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A search for truth in Panama

Just before midnight on June 9, 1971, two men took Father Hector Gallegos from his dirt-floored hut in the mountains of Panama to a helicopter where military strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega was waiting.

It is said that Noriega had the priest thrown to his death from the craft, but proof has never been found. Gallegos was not heard from again.

More than 30 years later, two Pasco County sheriff's deputies, a Pinellas County dog handler and their canine partners recently traveled to Panama to help uncover the mystery _ by finding Gallegos' bones.

In early August 2003, a wealthy Panamanian attorney sent an e-mail to the K9 Forensics Recovery Team, a group of volunteer search dog handlers based in Brooksville.

The attorney, Ramon Fonseca, had found the team through its Web site. He was looking for someone who could help the Catholic Church and the Panamanian Truth Commission find the bones of hundreds thought to have been murdered by the regimes of Noriega and his predecessor, Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera.

Fonseca particularly wanted to find the bones of Father Gallegos. Before the priest was killed, he had been working in a mountainous, rural area of Panama, where his efforts to organize the poverty stricken peasants had offended the country's military leadership.

The Catholic Church wants to make Gallegos a saint for his work, and needs his remains to do it.

The Brooksville team had caught Fonseca's interest because several of its members have day jobs in law enforcement. Among them are Pasco patrol deputies Sam Pepenella and Kenneth Petrillo.

The men had been working with cadaver dogs for less than two years. Neither had valid passports, much less experience with getting their dogs, German shepherds named Bosca and Lobo, in and out of foreign countries.

The Brooksville team called a Dunedin-based sister team for help. Sharon Scavuzzo, an administrator for the Stetson University College of Law in St. Petersburg by day, spends her off time as the founder and director of K-9 Search and Rescue Teams of Florida.

Scavuzzo has volunteered with her German shepherd search dog, Kato, to help solve crimes, recover drowning victims and find lost graves. She also traveled to Latin America in late 2002 to help search for a Wisconsin college student missing in the Ecuadorian jungle.

Scavuzzo contacted Fonseca and went on to organize the trip.

"I was very direct in my questions to him as to what they expected from us and why they wanted us there," Scavuzzo said of her conversations with Fonseca. She asked what kind of protection the team and its dogs would receive.

She learned that factions within the Panamanian government, factions tied to Noriega's regime, were hostile to the Truth Commission's search efforts. This is an election year in Panama, and these factions hoped to discredit the current administration by discrediting the Truth Commission, which the president had instituted.

The search team would be a focus of political intrigue _ and it would be kept under armed guard.

The three scheduled time off from their jobs and decided to make the trip. They would volunteer their time, dogs and equipment. The Truth Commission would pay their travel expenses.

"There were a lot of sleepless nights," Pepenella said. "None of us knew what to expect."

They arranged with the Panamanian consulate to get the dogs into Panama and with the U.S. consulate to get them back home. Scavuzzo already had a passport; Pepenella and Petrillo got theirs.

They got vaccinations for yellow fever, typhoid, and hepatitis, shots for tetanus and pills for malaria.

On Sept. 17, Scavuzzo flew to Panama. Pepenella and Petrillo followed the next day. Fonseca put the three up in an upscale Panama City hotel when they arrived.

Soon they were headed in a military cargo plane to the island of Coiba, about 16 miles off Panama's Pacific coast. The president of the Truth Commission, a team of archaeologists, their well armed body guards and a group of Panamanian journalists traveled with them.

The island

Coiba, a densely jungled island surrounded by shark filled blue water, has long been home to Panama's penal colony. It houses many of the country's rapists and murderers. In years past, Noriega sent political prisoners there for torture. In recent years the Panamanian government has worked to transform the island into a nature preserve.

A Swedish pilot flew Scavuzzo, Pepenella, Petrillo and their dogs around the island in Fonseca's private helicopter, a rescue chopper refurbished with white leather seats.

According to one tale of Father Gallegos' death, an iron cross had been put in the earth at his burial site. It was said that such a cross had been found years ago in a spot on Coiba near a place called Playa Hermosa _ or in English, Beautiful Beach.

It was also near the penal colony, and the search team mingled with the island's prisoners, who entertained them by catching scorpions.

"They were fearless," Scavuzzo said of the prisoners. "They pulled their stingers out and let them walk all over them."

The prisoners were put to work clearing the jungle where the team would search. Pepenella and the others were warned of Latin America's deadly pit viper, called the equis in Spanish.

"That was probably about the scariest part of it," Pepenella said. "If you get bit you have to get antivenin within an hour or else you'll die."

The team members wore thick boots and chaps. They nervously watched their dogs, whose only protection was their keen senses. The prisoners caught and killed two equis while the team searched.

Sometimes, as unsettling as the snakes were the prisoners themselves, who roamed freely with razor-sharp machetes while clearing the jungle.

The search

"Seek bones," Scavuzzo would command Kato. "If he hears the word bones he automatically goes into work mode," she said.

They searched one area that had three distinct impressions in the jungle's floor where the earth was loose. Kato went crazy, barking and pawing at the ground. Pepenella brought in Bosca and got the same reaction.

The diggers found a boot and a hospital sheet, but no human remains.

They spent two days searching the island and two days searching other parts of the country. Summer is Panama's rainy season. It kept the mud deep and their clothes wet.

"In Florida you wait for the rain to stop because eventually the sun's going to come back out," Scavuzzo said. "In Panama it doesn't stop."

The dogs alerted the team to dozens of spots around the country, spots that archaeologists began digging after they left. But Gallegos' remains were not found. Scavuzzo and the others hope to return and continue the search.

The three came back to Florida after five days with the Truth Commission's gratitude and an affection for Panama.

"When I got there and met the people and saw what I saw I had quite an eye-opening experience," said Pepenella, who had started the trip with apprehension. "It totally changed my way of thinking about Panama and the people of Panama. I mean they were excellent to us. They were really great people."

Scavuzzo agreed.

"I guess that was the big thing for me," she said. "I came back with Panama in my heart."