News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

May 18, 2013

Can you smell me now?

K-9 sniffs out underwater cell phone at Vigo County Jail

TERRE HAUTE — A contraband cell phone has been discovered by the Vigo County Jail’s youngest and most unique officer.

Rudy, a 10-month-old Labrador trained specifically to detect cell phones, found the well-concealed electronic device early Thursday, when jail staff conducted a random search of a cellblock on suspicion of a contraband cell phone being used by inmates.

“The incredible thing is, the cell phone was under water, sealed in a [sealable] bag, in a stainless steel toilet,” said Clark Cottom, chief deputy of the Vigo County Sheriff’s Department. “We couldn’t see it. And he was just insistent that it was there.”

The design of the stainless steel toilets leaves nowhere to hide contraband, or so jail staff thought. The phone, protected by the sealed baggie originally used for food items purchased from the commissary, was submerged out of sight. Jail staff used a wire to stick into the opening and retrieve the concealed contraband after Rudy indicated on a toilet in a particular cell.

“This dog persisted on this toilet,” Cottom said of the search. “If it wasn’t so persistent, we may have given up.”

When Rudy — who has been trained on the scent of numerous cell phone brands and cell phone batteries — indicates that he has detected a cell phone, he will sit and intently stare at the location of the item.

“He has been trained to disregard other electronic devices,” Cottom said. “He’s not interested in remote controls or transistor radios or other batteries.”

Cell phones are one of the major contraband problems in any jail, law enforcement officials say.

“Cell phones are extremely dangerous inside a correctional setting, as they can be used to plan escapes, assaults, and to interact with criminal element outside the facility,” Cottom said.

The investigation is ongoing as to which inmates were involved in hiding the recently discovered cell phone, the chief deputy said. He theorized that the phone was retrieved from its hiding spot when inmates wanted to use the toilet, and then concealed again after the toilet had been flushed clean.

Illegal drugs are also a concern in a jail, so Rudy has undergone training in detection of drugs, as well.

K-9 handler Troy Ramsey, a correctional officer in the Vigo jail, has been working daily with Rudy, who has his own cage at the jail, but lives with Ramsey’s family.

A rescue dog, Rudy came from Jack Shannon, of Shannon Dog Training in Parke County. Ramsey said that Rudy turned out to be too rambunctious to be a family pet for Shannon. But, the dog had the high energy and drive needed to be trained as a police service dog.

Ramsey joked that most of the training has been for himself, on how to work with Rudy. The officer uses a tennis ball as a reward for Rudy, who gets to play with the ball once he has completed his assignment.

Rudy has even helped his partner find the officer’s own lost cell phone.

“I lost mine when I was training him,” Ramsey recalled. “I was looking for it for a half-hour when I realized, ‘hey, idiot, you’ve got a dog in the car.’ So I had him search and he found it quick. I had ran over [the phone] with my car and it was pushed down in the mud. I wouldn’t have found it.”

Rudy is believed to be the only trained cell-phone-detecting dog in the Midwest, Cottom said, though there are three others on the West Coast.

In a demonstration Friday, Rudy quickly located a cell phone zipped inside a plastic bag that was slipped into a toilet in a holding cell at the jail. He also located a phone hidden in a stack of laundry baskets.

Rudy has been in service for about 60 days, spending about 40 hours a week with Ramsey at the jail. But until Thursday, Rudy had not been used for a search.

“He’s had 100 percent success,” Cottom said, jokingly referring to Rudy’s first find on his first search, which took about 45 minutes.

But even prior to his first search, Cottom said, Rudy has attracted the attention of the National Sheriffs Association, which has expressed interest in writing a magazine article about the canine. Other police agencies and correctional facilities have also perked up at the possibility of having a dog trained to detect cell phone contraband, Cottom said.

Rudy, it appears, may be responsible for a number of missed phone calls by inmates in the future.

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at 812-231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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