Free dog is worth plenty to sheriff

 

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URBANA - He's a public official's dream come true - an employee who does something for nothing and who gets another employee to do the same.

In this case, the public official is Champaign County Sheriff Dan Walsh, who is singing the praises of Deputy Jerommie Smith and his newly certified detector dog, Zeus.

On his own time and at his own expense, Smith, 31, a seven-year employee of the sheriff's office, trained with his dog Zeus to become a tracking team.

Certified in December, Zeus started working with Smith on the 3 to 11 p.m. shift on Jan. 17, a Friday.

The very next day, he assisted the Champaign Police Department and found a marijuana cigarette. A week later, he indicated that someone in a car had been smoking marijuana, something the passenger admitted to, Smith said.

And on Wednesday, he helped authorities pinpoint where a man hit by a train in Savoy had stepped onto the railroad tracks.

Smith has had Zeus, who will be 3 in June, since he was 7 months old. Smith obtained him from the Champaign County Rottweiler Rescue group, which said he had been abandoned in the Charleston area.

?There were six or seven (dogs) I was looking at. I knelt down and he came running to me,? said Smith, who first intended to make Zeus a house pet.

But one night after arriving home from work, Smith said, Zeus did something that made him think he had the potential to be something greater.

Smith said his routine was to clip his keys on his duty belt, go inside, and immediately take Zeus outside to answer nature's call.

?When I took him outside, he started running around the squad car, sniffing in the grass, and brought me my squad car key,? said Smith, who hadn't even realized it was missing. ?I thought there must be something to this.?

Smith then approached colleagues David Sawlaw and Jim Sullivan of the Rantoul Police Department, who each handle multipurpose tracking dogs for their department, and asked if he could train with them. They were willing. That started in August 2001.

?When they would train on their duty days, I would take vacation days and train with them. I did it all on my own time,? he said, adding they averaged about two days of training per month.

?I liked doing it. I loved doing it. It's a second-nature thing to be around the dogs. We kept training and training. We got to the point where he had the abilities to be certified through a national organization. On Dec. 16, I took him to Springfield and we were certified through the United States Police Canine Association.?

The Champaign County sheriff's office has never had a multipurpose tracking dog for road deputies before.

The office has owned Duke, a German shepherd specifically trained to search for explosives in the courthouse and other county buildings, for about a year. He is handled by Ken Haluzak, a court security canine officer. Duke started working in April.

Walsh said Smith approached him before last fall's election and asked him if he would be amenable to the idea of a tracking dog if he were to be sheriff. Walsh heartily agreed.

?I took a dollar out of my pocket to buy the dog from Jerommie and then he can buy it back from me? if the dog retires from tracking for the sheriff's office.

Walsh added that he and his wife Janet plan to pay for Zeus' routine veterinary care this year ?because the county is broke.?

In addition to doing the training on his own time, Smith and his shift commander, Lt. Kris Bolt, made the necessary modifications to Smith's squad car to accommodate Zeus.

?I took some lumber I had around the house, took out the back seat and made a plywood platform and covered it with indoor-outdoor carpeting that can be removed and cleaned. And I tinted the windows. Kris and I are getting ready to fabricate a center partition with grids so that no one can stick their fingers in,? he said.

Besides the free training from Sullivan and Sawlaw in Rantoul, the squad car help from Bolt, and the vet care from the sheriff, Zeus is also being fed for free.

Smith said a member of the Rottweiler rescue group works at PETsMART in Champaign and persuaded her employer to donate Zeus' food since he went from being abandoned to being a productive member of society.

?He eats about 40 pounds of dry food in a month and a half,? Smith said.

And he doesn't mind working overtime for free.

?He's excellent,? Walsh said.

Reporter

Mary Schenk is a reporter covering police, courts and breaking news at The News-Gazette. Her email is mschenk@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@schenk).