"Amazing Animals of Colorado"
by Gayle C. Shirley
Alie Berrelez was one of those kids who can't help but make people smile.
A spunky five-year-old, she had dimples when she laughed and soft doe like eyes that sparkled below a ragged fringe of coffee-colored hair. She loved to fly kites, to dance to Little Richard songs, and to watch The Little Mermaid on television. Alie giggled her way into the hearts of her neighbors and had just shared a pizza with one of them when she disappeared.
Alie's neighbor was one of the last people to see the child alive on that tragic evening in May 1993. She left the little girl sitting outside her Englewood, Colorado apartment while she slipped back inside to put away the leftovers. When she returned moments later, Alie was gone.
“She knew better (than to go with strangers),'' Alie's distraught mother told a reporter the next day. “But she's also only five years old. She loved people, and that was one of the things that made her special. Now, I'm afraid it was one of the things that made her a victim.''
Police launched a door-to-door search of the Denver suburb, while friends and family kept a hopeful vigil at the Berrelez home. Newspaper headlines begged Alie's kidnapper to release her so she could get the asthma medicine she needed to help her breathe. Local businessmen began raising reward money for information leading to her safe return.
Despite the concerted effort, police were stymied. Three days after Alie's disappearance, they had no clues, no suspects, and a “lot of frustration.'' So they decided to call in a specialist: a canine “cop'' known as Yogi.
A bloodhound with floppy ears and enough skin to cover two dogs, Yogi had joined the K-9 Unit of the Aurora (Colorado Police Department in 1991. The Berrelez case gave him a chance to prove that he was blessed with “an incredible nose,” according to his handler, Officer Jerry Nichols. Days had passed since Alie's disappearance, rain had fallen, and hundreds of people had tramped through the neighborhood in their search for the missing girl. The kidnapper had probably abducted Alie by car and was most likely miles away by now. Englewood police doubted that Yogi could pick up the trail.
But skeptics didn't faze Yogi. Starting from the front step of the apartment building where the Berrelez family lived, the dog beat a steady path, following the scent he'd picked up from a piece of Alie's clothing. Tail up and nose down, straining against the long leash held by Nichols, he trotted confidently toward Broadway, one of the busiest thoroughfares in the Denver area. He snuffled down Broadway for several blocks and led officers onto the interstate. The searchers hopped into a patrol car and headed west on Colorado 470 past Chatfield Reservoir, stopping to let Yogi out at each exit until he found the point at which the kidnapper had left the highway.
After about seven hours and 10 miles of tracking, Yogi was wilting in a midday sun so hot that it could almost melt asphalt. Nichols knew that his dog would keep going until it dropped from exhaustion, so he decided to call it quits for the day.
Englewood police resumed the search the next morning, beginning at the mouth of Deer Creek Canyon, where Yogi had left off. Searchers began combing the woods along the two-lane blacktop road that climbed through the canyon and into the foothills of the Rockies. Just before noon, two of them found a khaki duffel bag at the bottom of a 20-foot embankment, only a couple of feet from Deer Creek and only a mile or so from where Yogi had stopped the day before.
The hunt for Alie Berrelez was over. The girl's body was stuffed inside the bag, still dressed in the Oshkosh denim jumped she'd been wearing when she disappeared. Precious Alie had smothered to death.
Though the Berrelez story has no happy ending, Yogi did at least free Alie's relatives from the limbo that they'd endured for five long days.
“In a way, we haven't lost her because she's with the Lord,'' Alie's grandfather said in a stoic statement to The Denver Post. “We feel better knowing that we don't have to worry anymore.''
In 1993 -- four days after Alie's body was found -- the Post called Yogi a miracle dog'' and howled his praises by saying: Even the experts were dumbfounded by the abilities of Yogi, a common-looking bloodhound with extraordinarily uncommon skills...
“This is probably one of the longer tracks by a police dog,'' search coordinator Sgt. Byron Wicks said of Yogi's work last week. “I have never heard of such a thing.''
Following the scent for 10 miles, along busy traffic thoroughfares, was an impressive accomplishment. But following the scent after three nights and two days had passed was even more impressive.
Experts explain that human dander carries a person's unique scent and acts much like an air borne pollen, dispersed onto the ground and vegetation along its path. The explanation is, at the same time, both sensible and also unbelievable.
But to most civilian observers, Yogi's performance was nothing short of miraculous.
According to Nichols, Yogi could stalk a person traveling in a car even if the windows were rolled up, because the person's scent could seep out of the vehicle and onto the pavement, sidewalk, curbs and vegetation nearby. It could remain there for as long as a month. Rain actually enhances the scent and makes the hound's job easier.
Yogi had yet another contribution to make to the Berrelez case. The day after Alie's body was found, he and Nichols returned to Deer Creek Canyon to try to pick up the scent of the girl's killer and trace it back to its source. That led back to a neighborhood apartment in the Englewood complex where Alie had lived, leading police to believe that a neighbor committed the crime. Unfortunately, however, the case was not solved and no one was arrested.
