Volunteers, search dogs attempt to locate more bones at Chukchansi gas station site

Adela Morris and her Border Collie Jasper work an area close to where a human bone fragment was found last week on the Chukchansi gas station construction site at the northeast corner of Highway 41 and Lucky Lane.
Adela Morris and her Border Collie Jasper work an area close to where a human bone fragment was found last week on the Chukchansi gas station construction site at the northeast corner of Highway 41 and Lucky Lane. Sierra Star

Members of the Madera County Sheriff’s Office Search & Rescue team were released from the Chukchansi gas station construction site Monday afternoon after a five-day search for human bone fragments proved unsuccessful. The search came after a bone fragment about the size of a silver dollar, determined to be human, was discovered March 15 at the site on the northeast corner of Highway 41 and Lucky Lane.

As soon as the bone fragment was discovered, the tribe secured the area and notified authorities.

The bone fragment was determined to be human by a forensic anthropologist from California State University, Fresno, after it was found by a tribal historical preservation officer. That stopped construction excavation work at the location. The bone fragment is estimated to be from a male 18 to 24 years old, according to Madera County Sheriff Cmdr. Bill Ward.

At the time of the discovery, Tribal Council Chairwoman Claudia Gonzales said the tribe was working with all authorities, including the sheriff’s office, to see if the partial bone is the result of a crime or not.

“The Picayune Rancheria of Chukchansi Indians are continuing to work with all relevant authorities including law enforcement on the investigation into the remains that were found at the construction site,” Gonzales said in a release.

The property was divided into 10 two-acre parcels that are being thoroughly searched by both people and the dogs. GPS equipment tracks on a computer exactly the areas they have covered, and what areas still need to be searched. Sitting at a computer in the nearby command post, Madera County Sheriff’s Sgt. Joseph Wilder can clearly see what quadrants have been covered and what areas remain to be searched.

As many as 22 members of the S&R team were at the site for five days, slowly walking side by side looking for additional bone fragments.

Linda Cuthbert recently joined the S&R team after retiring six years ago from an 18-year career as a sheriff’s office dispatcher, and spent three days at the location. She said she is proud to be a part of the team.

“Our work here is a slow and methodical process but that’s what it takes,” Cuthbert said. “Walking side-by-side looking at the ground searching for bone fragments while watching for snakes and barbwire.”

Wilder was overseeing the search operation and said there is no way of knowing exactly how long the bone fragment has been at the location, or if it is the result of a crime or not.

“This land was owned by others long before the casino was built, but we want to make sure we exhaust all attempts to find out how this bone fragment got here, so for now, was are treating it as a crime scene and are guarding it 24/7 to protect the site,” Wilder said. “There could be someone out there with a missing family member and we need to feel we have done all we can do to bring some closure to this person’s family if possible.”

Dogs specialize in human remains

Three experienced dog handlers from the Bay Area, Adela Morris, Lynne Engelbert and Kris Black and their dogs, border collies Jasper and Piper, and German Shepard Diesel joined the S&R team on Sunday. The dogs, all 7 years old, have been trained since birth to locate human remains. Also making the trip was Morris’ 18-week-old Border Collie Jett, who has already started his training.

The three ladies, members of the Institute for Canine Forensics headquartered in Woodside, were called as mutual aid to assist in the search efforts after the Madera County Sheriff’s Office reached out to the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Department. The Canine Specialized Team is known for working with dogs trained to work cold cases (skeleton remains), different from cadaver dogs, trained to locate bodies.

Morris explained that chemical compounds found in humans and animals are different enough that the dogs can tell the difference between the two.

“Bones that have been disturbed and or moved from the original burial are much more difficult to locate,” Morris said. “Dogs can detect an intact burial even up to 6 feet or more under the ground surface depending on soil type and age of burial.”

Morris explained that some dogs work crime scenes looking for that all-important clue like a tooth or a drop of blood.

“Our dogs have been trained to work cold cases searching for bones,” Morris said.

The dogs are trained to trek back and forth until they pick up a scent. The dog’s body language changes, and the dog’s handler knows when the dog is “in scent,” they see the dog slow down, concentrate, and work its nose really hard.

The dogs add an additional tool to law enforcement to help locate remains. Also depending on how long the remains have been out, either exposed or buried will determine how likely it is for the dogs to find them. The most difficult scenario is old bones that have been disturbed and moved from their original location.

Morris said the success rate of trained dogs finding a bone is as high as 75% - but the Chukchansi location is very different.

“Here you have a site that has been heavily disturbed by all the construction activity, which more than likely destroyed and or scattered bone fragments all over,” Morris said. “In a case like this we have maybe a 1% chance of finding anything.”

Construction resumed Tuesday on the gas station that is expected to open by the end of the year.

NOTE: For additional photos, see www.sierrastar.com.