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Pinellas County police dogs find final resting place

CLEARWATER

It was 2 a.m. on July 1, 1996, and Pinellas deputies were chasing a serial killer through the woods.

Deputy Bill Hagans followed his police dog, Rexi, a German shepherd. A desperate James Randall led Hagans and another deputy down a thin trail, over a creek bed and through brush thickets. Randall was suspected of murdering four prostitutes.

Suddenly, Deputy Randy Corlette's flashlight found Randall hiding under a piece of discarded carpet. Rexi barked, straining at his leash.

"His strength was tracking, and from the moment he started the catches came in bunches," Hagans said of Rexi.

But no catch would rival this one. The manhunt for Randall was one of the largest in Pinellas history.

Hagans yelled: "Sheriff's Office! Canine! Show your hands!"

Randall tried to run. Hagans let the dog loose.

• • •

More than a dozen Clearwater police officers stood quietly under a line of oak trees Tuesday at Curlew Hills Memorial Pet Cemetery. German shepherds lounged obediently at their handlers' feet as a minister eulogized 21 police dogs recently buried there.

The dogs all served between 1979 and 2005; most died years ago. Seventeen of the dogs worked for the Clearwater Police Department and had been buried on the grounds of the police station. Some of the sheriff's dogs also had been cremated and interred elsewhere, including a few whose handlers kept their ashes in their homes.

But all the dogs recently were moved to Curlew Hills, joining 15 sheriff's canines already there.

In a brief ceremony Tuesday afternoon, the Rev. Daniel McDonald of North Bay Community Church extolled "these officers who happen to be dogs," who never deserted or betrayed their masters.

The burial at an otherwise human cemetery gives a layer of protection to the remains, said Curlew Hills president Keenan Knopke. Most pet cemeteries are unregulated and can be built over, he said.

• • •

The Clearwater Police Department looks for dogs, usually male German shepherds, between 1 and 2 years old, said Scott Dawson, a canine officer.

They must be confident, friendly and inquisitive. They must be aggressive, but obedient enough to let go of a suspect on command. And they must enjoy the hunt.

As recently as the 1980s, departments looked for donated dogs with the right dispositions that could be trained for patrol and search duties. Now most of them come from Europe and can cost as much as $10,000.

They not only work with their handlers, they live with them. And when the dog is ready to retire, he spends the rest of his life with the same officer.

Canine duty in the Sheriff's Office is considered elite work, and more than a dozen officers often apply for an open position.

It is also among the most demanding jobs.

"It will take you inside sewer pipes, in swamps, inside dark buildings where you know people are waiting for you," said Sgt. Clark Wagner, who supervises the sheriff's canine unit. "But you don't mind, because you have your dog with you."

• • •

Rexi quickly caught up with Randall and seized his arm. It is a vice-like grip; the dogs are trained not to let go until told to do so.

Randall tried to wrench free, ripping the flesh of his arm. The deputies tackled and handcuffed him. The Palm Harbor window installer was convicted of two murders and sentenced to death, which was reduced to life in prison.

The Sheriff's Office honored Hagans, Corlette and Rexi for their heroism.

• • •

Rexi retired a year after his biggest catch, and stayed home while Hagans worked with his new housemate, a younger German shepherd named Zeus.

Rexi swam in the pool and lounged around the house for four years before dying in 2001.

The dogs have a hard time adjusting to retirement, said Hagans, 43. They seem to regard being shelved as some sort of punishment.

"You never forget that day when you tell the new dog to go with you and the old dog to stay, And he's looking at you saying, 'What's going on? You betrayed me.' "

For that reason, canine officers tend to theorize, dogs often die within a few years of their retirements. Of the 36 canines now buried at Curlew Hills, the average life span after retirement is just 2.6 years.

When they die, it's also hard on the handlers.

Retired Clearwater police Officer Ross Smith remembers what it was like to lose Igor, whose career highlight was sniffing out three murder suspects hiding in a parked car.

"I bawled like a little kid," said Smith, 56.

• • •

Hagans, now a captain, retired Zeus when Hagans was promoted to sergeant. Now both of his dogs, Rexi and Zeus, lie a few feet from each other, beneath granite headstones.

"When they die, there's a lot of blood, sweat and tears spent with that dog," he said. "At the end, it's a sad day. Any handler will tell you that. It's very difficult when you lose your partner."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

Pinellas County police dogs find final resting place 05/05/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 6, 2009 12:15pm]

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