Yogi's role in the Berrelez case attracted the attention and admiration of people far beyond Denver and its sprawling suburbs. The National Police Hall of Fame awarded the dog a medal for “outstanding canine service,'' and the Colorado Legislature presented him with a commendation for meritorious service. The impressed lawmakers invited the hound right onto the floor of the House to get both his award and some appreciative pats on the head.
“They don't give those (awards) to dogs very often,'' Nichols proudly pointed out. But as the officer himself once said, “Yogi did all the work. All I did was hang on for the ride.''
In 1994, ABC featured Yogi in its weekly news magazine program, Day One, comparing him with the fictional bloodhound that died stalking Paul Newman's character in Cool Hand Luke. Yogi began his career in law enforcement not long after Nichols bought him for $350 from a Colorado Springs bloodhound breeder in 1989. The officer was planning to name his pet Fred, but his wife and oldest son vetoed the idea and christened him Yogi instead.
For about a year, Nichols tutored Yogi with the help of a Jefferson County sheriff's deputy who had trained two hounds for his own agency. In the fall of 1990, Nichols started using Yogi in missing-person cases, and by August of 1991, he'd convinced his superiors that the goofy-looking bloodhound would make a valuable addition to the force. They agreed, and the pooch was allowed to doggedly patrol the streets each night from the back of his master's police truck.
Nichols didn't try to hide the fact that he has mixed feelings about his tongue-lolling, tail-thumping partner. On the one hand, Nichols acknowledged, the bloodhound could “out-track and out-run any other dog.''
“The bloodhound is very unique,'' he said. “There's no dog that will work harder for you. They'll run themselves to death.''
“These dogs have an innate sense of smell that has no equal,'' he once said. “Tracking is their life.''
On the other hand, Nichols griped, Yogi was a “slob,'' a “klutz'' and a “pain in the butt.'' The officer wasn't a bit surprised that, in a study of canine intelligence, rating more than 140 breeds, the bloodhound finished almost dead last. Nichols sometimes referred to his 100-pound partner as “Bonehead'' or “Knucklehead'' -- but not without a hint of affection in his voice.
The list of Yogi's bad habits was almost as long as the _expression on his face. The dog sometimes let loose with some “very loud and very obnoxious'' howls. He drooled constantly and liked to chew on anything made of wood, including the siding on Nichols's house. Yogi was “very affectionate,'' the officer admitted. “People liked him and he liked people. He was very gentle -- if you don't mind getting slobbered on. I usually carried a little rag with me.''
In fact, at the end of a long day with his nose to the ground, Yogi’s reward was “getting to slobber (on) the person he's tracking,'' Nichols once said.
Fortunately, Yogi's list of accomplishments was much longer than that of his foibles. Over seven years, Yogi worked on 476 cases involving seventy different agencies in eight states. Yogi helped put 27 murderers behind bars. In addition to the Berrelez girl, he hunted down a teenager wanted for the murder of a state patrol officer. He helped find three robbers who stole $80,000 from an armored car. He looked for Alzheimer's patients who wandered away from home and prisoners who escaped from jail, drunk drivers who walked away from accidents, and people trapped in collapsed buildings. He even helped a local historical society locate graves more than 110 years old.
Yogi kept working despite suffering from bad hips and enduring a case of the bloat, a gastric disorder that can kill a dog. Yogi worked right up to the time of his death, in June 1998, from cancer. Just a few days before he died, he assisted in a manhunt in which a Denver officer was killed and another was ambushed.
About the time Yogi died, Nichols and his wife Milica organized the Law Enforcement Bloodhound Association, a group that promotes the use of bloodhounds in law enforcement efforts around the world. They’ve got members from as far away as Italy, Germany and Israel. As a police officer, Jerry Nichols worked with two more bloodhounds, Copper and Max, before he retired in late 2005. But Jerry and Milica have continued their work with the bloodhound association from their new home in Anchorage, Alaska. They help train bloodhounds and their handlers, and they’ve written a training manual, Common Sense—The Bloodhound in Law Enforcement. “We don’t make a dime on anything,” Milica said. “This is just our passion. We’ll do it ‘til we drop.”
Yogi not only inspired the Nichols’ passion for bloodhounds, but he inspired others. For example, Jeff Schettler, then a police officer in Alameda California, convinced his superiors to bring a bloodhound on board after he watched a story about Yogi and Alie on television. “While the outcome was tragic, I was amazed at the time (three days) and distance (fourteen miles) it took for Yogi to find the girl. I wondered why such a valuable police tool was so infrequently used,” said Schettler. Bloodhounds have proven themselves enough that, in some jurisdictions, the evidence they uncover is allowed in court. They are the only dogs whose work can be considered as evidence in legal proceedings.
Alie Berrelez's grandparents were so impressed with Yogi's capabilities that they started a fund to buy bloodhounds for law-enforcement agencies. It was a way for them to cope with the loss of Alie.
Over the years, they placed dozens of dogs. The first went to work for the Cherry Hills (Colo.) Police Department. The Berrelez family named it Alie -- in memory of a beloved child who was brutally robbed of her future.
"Gayle C. Shirley, Amazing Animals of Colorado, Incredible True Stories, The Globe Pequot Press, Copyright 2005"