K-9 team relishes second life of cadaver searches

Chester County Sgt. Paul Bryant is shown with his K-9 partner, Don. The pair has won awards for expertise in locating human remains.

Shortly after a five-alarm fire ripped through the Barclay Friends assisted-living facility in West Chester on Nov. 16, four people remained missing and were presumed dead.

As their loved ones waited for confirmation of their worst fears, Chester County deputy sheriffs had secured the scene for investigators from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. One of the agency’s first requests:  the services of Chester County Deputy Sheriff Paul Bryant and his K-9 partner, Don, who is trained to detect human remains.

With embers still sparking, Bryant said the team remained on stand-by for a couple of days, waiting for firefighters to extinguish the blaze completely. Once Bryant got the go-ahead, he began by walking through the area that he and Don would search.

“I always check to make sure there’s no broken glass or debris that could make it unsafe for us to proceed,” Bryant said.

As the team began its search, Don quickly fixated on two spots: one up above and one on the ground. Bryant said Don is trained to stop when he detects the odor of human remains, using his paws and body position to mark the spot. For the overhead location, Don stood on his hind legs.  Finally, Don was trained to make eye contact with Bryant to receive a reward for his discovery.

Bryant said the pair returned later in the day to repeat the inspection. Once again, Don pinpointed the same overhead location but “indicated” on a downstairs pile of debris in a slightly different area. Investigators then found the first of the four victims in the upstairs location. Bryant later learned that investigators had moved the debris on the first floor, which had received runoff from above, explaining Don’s response.

The following day, Bryant said the team returned to a different section of the building. Again, Don indicated on an overhead location. Investigators subsequently found a victim directly above the location Don identified.  Days later, the other two victims were found in an area that wasn’t accessible to the K-9 team.

Such a routine is one that Bryant has perfected with his K-9 partners for nearly two decades of his more than 30 years in law-enforcement -- a career that found a second life in 2015. At that time, Bryant retired from the Philadelphia Police Department, where he had worked for more than 33 years. He said he had planned to bid farewell to a routine of uniforms, K-9s, weapons, and beepers, but Chester County Sheriff Carolyn Bunny Welsh had other ideas.

Welsh said she had heard Bryant’s name mentioned in relation to K-9 training and then met him by chance at a memorial service in Chester County a couple of years before he left the Philadelphia Police Department. ”When you’re ready to retire, come out and see me,” she recalled telling him.

At the time, Welsh was eager to grow the Chester County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit. She had started the unit in 2006 with two dogs trained in explosives detection. Since then, she had been systematically increasing its size and scope. As a result, the opportunity to employ someone with Bryant’s experience greatly appealed to her. In addition to his handling experience, Bryant is certified as a Level III trainer for the U.S. Police Canine Association.

Bryant said that even though he thought he was finished with police work, he felt a tug. Ultimately, the chance to assist with Welsh’s ambitious expansion plan proved irresistible. The Chester County Sheriff's Office currently serves a half-million people in 67 municipalities -- 53 of them with their own law enforcement agencies, but only one, West Caln Township, has its own K-9 team, which specializes in explosives detection.

Lt. Harry McKinney, a master trainer for the National Association of Professional Canine Handlers who heads the Chester County Sheriff’s Office K-9 Unit, said its 10 dogs respond to about 100 calls annually. The most frequent involve searches of vehicles or buildings by teams trained to detect narcotics or explosives. Melody, the office’s comfort dog, whose duties include calming children who have to testify at trial, is also in demand.

Since Bryant joined the K-9 Unit, the office has created an in-house training program that is also available to other law-enforcement agencies. Previously, Chester County’s K-9 teams traveled to Ohio to receive certification. The impetus for the program came after Bryant began receiving calls in Chester County from other agencies that wanted to know if he was still available for training programs.

Welsh quickly realized that tapping the expertise of McKinney and Bryant represented a chance to improve efficiency as well as reduce expenses. Neighboring law-enforcement agencies with K-9 teams, happy to cut their own travel costs, also welcomed the program.

Bryant, recently promoted to sergeant, said he began his K-9 career in 1983 with a patrol dog. A case in New York state involving a successful search by a K-9 cadaver team caught his attention, and he became interested in shifting to that specialty. However, persuading the Philadelphia Police Department that cadaver-detection should be added to its crime-fighting arsenal was a hard sell at first, he said. But Bryant persisted, and once he acquired Azeem, the pair soon silenced any remaining doubters.

Helping loved ones find closure is what motivates him, Bryant said. “You give those families a chance to finally say goodbye,” he explained. “It’s so rewarding.”

Bryant said he has no idea how often he’s had that opportunity. “I’ve never kept a body count; I refuse to do it,” said Bryant.   “Every search involves a member of someone’s family. That’s what you focus on.”

The team made headlines in 2001 by locating the remains of Kimberly Szumski, a missing New Jersey woman buried behind a basement wall in Society Hill. The discovery earned them the U.S. Police Canine Association’s prestigious 2001 Detector Case of the Year Award, the first-ever recipient in that category.

In 2016, Bryant and Don, Bryant’s third partner specializing in human remains, swept the cadaver category at the USPCA’s National Detector Dog Trials. Bryant had entered the competition as a handler for the first time in his 34-year K-9 career; previously he had participated only as a trainer or judge. The team’s extraordinary prowess at locating the human remains that had been hidden on a course led to another award: best overall.

Bryant downplays the accolades, insisting that any success he has achieved has come through the grace of God and the assistance of others, such as his wife, Lisa; Welsh; and his colleagues.

“I couldn’t ask for better support,” he said. “I’m so fortunate; I’ve had a great career. I believe I was put in this world to do this work, and I’m happy that I’ve been able to pursue it.”

So are Welsh and McKinney.

“We are extremely proud of our K-9 Unit here in the Sheriff’s Office,” Welsh said. “Each individual team is highly trained in their discipline and adds value not only to the Sheriff’s Office, but also to other law-enforcement agencies. Sgt. Bryant has brought extensive years of experience that have broadened and enhanced the unit.

“I’m pleased we were able to persuade him to meet the challenge of continuing to train and educate others,” Welsh continued. “And in the process, I’m glad we gave him the opportunity to fulfill his dream of handling a national champion dog. His dream has benefitted us all.”





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