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Drugs, missing people, fugitives and chew toys: K-9 units make huge impact in Montana

Posted at 8:28 AM, May 09, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-10 10:56:43-04

KALISPELL — Audie chews on a rubber toy for fun, and he arrests bad guys for work.

As Flathead County Sheriff’s Office K-9 handler and Deputy Sheriff Patrick McGauley puts it, the 4.5-year-old Belgian Malinois is a “force multiplier.”

Playing with a KONG, a popular pinecone-shaped dog toy, is the pup’s reward for sniffing out a suspected bad guy, or more recently, gal.

“Audie loses his mind over a KONG,” McGauley said.

Viktor is also on the force, and he was the youngest dog to be certified through the California Narcotic Officers’ Association, said Deputy Sheriff Matt Vander Ark. The floppy-eared 4-year-old is a fast searcher and can find a lost child or even dementia patient.

“They call him a superdog. He’s full of energy, that’s for sure,” Vander Ark said.

Working dogs do their jobs for a reward. Audie’s favorite reward is playing with a KONG, the rubber toy he’s holding here.

Across Montana, K-9 units have helped fortify law enforcement agencies in making arrests, seizing illegal drugs, and searching for lost people or cadavers. The Flathead County Sheriff’s Office launched its K-9 program in 2019 with $50,000 raised by the community, although Search and Rescue have used the dogs longer, the deputies said.

“It was something the community definitely wanted,” Vander Ark said. “It was well received. And we’ve had a lot of learning opportunities and a lot of success.”

The Montana Highway Patrol brought on its first K-9 unit roughly a decade ago. State authorities said in the fourth largest state in the country with many miles of highways to cover and illegal drugs a pressing concern, the dogs are key to taking substances like fentanyl off the streets.

“They’re very well worth their time,” said Capt. Jim Sanderson of the Highway Patrol. “Without the tool of the narcotic-detecting K9, we would have to let many smugglers go.”

More than a decade ago, Montana had fallen behind its neighbors when it came to patrolling the highways, said retired Col. Kenton Hickethier. He said the K-9s were the missing link.

Just last month, the Attorney General’s Office announced drug seizures were up significantly compared to last year. The AG’s announcement gave a nod to the K-9s with the Highway Patrol.

“It’s integral in the portion of our mission to negatively impact criminals utilizing the highways and byways transporting dangerous drugs into and through Montana,” Sanderson said in a call with the Daily Montana.

K-9 ‘key’ in Montana law enforcement

Roughly a decade ago, Hickethier was working with the Rocky Mountain Highway Patrol Network, comprised of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and Montana, and troopers were making “significant seizures on the highways, sometimes daily,” he said.

The states had recognized the interstate system was a corridor for drug trafficking from Mexico and through Canada, and Hickethier said the Highway Patrol “got pretty good at just training our officers.” But Montana’s results weren’t as robust as the rest of the network’s.

“The other three states were doing a lot better because they had the missing piece, of course, of the K-9 units,” Hickethier said.

Pup treats are part of the gear in the back of Audie’s and McGauley’s SUV.

In 2013, Montana brought on Tika, the Highway Patrol’s first K-9, who died a couple of months ago, Sanderson said. Sanderson took on Tika, a Belgian Malinois and German shepherd mix, when the dog’s first handler retired, and Tika could locate narcotics and also help with foot pursuits.

Tika’s biggest job was helping seize 88 pounds of cocaine in Lake County that was destined for Canada, Sanderson said. She “indicated” illegal narcotics might be present with a vehicle, meaning she sat and stared intently at the source, and troopers found “a very professionally constructed concealed compartment beneath the bed of a pickup truck.”

The reward? “She got to play for approximately 15 to 20 seconds with an old firefighting hose.”

Hickethier said having the dogs in Montana solidified the idea they could help law enforcement, especially because the Highway Patrol works closely with sheriff’s offices across the state to fight crime. He said federal grants from the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program helped launch the K-9s in Montana at no cost to the taxpayer.

In the most recent legislative session, the marijuana legalization bill, House Bill 701, included $300,000 for the Department of Justice to award grants to state and local authorities to purchase and train drug-detecting K-9s. Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Jay Nelson said most of the funds for K-9s comes from state and federal grants, and some also comes from drug seizure money.

In 2021, the Highway Patrol counted 137 K-9 deployments with a fluctuating number of dogs statewide, roughly 11 at present, Nelson said. Over time, he said the K-9s have been doing more and more work.

Hickethier said the K-9 program helps across agencies, and the investment is worth the effort, especially in rural Montana. He said the dogs serve as another officer on the street as well as backup and neutralize violence to boot.

