Canine copsPups put snouts to the test

Published 11:35 am Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Packo, a hulking 4-year-old German shepherd, sprawled out in the sun panting after sniffing through several tractor-trailer rigs.

“Are you ready to find some dope?” handler Allen Neal of the Forestry Service asked Packo in a stern tone. “Are you ready to work?”

Packo stood up and put his nose to the ground before sniffing out a stash of cocaine hidden in a hole in the bottom of an empty trailer parked behind the former ParkView Regional Medical Center. When he sniffed the spot where the cocaine was hidden, Neal presented Packo with a toy made of scraps of carpet wrapped with duct tape.

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“Good boy,” Neal said in a sing-song tone as he patted Packo on the back. “We found the dope. We found the dope!”

Packo shook his jowls, sending slobber flying, and chewed the scrap of carpet.

Neal and Packo were one of 171 drug dog teams who converged Tuesday on the former Marian Hill Chemical Dependency Center as part of the annual National Narcotics Detector Dog Association training conference, said Rick McDaniel, a Vicksburg crime scene investigator who helped bring the conference to Vicksburg.

“They’re doing some good training today,” he said.

A narcotics agent from Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, Neal has been partnered with Packo for 2½ years.

Training at the vacant hospital campus allowed for plenty of new experiences. Dogs from all over the continent spent Monday sniffing out pounds of methamphetamine, marijuana, cocaine and other drugs inside the former Marian Hill and in parked vehicles.

“We don’t get the opportunity to work on the large quantities we have here,” Neal said. “Our dogs get to see things they’ve never seen before.”

Hospital compound rooms, filled with lockers, luggage and air conditioners, served as hiding spots for illicit drugs. Narcotics investigator Danny McWilliams of Baytown, Texas, and his canine companion, a black shepherd named Fideaux, spent about 15 minutes searching for drugs in an old hospital room. Fideaux easily found 5 pounds of marijuana stashed in the kitchen and a few more ounces hidden in a teddy bear. When he came to the air conditioning unit, Fideaux paused.

Inside the unit was 1 kilogram of meth.

“He’s never smelled that much meth at once,” McWilliams said.

Vicksburg was chosen over about 100 other cities to host the conference, McDaniel said.

Opening ceremonies for the conference were Monday at the Holiday Inn on South Frontage Road, and training will continue this week at the former hospital site.

The training exercises lead up to drug dog competition Friday at Vicksburg Convention Center. Competition begins at 7 a.m. and is open to the public. An awards ceremony is set for 6 p.m.