Bloodhound has a nose for arsonists

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RICHMOND — A bloodhound’s keen sense of smell has helped Virginia forestry officials solve more than 50 criminal cases and has won out-of-state raves for her ability to sniff out people who set forest fires.

When investigating wildfires, the Virginia Department of Forestry checks off a list of factors that include lightning, a camp fire, or burning debris.

Roxy moves in if arson is suspected.

“The hound gets us to the point where we really need to start knocking on doors. From that point we usually come up with a suspect and hopefully we can get charges and put them in jail,” said William Neff, Roxy’s handler at the department.

After Mr. Neff and Roxy investigated a wildfire at the Georgia-Florida state line that led to a suspect, Georgia’s Forestry Commission requested the man-dog team come back to assist with other investigations.

Her work will take her wherever she’s needed, but her priority is Virginia, Mr. Neff said.

Roxy, who is 4, began training at 6 weeks with Mr. Neff. Now, when arson suspects leave footprints, matches, cigarette butts or anything that holds human scent, she can go to work. She had her first job at 9 months old.

“If you locate what’s close to the origin [of a wildfire] and the bloodhound can sniff in that area, you can track an individual that possibly walked in,” said Richard Thomas, assistant director for operations with the resource protection division of the department.

“We’re looking to get a second or maybe third bloodhound because they are very valuable in tracking arsonists,” Mr. Thomas said.

Sometimes, her work gets the evidence that ties everything together.

“We had a case one time where we had a suspect and we couldn’t really tie the suspect to the crime scene until we used Roxy to connect the dots,” Mr. Neff said. “Once she trailed from the crime scene to the suspect’s residence, it enabled us to track back to the suspect for investigation and bring up charges.” That case, and three unrelated cases, are pending.

While wildfires remain the priority for Roxy, she has been called to put her nose to work in other investigations.

The team, based in Lee County, on Memorial Day nabbed a suspect in a convenience store robbery. Roxy located the area where the suspect was hiding by trailing the human scent.

“Every time I can run her is just that much more practice she gets as far as live situations and not just training,” Mr. Neff said.

Mr. Neff isn’t sure how much Roxy costs the department annually, but says her services are invaluable. The duo is certified through the Virginia Police Work Dog Association, the North American Police Work Dog Association and the National Police Bloodhound Association. Certification requires field exercises to prove the team’s abilities.

While the dog won’t be present to testify in court for criminal cases, the evidence her work provides will.

“You can’t go to court strictly on what a bloodhound did,” Mr. Neff said. “She’s not a cure-all. We use her as another tool in the process.”

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