Crime & Courts

Richland coroner gets a new deputy. She has a nose for the job and loves her toy

The Richland County Coroner’s Office swore in a new deputy coroner on Tuesday. The new staffer didn’t respond to the oath with “I do,” so the clerk of court accepted a tail wag.

Kona is an 18-month-old black Labrador retriever and the newest member of the coroner’s team. She is trained to detect human remains with an added distinction, according to Coroner Gary Watts.

Kona is the only dog trained to find cadavers working for a coroner’s office in South Carolina, Watts said.

“We’ve always tried to be cutting edge here,” Watts said on the decision to bring Kona on board. “This is just one more way that we’ll be able to serve Richland County.”

Kona will help deputy coroners search for missing people as well as at crime scenes, Watts said. She has lots of work ahead.

About once a week, a report of possible human remains is called into the the coroner’s office, Watts said. It will now be Kona’s job to investigate those calls. He already has two active cases for Kona to work.

It won’t be any walk in the dog park, Kona will have to work often and hard, Watts said. But Kona loves to work, according to her handler and trainer.

The decision to obtain a cadaver sniffing canine followed the suggestion of Deputy Coroner Kristen Bell. Watts called the idea “thinking outside the box.”

After Kona completed a 35-week training course, Bell trained an additional four weeks with the K-9, Watts said.

Kona’s training and purchase cost the coroner’s office about $10,000, Watts said. She was bred and raised by Highland Canine in North Carolina.

The training involved Kona learning to distinguish 10 different scents of human bodies, according to Ryan Millbern of Highland Canine. She learned to detect human blood, bone, teeth, hair and tissue. When she finds a body, Kona prefers being with rewarded with one of her toys, not a treat.

Training cadaver dogs takes longer than training a bomb or narcotics dog because the cadaver dog must learn to distinguish human remains from animal remains, Millbern said.

“As a former investigator, there were many times over my career I needed one of these dogs and we didn’t have one,” Millbern said. “I’ve worked with crime victims my entire career and bringing them some sense of peace as well as some sense of justice as well as bringing bad guys to justice is exactly what Kona’s here to do.”

Good working dogs are hard to find, Millbern said, but for Kona, working is a family tradition.

Her mother was a bomb dog and her father was a narcotics dog. Kona’s two brothers work for police forces.

Now Kona’s family is the coroner’s office and her handler Bell.

“The training was hard but it was worth it,” Bell said. “It’s been incredible to watch her work and learn. It’s something I’ll never forget.”

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David Travis Bland won the South Carolina Press Association’s 2017 Judson Chapman Award for community journalism. As The State’s crime, police and public safety reporter, he strives to inform communities about crimes that affect them and give deeper insight into victims, the accused and law enforcement. He studied history with a focus on the American South at the University of South Carolina.