Brains and Nose: The Coroner's Secret Weapon

Indiana Bones and her handler, Karina Peck
Indiana Bones and her handler, Karina Peck
Photo by Amanda Lopez

When a visitor enters the office, there's a warning bark and growl, so Karina Peck issues some sharp-sounding commands to the German shepherd who's no longer snoozing in the crate beside her.

Indiana Bones, the only departmental human remains detection dog in L.A. County, immediately quiets down, ready for her next deployment and the magic command: "Search."

For Peck, the canine (K9) handler at the LA. County Medical Examiner–Coroner's office, the next phone call can mean long hours, a bewildering combination of conditions at a crime scene and the sobering detection of human remains.

"If we're there, there's nothing I can do to change what happened," Peck says. "But that's my opportunity to be the voice of the victim."

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Indy, a "cadaver dog" who just turned 11, has more than 130 substantiated "finds" under her collar, and stats widely tracked in the competitive K9 community show the pair are, Peck acknowledges, "up there" among the best in the country.

The duo's tasks may seem gruesome, but for Indy it's simply play — and she wants her toy. She has normal play toys (a pink octopus sits alongside her in the crate), but her work toys are different, Peck says. One foot-long piece of chewed jute is the reward Indy gets when she completes her "task."

Peck's commands to Indy, who was born in the Netherlands, are in Dutch. "Indy won't listen to anyone but me anyway, and the language isn't important: It's all about intonation and my body language. I could say 'apple pie' to her in a certain way, and she'd lie right down."

The coroner's K9 team
The coroner's K9 team
Photo by Amanda Lopez

Indy looks less intimidating than some German shepherds, but she's no fluffy family pet. The chunky chain around Peck's waist, which initially appears to be the belt of her black cargo pants, is actually Indy's leash. "She constantly bumps me and wants to be petted, but she's not a big snuggler," Peck says.

Peck explains that Indy is "completely driven, almost manic," in her desire to get her toy, though Peck, who comes from a law-enforcement family —she's about to build her second rifle from scratch — is definitely the alpha in their wolf-pack structure. That's why Indy growls or barks when people come up to or move behind Peck, though she says Indy would "try to take over in a second if I was too weak."

Indy isn't interested in any puppy friends; out in the park there are too many challengers from whom she'd have to commandeer toys or dominate. Indy won't mess with patrol dogs, though. "They can be even more intense," Peck says, "and as one of the only females, when she's around them they're usually like, 'hey,' so she has to keep an eye on them."

Peck admits that her 24/7 domestic and professional relationship with the dog is "probably way beyond co-dependency." She's "insanely attached" to Indy, but she also knows that the feelings aren't reciprocated in the same way.

"Oh, she loves me," Peck says, pausing before adding, "best of all humans."

Peck, who started at the coroner's office as an intern in 2005, was assigned Indy from a previous K9 handler who left on military deployment in 2009. They had already selected the puppy's name, Indiana, in recognition of an Indiana organization that selected the dog as a promising law trainee. She got her media-friendly action hero's last name later. Indiana Bones is an unusual dog name, at least according to the Los Angeles Times' "Top Dogs" registry.

Pointing to some newspaper clippings on a notice board, Peck says journalists now call out to Indy at crime scenes and want to take her picture. "She's in the papers a lot," she notes, while Peck is "usually face first, looking into a shallow grave."

Dog and handler are trained and assessed weekly, monthly and yearly, and that includes training with K9 units specializing in explosives and narcotics. But homicides are always a priority, and even when they're not on assignment, Peck keeps Indy alert by choosing clues from one of her many sample jars (tiny fragments of charred bone, perhaps, or dried blood, decayed tissue or fresh grave dirt) and carefully hiding them.

She fills these hide-and-go-seek sessions with variation, just as you'd find in the search for a body. The decedent being sought could be a large person or an infant, exposed to all kinds of weather, lying in sand or water — or be encased under concrete or otherwise "contained." Even microclimates can affect the chemical signatures of human remains.

"We put a lot of work in to ensure that they don't cheat or get confused," says the easy-to-laugh Peck, "so I rarely put anything in a trunk if we're doing a vehicle search" — that would be too obvious for Indy.

"We're constantly attempting to trick her to ensure that she's 'proofed off' of things like gloves, dead animals, disturbed earth and live human scent. She just knows people hide things for her; she doesn't understand criminality."

During a search, Indy will use a slowly reducing serpentine process known as the Scent Cone Pattern to home in, then she'll "alert" (sit or lie and point, nose first, at the place she has identified). This "passive" approach ensures no evidence is tainted.

While Peck speaks some German and Czech (most police dogs are European, where they're bred with the ideal hunting play/prey drive), she also reads Indy's body language. She knows what a raised or wagging tail means, and whether Indy's ears have gone back or her gait has changed.

Peck has avoided using "people food" as a treat. "She can't be distracted," she explains, "and we've had to go into dumpsters and landfills," where decomposing trash can smell the worst of all. "Indy's found bags of bloody medical gowns," she says, "and I worry about syringes, razors and engine coolant — that could kill her." Many years ago, an infected cut on Indy's tail led to it being docked.

Peck writes reports and keeps up with endless scientific discoveries, but only rarely has to appear in court. Theirs is what she calls a symbiotic relationship: She's the brain and Indy is the nose, able to catch and identify so many smells that science still can't put a number on the dog's olfactory capability.

Unsurprisingly, there's intense rivalry between the various types of K9 units. "Most of us tend to be A-type personalities, and ironically, the dog world is very catty," she laughs. "We all know our stats."

But despite the duo's high rankings, Indy is slowly heading toward retirement. Like Peck, who practices martial arts and likes to dance and hike, Indy theoretically could go on indefinitely — as long as she passes her yearly medical exam.

Departmental minds, however, are looking to the future. That will mean a new dog for Peck to train, and she's pushing to add a second one in the coroner's office to help deal with the huge amount of ground covered during the several cases per month they're assigned.

That said, canine retirement is not a happy thing to contemplate, even if Peck is already working with a male replacement dog (Indy wouldn't tolerate another female at home).

As is common practice within government departments, Peck will be allowed to purchase Indy for a nominal $1. The dog then will become, in literal terms only, a pet.

Peck is stoic about the future, but admits, "That first day when I go to the truck but she has to stay home? That's going to be the hardest for both of us."


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