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Volunteer teams complete certification at Butler Park

By Sharon Graves

The News-Democrat

Saving lives and finding lost or deceased individuals is what drives a local all-volunteer group known as Commonwealth Canine Search and Recovery.

CCSR has two separate groups of volunteers with about 20 operating teams of dogs and handlers, plus another 15 support personnel. One group concentrates on finding individuals while the other group known as HardRock works with law enforcement to find illegal and illicit drugs.

Fifteen of those teams were training and being certified in General Butler State Resort Park April 2-5, according to Emergency Management Director Ed Webb. Twelve were certified by the end of the weekend.

CCSR concentrates on search and recovery of individuals, hopefully alive, but more often than not dead, Lannis Garnett, CCSR chairman said.  The dog and handler teams train about 40 out of 52 weekends a year to find victims in all types of terrain or in the water, Garnett said.

The group has spent about $500,000 of their own money to purchase campers, trailers, boats and equipment used in their rescue efforts, according to Garnett.  

They also have a sophisticated computer system to track all the teams of dogs and handlers and what trainings and certifications they have received, according to Charles Cooper, CCSR communications specialist.

The group is extremely diverse with nurses, schoolteachers, a coroner, veterinarians, physician’s assistants, welders, Ph.D’s, paramedics and EMT’s as members according to Garnett.  

At this particular training session, the dogs and handlers trained during the day on the water and land looking for live victims or for cadaver material. Testing at night began after 8 p.m. and went as late as 4 a.m., according to Ed Webb.

Nighttime is a better time to test because there are less distractions and the scent comes off the hilltops and wafts downward, Garnett said.  If a dog fails this certification then they cannot participate in a search until they pass the next certification in six months. This gives them enough time to improve their skills, he noted.

The group charges nothing for its services though donations are accepted.  

Teams come on search sites in fully contained campers committed to stay 72 hours to aid in the search for individuals, according to Cletus Smith, long time CCSR member and developer of the certification program.  

Cletus trained the first search and rescue dog in Kentucky and has been at this for 23 years. He currently works with the HardRock division of CCSR. He and his wife Patsy were both present for the training and certification in GBSP over the weekend.  

Both Patsy and Cletus agreed that having someone missing is one of the worst things that can happen to a family. “If it were our child that was missing, we’d want someone ready and trained,” Cletus said.  

Local resident Charles Webb and his wife Emily were also at the exercises over the weekend.  They had their dog Levi, a yellow lab, working on a boat training to find cadaver remains in a specified section of the lake at the park.  

Charles has been training his dog for 3 1/2 years and was also part of the large campsite.

It takes at least two years to get a dog and handler trained to be effective in a search and recovery, according to Cletus. CCSR has logged more than 500 hours in training and another 500 hours in missions in the last year, Patsy added.

The dogs work off leads and answer to voice commands, Cletus explained.  “One dog can clear as much area in the same amount of time as 48 trained searchers,” Cletus said.  

Ed Webb said that about 20 state Emergency Management officials from Frankfort who were observing the certification and training process joined the group on Saturday.  

“The Commonwealth is extremely fortunate to have such dedicated volunteers,” said Brigadier Gen. John W. Heltzel of the Kentucky Emergency Management.

CCSR has members from almost all counties running straight through the center of Kentucky from north to south.  They are considered from this area because of their affiliation with Carroll County’s Emergency Services, according to Webb.  

CCSR officials said they are grateful to the park and its manager Tim Hibbard for its use in their training exercises as they took up one entire area of the campground for their many campers, two command stations and several boats.

About two years ago, CCSR aided in the search of a man who walked away from the Sanders Nursing Home, Garnett said. The gentleman had been missing for several days when CCSR was called in. They found the man deceased in 19 minutes.

A high profile case CCSR worked on was the missing four-year old boy, Cesar “Ivan” Agular-Cano in Louisville. The boy went missing from his home near Churchill Downs and his case was featured on America’s Most Wanted. His body was found over a week later in a garbage truck.

 The CCSR team worked the case off and on for about a week and also worked the landfill in Trimble County where the trash from the area the boy went missing was dumped. Their dogs hit on the exact trashcan the boy’s body had been in and the can was traced back to a convicted sex offender, Cecil Eugene New II, 46, who is being prosecuted in the boy’s death, according to Garnett.