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Indiana Bones pieces together Hollywood severed limbs case

About 6 on a cold clear morning one bright-eyed German shepherd and about a dozen other members of the Los Angeles County coroner's skeletal recovery team gather for a Wednesday briefing.

The previous afternoon, a dog walker had discovered two of her charges playing with a human head in a plastic bag near a trail below the Hollywood sign in Bronson Canyon Park.

Police had performed a preliminary search of the rugged Hollywood Hills terrain, but they weren't sure whether more body parts might be found; coyotes could have scattered the remains over miles of parkland.

Indiana Bones to the rescue.

An 8-year-old German shepherd, Indy is one of the nation’s few cadaver dogs retained full-time by county law enforcement. On the staff for six-and-a-half years, she has been on hundreds of searches for human remains. And has honed her skills on the job.

“She’s saved us here,” says handler and coroner Investigator Renee Grand Pre. “Lots of times you get that call from police that someone is missing. ...Where do you start?”

On this particular morning, Grand Pre takes out a tightly knit brown stick-like toy and the revved up, 75-pound Indy lunges out of the truck. “Site,” Grand Pre commands, speaking to Indy in her native Dutch. Indy pushes her hind legs down, gazing up toward the toy in rapture.

“Sook,” Grand Pre orders, pretending to throw the toy forward, stuffing it in her back pocket, as Indy gets to work, busily sniffing the ground, ears up and back against her head.

After a few brief forays into steep vegetation and some animal trails, Indy tries to lie on a slope and stares at a hole in the ground. After only 20 minutes, she has found the hole within which investigators will later discover two feet and a hand.

The team, which consists of a criminologist, anthropologist and several coroner’s investigators, comb the area and discover a severed hand about 100 yards away.

Investigators believe the body parts were all placed in the hole that Indy found, and were scattered by animals.

Cadaver dogs are not easy to obtain. But if anyone could get one for the department, it is Grand Pre.

At 51, Grand Pre is a compact, fit woman with dirty blond hair and slightly clinical demeanor. She has been with the coroner’s office for 11 years and in addition to being a trained nurse and investigator, she is also the acting department emergency coordinator and the weapons of mass destruction team leader. She balances these responsibilities with duties to the National Guard and working with Indy.

In 2004, Grand Pre stumbled upon a line item for a canine in the department’s homeland security grant budget. Until then only volunteers had worked with them, and then only on non-crime-scene investigations. She wrote a letter to the state outlining why a large-scale disaster response required a cadaver dog on staff that could identify and locate human bodies.

About $10,000 in federal money was set aside for Indy’s purchase and training; the coroner's office provides about $1,000 annually for food, toys and vet visits.

"In my mind, that [also] makes her a federal resource," Grand Pre said. And these days, Indy can get busy. She is often called upon by agencies such as the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department or LAPD homicide investigators to help hunt for a possible body. "You’re not going to dig up the person’s whole backyard. The dog is one more tool."

Most detector dogs are bred in Europe, where there is a greater market for German shepherds, and then sent over to the United States. Indy is an import from Holland. In the summer of 2005, Grand Pre flew to Peru, Ind., just outside Indianapolis, to pick up Indy from a kennel where dogs are primarily trained to detect bombs.

Working dogs have certain natural characteristics, such as a strong drive to hunt and play, which is nurtured, and focused on certain tasks. At 1-and-a-half years old, they are "imprinted," or introduced to and trained to recognize the odor that they will spend a good part of their lives seeking.

"When detector dogs work, they’re not looking for bombs, humans or body parts," Grand Pre says. "They’re looking for their toy. They’re not motivated by what we’re motivated by."

Taphonomy, or the study of how a human body decomposes, is not easily mastered. For example, a hand can feature a different level of decomposition and discoloration on each finger. A decomposing human body gives off a distinctly tangy, sweet but putrid rotting stench that is nearly as difficult to describe as it is to forget.

