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Dogged faith in these trackers

The fliers for Amber Dubois were posted across Southern California, volunteers scoured fields and parks, police followed hundreds of tips -- but six months after the teenager’s disappearance, her family still had no answers.

Then search dogs Quincy and Jack were put on the case, tugging their handlers down the same streets Amber strolled the day she vanished, and hopes lifted.

It didn’t matter that some scientists and dog handler associations considered it highly improbable that canines could trace a human scent months old,or that Quincy and Jack weren’t bloodhounds, the typical tracking breed.

Last August, Quincy, a yellow Labrador, and Jack, a German short-haired pointer, led the handlers 20 miles from Amber’s suburban home to a remote Indian village, where the dogs went into an alerting frenzy. Her family thought it could mean only one thing: Amber.

“We believe in those dogs,” said Amber’s father, Moe Dubois, an electronics engineer. “We’ve seen it firsthand.”

But police apparently weren’t convinced. They shut down the canine search, and the case grew colder.

Six months after the dogs departed, authorities found Amber’s skeletal remains on a scrub-covered hillside in northern San Diego County, about two miles from the Indian village.

Police in Amber’s hometown of Escondido haven’t disclosed what led them to the remains, though a registered sex offender is a focus of the investigation. But the dogs’ tracking efforts, finishing relatively close to Amber’s body, have added another layer of intrigue. Reactions have ranged from appreciation to disbelief, reflecting the dueling views over whether dogs can revive investigations that are months old.

Some Dubois relatives say they believe Amber would have been found months earlier if police had placed more faith in the dogs.

The handlers, Sarah Platts and Julie R. Jones, partners at Virginia-based VK9 Scent Specific Search and Recovery Unit, say their highly trained dogs possess specialized skills that have made believers of many families and police agencies.

“It’s a revelation for some folks,” said Platts, 48, adding that her volunteer organization has helped authorities gather evidence on numerous murder and missing-person cases.

Dog handler organizations are skeptical. Their profession, members say, has been undermined over the years by handlers claiming amazing crime-busting abilities who were later exposed as frauds. They say Quincy and Jack’s work was an incredible coincidence or a calculated hoax.

Attributing heroic skills to lovable dogs is natural but invites false hope, said Roger Titus, a trainer with the National Police Bloodhound Assn.

“I understand the family. They’re looking for closure,” Titus said. “I would like to believe those [handlers] . . . but I wouldn’t put my badge or reputation on it.”

Amber, a 14-year-old with a passion for animals, was last seen Feb. 13, 2009, on her way to Escondido High School. By August, the increasingly desperate family was reduced to fielding calls from psychics claiming visions of the blue-eyed girl.

Among the groups offering help was VK9. Amber’s grandmother, Sheila Welch, an attorney, said she hired the organization after checking its references. The handlers charged only for travel and hotel expenses.

“Many chiefs of police stated that they had helped in searches,” Welch said.

Platts, a purchasing agent for the Navy, started the nonprofit group in 2006 to fill the cold-case niche in the search industry. Most police dogs work “hot trails,” usually within 48 hours of the report of an incident. The organization’s claims thrust it into a fierce debate over a central question: How durable is the human scent?

A scent trail is produced by the constant shedding of dead skin cells, a process that creates a minute vapor cloud behind every human being. No one knows how long the scent endures; there are few published studies. Some scientists and veteran handlers say it degrades quickly.

“I’ve never heard of a dog being able to follow 5-month-old scent under test conditions,” said I. Lehr Brisbin, a senior researcher of animal behavior at the University of Georgia. Twenty-four hours, Brisbin said, is the oldest trail he’s ever seen followed, adding that elements such as wind, heat and rain quickly dissipate scents.

Platts and Jones, 50, say they believe that scent is more durable than previously thought and cite a 2004 FBI study that suggests the same, though it doesn’t specify an exact duration.

The handlers trained Jack and Quincy from their puppy days by sending them down scent trails left weeks or months earlier by family and friends. “We tried and were successful, and started questioning, ‘How much else can we do?’ ” Platts said.

