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A Shaggy Dog Story

The bloodhounds were “barking and howling and straining at their leashes.” That was the sensational lead to a Newsweek story that has become one of the particulars in the public “indictment” of Dr. Steven Hatfill for last fall’s unsolved anthrax killings. Newsweek said that the FBI took bloodhounds to Hatfill’s Maryland apartment in early August. It claims a law enforcement official told them, “They went crazy.” Not surprisingly, Newsweek’s story was picked up and replayed as far away as Qatar. But is the story accurate?

Newsweek reported that the bloodhounds matched scent lifted from the anthrax letters to Hatfill. Newsweek said that the dogs also “reacted” at his girlfriend’s apartment and a Denny’s restaurant in Louisiana. Newsweek reporters told AIM that the FBI had employed a “new technology” to collect scent that involves “vacuuming” it onto a sterile gauze pad directly from the letters. The FBI told Newsweek that the Bureau does not have its own dogs and had flown in bloodhounds for use by the Washington Field Office.

Hatfill says that Newsweek’s description of the dog’s visit to his apartment is inaccurate. He says that the Bureau took him to an empty apartment in his complex and directed him to one of three chairs. A bloodhound was brought in and Hatfill, a dog lover, scratched the dog’s ears. When the dog began to return the affection, an agent started screaming “the dog is reacting, the dog is reacting!” Also, a Baltimore Sun reporter determined that none of the twelve Denny’s in Louisiana had been visited by the FBI and bloodhounds.

AIM contacted a national training coordinator of the Law Enforcement Bloodhounds Association (LEBA), a police officer with fifteen years of experience handling bloodhounds, about Newsweek’s story. He and his dog form one of fifteen teams, all from the law enforcement community in the part of Maryland that includes Hatfill’s apartment. Among this group is a team on the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team call list that participated in the search for suspected Olympics bomber Eric Rudolph. None were called upon by the FBI in this case and they too have been wondering whose dogs were used. The LEBA training coordinator confirmed that the FBI doesn’t have its own dogs, never uses volunteers, and always contracts with local law enforcement dog teams in such cases.

Asked about the “new technology,” the officer laughed and said that the reference was to a “scent machine,” probably the STU-100, invented by William Tolhurst and Larry Harris, two well-known dog handlers and experts on the use of bloodhounds in police manners. Mr. Tolhurst, who lives in upstate New York, told AIM that it is “very possible” that his STU-100 was used and his website does list the FBI’s Washington Field Office as one of his customers. Tolhurst and Harris have sold their $600 STU-100s to local police forces, particularly in California where Mr. Harris is based. Mr. Tolhurst believes that scent, derived from oils transferred from a person’s skin to a particular article like envelopes, would linger after decontamination. He acknowledged that his device was somewhat controversial, but compared skepticism about its effectiveness to that surrounding earlier tools like the polygraph. He declined to offer any further details citing the “on-going investigation.”

AIM has learned that the STU-100 was the “new technology” and that Mr. Harris and his dogs were flown in by the Bureau for the Hatfill search. AIM also learned that both the STU-100 and Mr. Harris are very controversial in the world of police bloodhound handlers. Officer Jerry Nichols, the LEBA President, told AIM that both LEBA and the National Police Bloodhound Association have declined to endorse the STU-100. Officer Nichols was very critical of the methodology used by the FBI and Harris in the Hatfill case, saying it was “badly flawed.” Too many people handled the letters, it’s not certain that the scent would survive the decontamination process, and a judge threw out a case involving Mr. Harris that was very similar to this. In fact, police handlers were so offended by Mr. Harris’ technique in that case, one flew to California from Maryland to testify for the defense.

At first glance, this looks like just another FBI fiasco. But when did Newsweek magazine become an arm of the Justice Department? It doesn’t appear to have challenged the shaggy dog story it was fed by the FBI and repeated it verbatim. Neither mind that Dr. Hatfill’s career and personal reputation were at stake, Newsweek got a sensational scoop.