Fountain K-9 team sniff out top prize

Published 10:51 am Monday, October 15, 2012

Pictured, from left, are Captain Paul Rodgers, Sargent Thomas Banda, Captain Jody Gilchrist, Arnold Holt and Sargent Eddie Mooney,

The K-9 tracking team from Fountain Correctional Facility took the top prize at the Southeastern States Manhunt Field Trials earlier this month in Blackwater River State Forest, located in the Florida panhandle, northeast of Pensacola.

Brian Corbett, public information officer with the Alabama Department of Corrections, said the Fountain team, comprised of Captain Jody Gilchrist, Sergeant Thomas Banda and Sergeant Eddie Mooney won the event with an average time of 15 minutes, 10 seconds.  The three-man Fountain team used six dogs, five beagles and one Redbone – Bloodhound mix.  Kilby K-9 was also represented.

The team took the first place prize over 22 other K-9 teams from Alabama, Florida, Arkansas and Louisiana.

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Corbett said using tracking dogs is one of the oldest known correctional traditions, used to hunt both men and game since Roman times.

Gilchrist, the Fountain K-9 leader, said the competition was stressful, but ultimately his team proved it was the best.

“When something is on the line and you have to perform to the best of your ability, its kind of nerve racking,” Gilchrist said.  “Friday morning the top time was already posted with a sixteen minute average. We knew we had to cut a time under fourteen to win it.  It was stressful, but we ran it in eleven.”

Teams competed in the one day, one night race with a combined average time used to determine the champion. Each race the dogs were placed on a “track” approximately two hours old.  Four flags were placed on the trail at strategic locations covering a distance of roughly 1.5 miles.  Each flag collected by the K-9 team subtracted one minute from their overall time.  Fountain was able to capture all eight flags in the two races.

Gilchrist said this task was particularly challenging at night.

“At night it’s hard and you can’t see the flags,” he said. “You’ve got to be with the dogs step for step. Sometimes the dogs are too fast, but if you can stay right with them, you’ll get the flag.”

Retired Warden Arnold Holt serves as the ADOC’s K-9 coordinator.  Holt recalls a time four years ago when Fountain finished second at this competition despite having one the fastest average times.  That year, they missed a flag.

“The teams provide a service to all law enforcement agencies,” Holt said. “Time comes when we have a real need, when we have to be able to do a job – and not for time.  The result is you apprehend or don’t apprehend.  That’s what we are most concerned about.”

There are eight K-9 teams located at prisons throughout Alabama.  Each is on call 24 hours per day to perform search and apprehension duties, or assist local law enforcement authorities in locating lost individuals. K-9 teams are located at Limestone, St. Clair, Donaldson, Bibb, Staton/Draper, Kilby, Ventress and Fountain.  There is a ninth drug dog unit at Easterling Correctional Facility.

Corbett said, on a monthly basis, each team is called out numerous times for search and apprehension purposes. From January through September of 2012, the Fountain K-9 team has preformed its mission 56 times with 44 apprehensions, including the capture of a murder suspect in Thomasville.

Clarke County Sheriff Ray Norris said the team is a necessity in his department’s efforts to fight crime.

“We can’t make it without them,” Norris said. ““They are our number one tool in fighting crime. I promise you that. They solved a murder and a robbery for us in the same week. We had no description. No clues to go by.  They cut a circle around the house and got on a track, turned down a dirt road and went to the door. They guy came to the door bleeding and we had him in custody within 45 minutes.”

Gilchrist said the best thing about his team’s recent victory is that helps them stay sharp and focused when it comes to real scenarios.

“It’s fun. We have a lot of fun doing our jobs,” Gilchrist said.  “To compete in an event like this is showing our talent. To compete and win shows just how good we can be.”

The top scores for the training competition were as follows: Fountain, Average time 15:10; Tucker, Ark., 16:08; Century, Fla., 17:16; Walton, Fla., 17:33.