“The dogs surpass all the training, the upkeep, and purchasing, I don’t know how many times, (with) the seizures that are made, and taking the drugs off the street, and making the cartel hurt financially.”

Marijuana-sniffing K-9s to retire

Montana has heightened privacy rights, so Nelson said law enforcement officers are cautious about using K-9s.

“We are extremely careful about when we deploy our dogs,” Nelson said. “This isn’t a safety thing. This is a civil rights thing.”

Some dogs see more activity than others, he said, like the bomb dog searching the Capitol or other places where the governor or dignitaries might be is active. The K-9 is busy, he said, but also “thankfully” not hitting on explosives on a regular basis.

Hary is a new K-9 working for the Montana Highway Patrol. In his first month on the job, the German shepherd and Malinois mix helped seize 13 pounds of methamphetamines and 1,000 fentanyl pills, according to the Montana Department of Justice.

Dog deployments and drug seizures are trending up, Nelson said. In cases of suspected illegal drugs or contraband, he said, “when they call for a K-9, it’s pretty much very highly probable that that dog is going to hit on it.”

In just the first quarter of this year, troopers seized more than 12,000 fentanyl pills compared to a little more than 3,000 all of last year, a “huge uptick” and almost four times as much in one quarter as all of last year, he said. Last year, troopers picked up 40 pounds of methamphetamines, and this year, in one quarter, they’ve taken 30 pounds.

Now that recreational marijuana is legal in Montana, the Highway Patrol plans to get new dogs that don’t indicate on marijuana once the current K-9s retire, Nelson said. In one newbie’s first month, Hary, a German shepherd and Malinois mix that doesn’t indicate on weed, helped seize 13 pounds of methamphetamines and 1,000 fentanyl pills.

“He’s built like a linebacker,” Nelson said.

A couple more four-legged officers will be coming online soon. Sanderson said with the new attorney general and command staff, the highway patrol has been approved to use “dual purpose K-9s again,” or dogs trained on both narcotics and foot pursuits.

“Right now, we have two troopers being introduced and trained with their new dual purpose K-9s,” Sanderson said. “So they’ll be back in Montana and hopefully certified and on the road by mid May.”

K-9 Audie busy busting suspects

In March, the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office announced “Sheriff K9 Audie” located a suspect who was arrested on burglary charges. McGauley, Audie’s handler, said the officers got a call for a burglary taking place in the south end of the county.

Deputy Sheriff McGauley tested roughly a dozen dogs before choosing Audie for his potential to apprehend suspects. “You’re immediately going to start testing that dog’s nerve,” McGauley said.

One deputy immediately found a male suspect in the yard and took him into custody, McGauley said. The suspect said there was a female present as well, but he didn’t know her whereabouts.

“The difficult part about that scene was that it was a large piece of property and had a lot of stuff on it,” dozens of old cars and piles of other items, McGauley said.

In those circumstances, he said the best way to search is with a dog, and the Sheriff’s Office used Audie, who trains daily with McGauley, and a drone. Audie was sniffing for human odor, and one difficulty is fresh scent was everywhere, McGauley said. They found nothing near the main residence, so McGauley cast out further, and Audie picked up a track.

They worked through wind around a pond, and eventually, they found the female suspect hiding behind a large pile of wooden posts, McGauley said. He said she had buried herself underneath some pine straw, and in such a big property, and with the limited number of officers assigned to cover the county of 5,000 square miles, they would not have found the second suspect without Audie. At first, he said they couldn’t even tell that a human was under the pile.

“We started giving commands to show her hands,” McGauley said.

Audie is trained to bite, but K-9’s bite fewer than one in five suspects, and if the person is compliant, officers don’t have to use the dog to “engage the suspect,” McGauley said. Plus, even just finding prey is exciting to the dog, as is the reward of play.

Audie hasn’t been hurt in action, but the Sheriff’s Office wants to secure a grant for a bullet proof vest for him, McGauley said: “The dog would only wear it in certain situations, like this one.”

Since July 2021, when Audie went into service, the K-9 has been deployed 46 times and contributed to 29 arrests, McGauley said: “Deployments can range from article searches to area searches where we don’t think someone is still on scene but want to make sure, to building searches when we know the suspect is present but won’t surrender, and everything in between.”

The worst criminal Audie took down was a man who had fired at law enforcement in Washington, shot at cops in Idaho, and then ended up in Mineral County with a firearm, said McGauley and Vander Ark. The regional SWAT team surrounded the camper where they believed the man had hidden, and within 30 seconds of sending in Audie, confirmed the suspect was in the camper and pinpointed his specific location. Authorities apprehended the man.

“The K-9 being present in the community does wonders for public safety in general,” McGauley said.

Viktor works for the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office and can find illegal drugs.