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Cadaver dogs assist in Grand Forks investigation into decades-old cold case

Pete Fendt, president of Valley Water Rescue, says it is very likely that cadaver dogs can still pick up the scent of human remains, even 26 years later.

Allison Case and Hobie.jpg
Handler Allison Case and her dog Hobie, from Valley Water Rescue, assisted with an investigation in Grand Forks on Aug. 9 related to the disappearance of Kristi Nikle in 1996.
Contributed / Valley Water Rescue
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GRAND FORKS – Last week in Grand Forks, cadaver dogs were used in an investigation in a nearly 26-year-old cold case.

In an announcement on Aug. 10, the Grand Forks Police Department said it excavated the yard of the residential property in downtown Grand Forks after receiving a tip from a community member that the body of Kristi Nikle, who went missing in 1996 , could be buried there. Before digging, said the announcement, two cadaver dogs from Valley Water Rescue “showed positive indicators of human remains.”

Although cadaver dogs Hobie and Arkham, handled by owners Allison Case and Amanda Wadena, respectively, indicated that human remains could be present, investigators did not find any in their search. But, after 26 years, how likely is it that cadaver dogs could still detect human remains?

According to Pete Fendt, president of Valley Water Rescue, it is very likely.

“If there’s a victim in an area for a long period of time, that actually helps the dog,” he said.

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Valley Water Rescue, based in the Fargo-Moorhead area, is a volunteer search-and-rescue organization that has been operating since 1993. Valley Water Rescue has dogs that track scents and assist in searches for human remains, and the organization assists with searches across the region.

Fendt explained that dogs trained and certified in human remains detection are trained to sniff out any decaying human cells, which could be blood, bones, teeth or any other body part. The dogs are trained using real human remains, and the organization has a collection of bones of varying ages, teeth and blood donated by team members for dogs to detect in training.

“The bottom line is there’s really no other way to do a proper training of cadaver dogs,” he said.

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The scent of human decay is different from the scent of other decaying animals, and the dogs are trained to bypass any dead animals they might come across when searching for human remains.

“I’ve followed the dogs and they’ve gone right past deer carcasses that are very pungent and the dogs don’t even bother with them at all because they’re specifically looking for a human scent,” said Fendt.

Dogs can smell human decomposition years after a person dies, and even after the total decomposition of a body. In cases where a victim may have been buried in the same spot for years, time only makes the scent stronger for dogs, said Fendt.

“The longer the person is there, the more scent of the victim is in the ground because as the years go by, it actually spreads out a little bit,” he said.

Cadaver dogs are trained to signal to their handlers in a specific way. At Valley Water Rescue, when a dog detects human remains, it sits down and looks at its handler. This passive response keeps the dog from disturbing what is in many cases a crime scene.

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Investigators are not sure what caused the dogs to indicate human remains could be present at the site of the dig on Tuesday.

“We did know that the dogs are not infallible, and we knew that there was a possibility,” said Grand Forks Police Lt. Jeremy Moe. “There are some conditions that can result in a false positive.”

Though cadaver dogs are very accurate, said Fendt, they are not perfect. A variety of factors can throw off a dog during an investigation. In other cases, he has seen runoff from a nearby cemetery and unmarked graves of Native Americans or early settlers cause a dog to signal for the presence of human remains. The dogs are looking for the scent of human decay, not a specific person.

Even a past injury in the location a dog is looking could cause the dog to indicate human remains are present.

“It could be somebody bled there or somebody got cut really bad there,” said Fendt. “Any number of things could have happened over the years that caused human decay in that spot.”

Ingrid Harbo joined the Grand Forks Herald in September 2021.

Harbo covers Grand Forks region news, and also writes about business in Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

Readers can reach Harbo at 701-780-1124 or iharbo@gfherald.com. Follow her on Twitter @ingridaharbo.
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