective Sergeant Steve Harris and K-9 Sandy, who had worked with us for years,” said Sgt. Mills.
OCSO Major Noel Stephen said the more training the handlers receive, the better they can do their jobs.
“Training is never-ending in our business. (OCSO) Senior Investigator Rick Voss coordinated this training which enabled us to train all five of our handlers and their partners more economically, as opposed to sending them out of county for the same training.”
After the teams finished their vehicle searches Wednesday morning, they were going to spend the rest of the day at the G4S facility where the K-9s would be doing building searches.
Thursday, said Sgt. Mills, the K-9s were going to conduct searches for large quantities of drugs during traffic stops.
The OCSO currently has five K-9 teams, they are: Deputy Potter and K-9 Kiki; Deputy Kristen Gray and K-9 Remi; Deputy Cross and K-9 Magnum; Deputy Leland Schoonmaker and K-9 Samba; and, Deputy Crawford and K-9 Mick.
Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News