For Indy, the ability to tell the difference between animal bones and human bones is somewhat equivalent to a person’s ability to walk into the kitchen and know whether chicken or turkey is cooking.

To train them, the kennel used a box with a hole through which a tennis ball pops out after the dog "alerts" to the odor emanating from within.

When Indy recognizes the odor of a decomposing human body, she sits or lies down, staring at the spot. It is the same passive alert most bomb dogs have because handlers do not want them disturbing the scene. In Indy’s case, a wagging tail or digging alert could wreak havoc on a crime scene and damage bones.

The Indy of today is starkly different from the one that came home with Grand Pre from the kennel six years ago. That Indy was more "machine-like" than "dog-like," Grand Pre says. And though Indy still leads a regimented life — "eats once in the morning and once at night, poops once in the morning and once at night" — she no longer pees on command.

The discipline comes in handy, for example, when the pair had to search trash cans for possible body parts Wednesday. A lot of the waste included leftover food that would distract most dogs. Indy keeps her focus.

Indy was originally named Toby after her “T Litter.” And though you’re not supposed to change their names, Grand Pre did a small shift — calling her Indy, since she picked her up in Indiana. After a phone conversation with a friend, she decided her full name should aptly be Indiana Bones. And that’s the name on her dog tag.

The roughly dozen old Army barracks on a cul-de-sac at Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base are a perfect training location for Katrina-esque levels of calamity: unkempt, rickety apartments abandoned and ignored, with peeling blue paint, broken glass and scattered animal feces and dirt. Weeds sprout everywhere. This is one spot where Indy works out.

In the back of Grand Pre’s truck is a black case that holds four specimen jars, each filled with a different "training aid" that she switches to accustom Indy to identifying the smell of human decomposition. These include dried blood, a small bit of brain tissue and congealed human body fat.

The coroner’s law allows for the use of human body parts for training and educational purposes. But even so, the office is very careful about using bones, which can be linked to individuals if they are lost.

Indy and Grand Pre train four to eight hours a week. A session starts with obedience. “Site,” Grand Pre says, turning and walking away from Indy, glancing back every few step to make sure she doesn’t move. When Indy’s about 20 feet away, Grand Pre tells her to “komen.” Indy runs forward. Grand Pre stops her — “site” — and Indy responds with precision.

Indy’s Dutch vocabulary is minimal, but key. A handful of words have been used to train her since she was a pup: “Sook” means “seek” or “search,” “bliven” means “stay,” “auf” means “off” or “lie down,” “louss” means “loose,” “komen” means “come,” and “site” means “sit.”

Training includes hidden problem sets placed around and within different apartments that all look alike. “Luckily, if I forget where they are, she can find them,” Grand Pre says. She’s had make the problems more creative as Indy has gained experience over the years.

Indy is now a pro, with more than six years of experience and a resume that includes a variety of investigation scenarios: homicide, missing persons, suicide followups, wilderness and backyard searches, among others.

“If somebody is missing...when you find them, you find their remains and it brings closure to the family, it gives them a final wrap-up,” Grand Pre says. “For police investigations, it can be critical to the case.”

But Indy, at 8-years-old, is also getting older, and does not yet have a successor. On average, a working dog's life span is eight to 10 years, Grand Pre says, but Indy isn't involved in some of the rougher patrol jobs those figures take into account.

The department has been trying to find another dog, but a price tag of up to $8,000 is difficult to fulfill during tough times. With a lead time of roughly a year to gain real on-the-job experience, Grand Pre says, the department really needs to get that second dog.

The program has "been successful, and if it's going to continue to be successful, we need to have the resources available to continue to grow," Grand Pre says. "I'll use Indy as long as she's healthy and able to go out. It's hard to say [how long], but she's very, very healthy."

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@LATams).

Here is some video with Indy and her handler and coroner's investigator Renee Grand Pre. Videographer John Vande Wege takes us to Indy when she was on the job and training as a 4-year old: