SLIDELL, La. — Wading through knee-high waters in the marshes near Slidell, James “Trey” Todd, and his K-9 partner are on full alert for any sign of movement. While their mission is to locate the remains of a local man, they are also watching out for the 500-pound beast that bit into him.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, the man Timothy Satterlee was attacked by an alligator outside his home. Then Satterlee and the gator both vanished.
Todd was one of several members of the Louisiana Search and Rescue Dog team called to search for Satterlee. Todd and his yellow Labrador retriever named Messi Rue crisscrossed the alligator-infested swamps for days, fully aware of the dangers that hid just below the surface.
“I was scared to death,” Todd said.
In that case, wildlife officials found the 12-foot alligator before the cadaver dogs could, and DNA showed that Satterlee’s remains were inside its stomach. But just three weeks later, Todd and Messi Rue were at the forefront of a search for a missing woman.
Leslie Ann Smith had abandoned her car on the side of the road a month earlier in Lamar County, Mississippi. Deputies looked for her in the adjacent woods, but the dog team found her scattered remains, along with a gun that suggested suicide, about a half-mile from the original search perimeter.
Members of the search-and-rescue team, known as LaSAR, have deployed their dogs on more than 600 searches across the country since Lisa Higgins and her daughter Troi-Marie founded the group in St. Tammany Parish in 1991. Working with the FBI and local police agencies, the team has helped solve dozens of criminal investigations by searching for cadavers. It also has rescued missing Alzheimer’s patients and found runaway teens.
As a non-profit organization, the team’s 11 members are all volunteers. Todd is an orthopedist, and Higgins has worked jobs ranging from a law enforcement reservist to a K-9 contractor for the FBI. But they all spend many hours training their dogs to rescue missing people and recover human remains.
“So you’re not doing it for monetary gain for any reason whatsoever, strictly that you do the best job you can and try to bring them home for the family,” Higgins said.
The dog team has traveled as far north as Anchorage, Alaska, and as far south as Puerto Rico. Some of the canines have been able to locate bodies submerged under 129 feet of water and gravesites used by the Chakchiuma tribe in the late 17th century.
In one of the team’s biggest coups, Higgins and her dog Dixie searched a ranch in Colorado for a man after multiple attempts by other cadaver dogs led to nothing in 2017.
Dixie indicated a portion of the corral filled with dead farm animals and feces, where the man’s remains were found under several feet of waste. His body had been wrapped in plastic and buried next to a 55-gallon drum of dead animals.
This was a unique search because the mixing odors of the decaying animals could have confused the dogs.
Researchers for the LSU Cold Case Project are investigating tips about where the remains of Joseph Edwards, a young black man who was killed in 1964 in Concordia Parish, might lie. Higgins said the dogs might be able to help in that search even though so many decades have passed.
The dogs use their heightened sense of smell to track down the natural odors emitted from a decomposing body. If properly trained, they are able to detect human remains from miles away with an accuracy that humbles modern technology.
When a dog locates the suspected area of the remains, it will use something Higgins describes as a trained final response. These responses, such as sitting or barking, are passive indicators meant to alert the handler without damaging a potential gravesite.
The dogs train in various types of human remains detection, ranging from land and water to disaster and urban capabilities.
“Because you never know where you’re going to have to search, we try to avail ourselves of training in all different types,” Higgins said.
Just as the dogs are trained, the handlers are, too. Higgins and her teammates practice looking for changes in each dog’s behavior when it picks up a scent. It takes a keen eye and a deeper relationship with the dog to notice the subtle indicators.
And while it may seem as though only specific breeds of dogs are capable of such feats, Kirsten Watson, a LaSAR member, and a former animal control officer, emphasizes the intangible qualities a dog possesses.
“Any dog can do it, but they have to have the drive,” Watson said.
Watson’s German Shepherd Quest has that drive, and that was evident this fall at one of the team’s regular Saturday practices at the New Orleans Fire Training Academy. Eager to start, Quest practically dragged Watson out onto the field, where pieces of human heart and placenta had been hidden.
His rambunctious energy instantly silenced once Watson let him off her leash. His instincts kicked into high gear as he weaved through the field with his nose on the ground sniffing for the remains.
Watson noticed the moment when Quest’s ears perked up. He had found the scent.
In a blur of black and brown, Quest bolted through the tall marsh grass toward the source of the odor. Spotting the jar of heart remains tucked underneath a tree branch, Quest came to a dead stop and sat quietly, as if trained to do this his whole life.
In most recovery searches, the body is not visible, so the handlers must put their faith in their dogs’ ability to sniff out the remains.
On their first search in May 1991, the LaSAR team was called by the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office to search for the body of a boy who went missing after currents in the Amite River dragged him underwater.
Hanging off the bow of a police boat, Higgins’ golden Labrador Frosty sniffed the gliding waters of the river until he whined to Higgins, indicating he had located the body.
Frosty found the boy within the first four minutes of the search, and after 10 hours of excavating, the boy’s body was recovered. He had been buried under four feet of water and three feet of sand.
Since then, the team has found a four-year-old boy beneath a Mississippi River dock and the body of another boy who had jumped off a barge in the river.
Searching for missing people and human remains can be an arduous process that sometimes takes an emotional toll. Before every search, Higgins always reminds herself of what she was called to do.
“I don’t worry so much about what I might see,” Higgins said. “I worry that I’m doing a good job working the dog as we trained and the dog doing its job as it was trained.”
The dog team is close-knit and shares in one another’s accomplishments. Whenever a dog successfully detects a source and uses the correct final response, the entire team is sure to shower the canine in praise and well-deserved head scratches.
While positive reinforcement helps the team succeed, trust is crucial. Higgins describes it as the most important aspect of the job, especially since venturing into unknown terrain with only the nose of a dog as your guide could cause anyone to doubt.
She likes to wear a neon orange shirt with upside-down black letters that spells out: “TRUST YOUR DOG.” “If you can do your due diligence and that dog knows its job, then when your dog goes into action, you have to stand behind them,” Higgins said. “That’s why we do it, that’s why we work so hard.”
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