14 November 2009
SEARCHING LAND FILLS
Author: Billy L. Smith, Sr.
BACKGROUND: Searching a land fill is controversial, demanding and expensive. It is becoming more common for a victim to be placed in a dumpster and hauled to the land fill never to be recovered. Many times, the equipment operators at the land fill discover a body while pushing the refuse into place to be covered that does not make headline news.
Recently in a mid sized city, homicide investigators developed information leading them to believe that a body had been placed in a dumpster and hauled to a land fill. A volunteer search team was called in for assistance with an area of the land fill uncovered and the trash was scattered. This operation cost the city approximately $500,000.00 and nothing was discovered.
Major land fills are operated by independent contractors who are responsible for local, state and federal EPA laws involving the proper operation of a land fill. The land fill must be covered at the end of each work day with 18 to 24 inches of dirt and compacted with heavy machines. To uncover a portion of a land fill is a costly operation that must be paid for by the investigative agency concerned.
When it is decided that a portion of the land fill is to be uncovered, EPA must approve the operation prior to the garbage being uncovered.
The land fill contractor is responsible for maintaining records of the date and location of each day’s operation. Some contractors use a grid system and others use GPS readings. Due to the shear volume of trash and size of the area, a day’s operation may involve several acres and the records kept by the contractor may be off as much as several hundred feet in any direction.
The following information is directed to Homicide Investigators and City Managers consideration if such an operation is considered.
SELECTING A TEAM: The ideal team will be a law enforcement officer with a “single purpose canine (cadaver detection only) with a reasonable and recognizable alert that has been certified by a qualified peer group.”
To the best of my knowledge there is not a volunteer group with a single purpose canine available. Volunteer groups, as a rule, have canine teams that are multitask trained with various alerts. However, there are several individual handlers, as opposed to “canine SAR teams”, with canines that are capable of performing the assigned task.
Please contact LETSHQ@AOL.COM for recommendations when considering an operation of this type. We will recommend qualified search teams in your area.
TRAINING: Training sites preparation can be expensive and time consuming, not counting the land required.
Using a post hole digger as shown below, is the easiest method for preparing the land. Flat river bottoms or unused farm land that is fallow is more than adequate terrain to use, however other open land can be used.
The holes are dug in rows with an ideal layout of 10 holes long and 10 holes wide. The purpose of so many holes is so that “distracters” such as used baby diapers, sanitary napkins, whole human blood and other items such as kitchen garbage can be placed some of the empty holes. The majority of holes will be blank. Use your imagination in what distracters to place in the holes.
If possible, all of the distracters should be placed in the holes and allowed to “set” for several days prior to the training session. If you will notice the holes will be deep enough and small enough to keep critters from scattering both the training material and distracters.
The method of training is left up to the individual handlers, but “barking” should not be considered as a “reasonable alert”. We have discovered that a canine that digs is much more reliable.
L.E.T.S. does not recognize “barking” as an alert.
Farmers and ranchers normally will not allow post holes to be left open because of the danger of livestock stepping the holes. This is a problem that will need to be addressed.
A back hoe can be used to make the training holes also. The bucket on the front of the tractor can be used to cover the holes after the distracters and training material have been placed in the holes to make the land safe. If available a road grader or disc can be used to restore the land. I was surprised how many farmers and ranchers are willing to assist teams that are recommended by law enforcement agencies, several times a year to conduct training.
CONDUCTING THE SEARCH: Weather is a critical factor when deciding to conduct a search of a land fill. One hundred degrees plus air temperature will cause a much higher ground temperature for the dog to walk on. As soon as you “crack” the covering dirt, massive amount of methane gas will be emitted from the holes dug. This gas contains carcinogens that are less than healthy for human and beast alike.
I am sorry, but the victim can get no “deader” and reasonable weather should be considered prior to conducting a search. In cold weather, the methane gas does not seem to be as prevalent as in hot weather.
The “holes” can be dug prior to the dogs arriving on the scene or at least kept out of the area until needed. A good equipment operator can dig all the holes required in just a few hours.
An entourage of non- K9 handlers is not needed. The only people required are the equipment operator, detective(s) and K9 handlers.
Trash is not scattered until the investigating agency makes the decision based on the information furnished by the K9 handlers. Once an alert is noted, the K9 handler’s job is over and should leave the scene. However the history of the volunteer teams is to try and take over the investigation, which is not acceptable.
When the pit is opened, it is strongly recommended that the K9s not be allowed to run amuck over the trash due to health hazards. Health hazards to a K9 and a handler has long been noted by experienced handlers for the last 25 years. Note the sanitation workers often wear filters and mask when working in a high methane area.
A high incident of health problems with K9’s has been noted in the past. If the handlers have a desire to search the trash, they can do it, but please do allow the canines to search. This trash dump has a culmination of all the germs and diseases of the city or town in the location. You should not expose anyone with out bio-hazard protection to the methane vapors.
By working small holes, the canine team will be exposed to a minimal amount of risk.
In digging with a back hoe or drill bit, you only need to dig until trash is seen by the operator. The handler should work each hole as an individual target with the K9 under control.
Holes with a “positive alert” has been identified, the holes may be marked with orange spray paint by the investigators. In this case, this is hole #3 of 3. All the holes were next to each other in the search area.
1. If information is developed that a body has been placed in a land fill, the investigator must prosecute the information.
2. If a “dig” is required, do not use canine teams due to the inherent danger to both the handlers and canine.
3. Reliable volunteer search teams with single purpose dogs can be an excellent source of trained manpower