ARUN RATH, HOST:
A lot of agencies rely on dogs to assist with search and rescue and crime investigations. Here in Los Angeles, the county coroner has a K-9 working full-time on death investigations. Gloria Hillard introduces us to Indiana Bones.
(SOUNDBITE OF AMBIENT NOISE)
GLORIA HILLARD, BYLINE: Winding roads are not unfamiliar to the woman behind the wheel of this Los Angeles coroner's vehicle. They often lead to secluded remote areas.
KARINA PECK: Additional information came in from an old cold case. Two missing persons - and we have a possible location where they may be located now, so...
HILLARD: Karina Peck is an investigator and K-9 handler with the LA County Coroner's office. The truck rolls over uneven hard-packed earth, which dead-ends in a shallow canyon. When it comes to a stop, Indiana Bones, a human remains detection dog, is on alert, nose sniffing the air.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)
HILLARD: Before she deploys the dog, Peck will take a look at the terrain. She's joined by LA County Sheriff Homicide Detective Tim O'Quinn.
TIM O'QUINN: Now, this area here to the right was actually called out by one of our informants.
HILLARD: That information is new, but the case is more than a decade old. The area in question - the scene of a possible crime - covers more than 11 acres of heavy brush and gullies surrounded by jagged canyon walls.
O'QUINN: If you're going to kill somebody and bury them, this is the place to do it. As you see how large an area this is, there's no way we're going to locate bodies unless the actual suspect who did it comes and points it out, and that's unlikely. So we're dependent on the cadaver dog to show us if there is anything worth digging.
HILLARD: Outside the truck, the dog's eyes are locked on her handler. They have worked together since 2009 finding buried bodies from backyards to wide stretches of wilderness. The dog was born and trained in the Netherlands, so her working commands are in Dutch.
PECK: Alright, zoek. Indy, zoek.
HILLARD: Zoek or search - Indiana Bones - Indy for short - bounds down the hill zigzagging over the terrain, nose to the ground. Peck shadows her, looking for behavior indicators - her breathing and body language. The area is littered with remains of bulldozed trailers, mounds of weathered lumber, twisted metal paint cans, tires. Peck tells the detectives the debris with a case this old could be a problem.
PECK: The scent's just not going to be as strong. If it was something more recent, then we wouldn't need to remove it all. She would be able to pick it up easily from a distance. But something that's just complete skeletonized bone, it's a little bit more challenging.
HILLARD: Indiana Bones has more than 130 finds of recovered human remains, which have helped to secure murder convictions and provide long sought closure for families of missing persons.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG PANTING)
PECK: There's a lot of soft areas in the soil, so it would be fairly easy to shovel out here.
HILLARD: When India detects human remains, be it bone fragments, tissue or grave dirt, she will alert by first staring and then lying down on the spot. It's been close to two hours and that hasn't happened. But Peck points out it had rained just the day before.
PECK: Whenever it's cold and damp, then the molecules just don't rise the same way. So some of the areas are pretty muddy still.
HILLARD: Peck is hesitant in saying the area is clear - that there are no bodies buried here. But in a few weeks when the ground has dried out, they will come back. For Indy, this serious work is play that is rewarded by her toy, which is in Peck's back pocket.
PECK: Not till you find me something. Zoek - find it.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOG PANTING)
HILLARD: What does she mean to you?
PECK: Everything. I mean, yes, she's the department's dog, but we are with each other 24/7.
HILLARD: When Indy retires, Peck will be able to purchase her from the county for a dollar. Now it's time to head back to the city. Peck looks back at the dog and smiles. She knows within minutes Indiana Bones will be softly snoring in the back of the truck. For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.
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