VK9’s website includes praise from several police departments. “I was very impressed with the work that they did for us . . . it was right on the money,” Police Chief John Vermillion of Kenton, Ohio, said in an interview, referring to a case in which the dogs helped trace a triple-murder suspect’s moves over several miles, about a month after the killings.

He said the suspect later provided a detailed route that coincided with the trail Quincy and Jack followed.

In the search for Amber, the first stop was her poster-filled bedroom. Platts and Jones transferred the girl’s scent from her clothing to gauze pads that would provide the dogs with a fresh reminder during the hunt. The dogs bounded down the hill from Amber’s home and quickly fell into their distinct searching styles.

Jack sniffed at the air and let the trail take him down the middle of busy streets. He was so fast that an officer in a previous case had nicknamed him Rocket Dog. Quincy was slower, a ground sniffer who liked to roam widely and check objects along the way, ignoring distractions like cats.

They moved around the block from Amber’s home toward North Broadway Avenue, where they proceeded down the sidewalk to the spot where she was last seen, near Escondido High.

“Both broke at that same point,” Moe Dubois recalled. “The dogs started picking up a scent in the street where a car would have traveled. It was an amazing sight to watch.”

Human scent can flow from a car’s ventilation system, but there is sharp disagreement over how long the trail endures.

The dogs continued several blocks to the Interstate 15 onramp. Amber must have gotten in a car that was driven onto the freeway, the team concluded.

The dogs were taken by vehicle to exit ramps where the handlers hoped they would pick up the scent. At Pala Road, several exits north of Escondido, the canines hit on something and eventually took their handlers down State Route 76 to the Pala Indian Reservation.

According to the handlers, private investigator Lawrence Olmstead and publicist Michelle Bart, both of whom were also hired by the family, the dogs gave signs of a “scent pool” -- an accumulation of a person’s scent that triggers constant alerts from canines.

Jack made a beeline to a few homes and businesses. Quincy did the same, scratching and pawing at certain doors. Both dogs eventually made it to the heart of the village, which features a historic mission, small park and library.

In one building, Quincy reached up and knocked an object off a shelf. He put his paw and nose on it. The handlers would not say what the object was because of the ongoing investigation, but they believed it had been touched by Amber. The dogs failed to find a scent trail leading out of the town, which left three possible scenarios: Amber was alive or dead in the village, or she had been killed and taken elsewhere.

Had Amber been killed, her body would have emitted a scent different from the one the dogs had been following. The team wanted to return the next day to do a cadaver search, but Escondido police shut down the operation, according to the team. The police, who declined to comment, conducted a follow-up investigation and questioned village residents, but the effort yielded no leads.

On March 6, police found Amber’s remains off Pala Temecula Road. They are investigating John Albert Gardner III, a sex offender who has been charged with the rape and murder of another teenage girl, Chelsea King of Poway.

Since the discovery, local media outlets have done stories about how the dogs came close to discovering Amber’s remains and hailed them as a valuable tool for law enforcement. But bloodhound organizations are wary. In the past, handlers have implicated people who were later exonerated.

So how do professional handlers explain how the dogs ended up so close to Amber’s remains? “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every now and then,” said Russ Hess, executive director of the U.S. Police Canine Assn.

Or the dogs may have been steered into the village by their handlers, who could have been privy to case information. “I think it’s a fabrication,” said Doug Lowry, president of the bloodhound association.

Platts and Jones said that to avoid such charges, they choose not to learn the specifics about cases.

“The handlers have 20 or 30 years working bloodhounds and here come two girls with two dogs that aren’t bloodhounds,” Platts said, “and they say they’re doing things that even their bloodhounds can’t do? They get defensive.”

VK9 certainly made believers of the Dubois family. Moe Dubois trusts the dogs’ abilities so much that he wants to organize a search for another missing person in San Diego County.

“We know how Amber walked to school, and the dogs followed the exact path she would have followed,” he said. “They’re amazing.”

richard.marosi @latimes.com


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