The next big event in the legal fight leading up to Joshua Wade's trial for the murder of nurse practitioner Mindy Schloss is a hearing in October that's expected to revolve around two bloodhounds.
Lucy and Tinkerbelle are specially-trained dogs from California who travel the country helping the FBI sniff out criminals. Investigators flew the bloodhounds and their handlers to Alaska roughly two weeks after Schloss went missing in early August 2007.
Prosecutors say the dogs tracked Wade's scent for miles, from ATM machines where Schloss's card was used after her disappearance to Wade's house. The dogs also followed his scent from the corner of Cutty Sark Street, where Wade and Schloss both lived, to Schloss's car, which was abandoned near the airport.
The evidence is a critical piece for the prosecution, and the defense is keen on disproving it.
The dogs' work helped investigators get a search warrant for Wade's house, which turned up more ties between Wade and Schloss, including ATM receipts showing withdrawals made from Schloss's account, tucked in the pocket of what was believed to be Wade's jacket. Prosecutors Crandon Randell and Tom Bradley want to introduce this evidence when the case eventually goes to trial.
But Wade's defense attorney Gilbert Levy wants it thrown out. He said their handlers and the methods the handlers used have led to "notorious false positives." Because of that, he said, the dog evidence shouldn't be heard by a jury and he's raised questions about the validity of the search warrant.
Schloss's body was found in a wooded area in Wasilla about six weeks after she disappeared. Wade was charged first with using her ATM card, then with killing her.
According to Levy's filing, Tinkerbelle and Lucy's handlers Dennis Slavin and Bill Kift, were part of the misdirected investigation of Steven Hatfill, a government researcher wrongly implicated in 2001 anthrax letter mailings. Hatfill sued the government for hurting his reputation, winning a $5.82 million settlement. The attacks were later linked to Bruce Ivins, another researcher, who killed himself last month.
The special hearing, scheduled for Oct. 6, is called a "gatekeeper" hearing. A judge will weigh the scientific merit of evidence presented by experts on both sides, and decide whether the dog evidence will be heard by a jury. Dog handlers across the country will be watching carefully.
PICKING AT THE EVIDENCE
Bloodhounds have been used for decades by law enforcement. The questions at the hearing in Wade's case will likely be about how the dogs were handled, and whether they can pick up a scent over miles when a trail is weeks old.
The main issue is expected to be a controversial device, the STU-100 scent vacuum, which Tinkerbelle and Lucy's handlers used to gather Wade's scent. The vacuum-like device sucks in a scent, depositing it on a pad. The dogs sniff the pad, then look for a trail. Nationally, dog handlers are split about the practice because some say there's a possibility for contamination and false positives that could botch criminal cases. Use of the STU-100 is an issue in several pending cases.
In court filings, Levy wrote that the STU-100 method has been proven to be unreliable. It "is not accepted by many in the dog handling law enforcement community," including the Law Enforcement Bloodhound Association and the National Police Bloodhound Association, according to court papers. He pointed to the Hatfill incident, and to two California homicide convictions based on dog evidence gathered when the STU-100 was used, which were later overturned.
Neither prosecutors or Levy would comment about the upcoming hearings.
Federal prosecutors responded in writing to Levy saying that the dogs were sophisticated and well-trained, with a near-perfect success rate for accurate trailing.
"Human scent trails are viable for days, weeks and sometimes months," their response says, quoting handler Slavin. "Human scent 'will be caught up against the edges of buildings, curb lines ... and will adhere to things in its path.' "
It's hard to explain how the dogs found their way as far as 4 1/2 miles without picking up a scent. The dog handlers aren't informed of the facts of the case and two dogs and two handlers independently trail, the response says.
Slavin, reached in California, said he couldn't talk about a pending investigation.
The international Law Enforcement Bloodhound Association is based in Anchorage. Founder and instructor Milica Nichols said the organization doesn't endorse the use of the STU-100.
"I've seen it work, in training scenarios where everything is perfect. I'm not going to say it doesn't work," she said.
The high-profile mistakes the STU-100 make handlers like Nichols wince.
"I cannot answer the question why the FBI continues to use the same people," she said.
Dennis Guzlas, with the National Police Bloodhound Association, said the technology for the STU-100 had been developed by a highly respected dog handler, but that it was too easy for defense attorneys to raise doubt about the new device.
"All they have to do from the defense standpoint is put enough gray into it," he said. "We have pretty much unanimously agreed to stay away from it."
Lyn Sherman, president of the southern California chapter Bloodhounds West, a California-based dog group, knows handlers, including Slavin, that use vacuum technology, but said she couldn't comment on the machines.
"There is no one down here who is willing or able to talk about the STU-100 (vacuum unit) because of many different cases that are now in court," she wrote in an e-mail.
Wade, who was acquitted of a murder in 2003, could face the death penalty if the federal jury finds him guilty of murder because the killing "involved torture and serious physical abuse," according to charging documents. He's also charged with bank fraud, carjacking, being a felon in possession of a weapon, an illegal drug user in possession of a firearm and for having marijuana in jail. He's in jail in Seattle awaiting a trial that is tentatively set for next May.