Cadaver dog helps bring peace to families of victims

Kelley Belle Lion of Combs aides rescue services at disaster sites


I fell into search and rescue by shear accident, While watching a local nightly news show, there was a local search and rescue group looking for dogs that weighed more than 65 pounds. The next day I contacted the person in charge of the group and I was told that each dog would be evaluated, and by the end of the evaluation, they would let us know whether or not our dog would become part of the “team.”

I thought that Kelley, a Rhodesian Ridgeback without a ridge, would be a good search and rescue dog. After all, Rhodesians were bred for hundreds of years to track lions over long distances and on all types of terrain. Kelley at the time was three going on four; she’s living proof that you can teach an old dog new tricks.

On the scheduled evaluation day, a cold December day, Kelley and I rode out with a friend to see if our dogs could “cut the mustard” so to speak. After we showed the group leaders how obedient our dogs were both on and off lead, a track was laid and a victim was hidden. After Kelley found the live victim, I was given a cadaver-scented tennis ball to practice with her. Now Kelley has never been a ball dog (I suppose she thinks the game of fetch is beneath her), but she really liked these tennis balls. From that point on, even though we’ve trained in both live and cadaver finds, Kelley has preferred to find cadaver.

In early March 1997 — the “Flood of 97” — our group was asked to bring our dogs down to Falmouth, Kentucky (the worst area hit by flooding) to locate 67 people who were un-accounted for. I packed the needed items and the following morning Kelley and I left to meet the other dogs and handlers and follow them to Falmouth. When we arrived I really couldn’t believe the destruction. It looked like a war zone — clothes in tree tops, slabs of pavement missing, houses moved off foundations and cars strewn about like toys. It was a sight that will be burned in my mind forever.

After much delay, we were given our instructions to search the houses with our dogs to look for missing people. Each dog and handler team was accompanied by a fireman Kelley and I were paired up with a two other “seasoned” dogs and handlers. After about our fourth or fifth house, Kelley “hit” on a mobile home that was leaning against a telephone pole. She stood solid and would not budge, I tried pulling her and she just stood there. I told the fireman who was with us that the trailer needed to be check out when the situation became more stable. I told him that even though Kelley was a “novice” dog that she’d never lied to me before.

Later that evening, that trailer was checked and a mother and daughter were found. Although pleased that Kelley proved herself after only three months of training, I was still saddened by the discovery.

I left that search and rescue group and joined another one. While in between groups I was contacted by a central Ohio Police Department and asked if they could add me and Kelley to their call out sheet in the event that they would need a cadaver dog. I agreed.

After years of dealing with a homicide detective from a local law enforcement agency in my job, he contacted me regarding a case their department had been working on since 1996. He knew that I had a dog that did cadaver work from a newspaper article.

This gruesome case will stick out in my mind forever. The victim was originally reported to the police department as a missing persons. The case started to unravel when two boys who were out fishing reeled in a skull. The victim’s live-in boyfriend and father to their child was the prime suspect from the beginning (his mother reported her missing, not him). The offender went to great lengths to hide the body of his girlfriend. He not only removed the teeth from her skull, but he also dismembered her body and dispersed her remains in a field.

In August 1997 at the department’s request, I took Kelley out to the field where the murderer had dumped the body parts. Kelley ran off a perimeter and when the detectives and the coroner went back to that area about a third of the victim was found. I was told by the detectives that when all the bones were recovered the victim’s remains fit into an infant’s casket.

Kelley and I specialize in cadaver recovery are now independently sub-contracted with several law enforcement agencies throughout the state of Ohio. Last year a photo of Kelley was submitted to the International Photography Hall of Fame, and a short autobiography was printed in their book. The title of the photo is “A True Companion, Helps In Adding Closure, And Asks For Nothing In Return.” That photo was dedicated to all victims.

When Mary Jennifer Love was reported missing just this past summer, my Mom, Kelley and I volunteered our time to help the family and law enforcement search for the little girl. I knew in my heart that after two days of 98 degree temperatures that unfortunately the victim was deceased. Even though we did not find her, we still gave our all. Kelley and I do this as a service to the community; we do not get paid, nor do we want to get paid.

The true heroes here are Kelley and all the other dogs that aid in the help of mankind, whether it be search and rescue, police dogs, arson dogs, drug dogs, bomb dogs, or the dogs that aid in helping people lead independent normal lives.

Cathleen A. Combs

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