There are five of us in the Jeep if you count Alan Duffy, nickname Duff, the bloodhounds, and the dead girl named Molly. It’s a bluebird Front Range day, April 2017, and the Jeep is warm inside so that the smell is tear-making and I can’t find the window toggle so I’m getting hotboxed. “Settle down, settle down,” says Duff, who is wearing a dirty golf cap over his bald head. He isn’t a tall man, and with his patchy white beard he resembles—another handler told me—a leprechaun. Duff glides his liquids when he speaks so that “Settle down” comes out “set her down, set her down!”
Molly is a child-sized mannequin with dark hair and blue eyes that Duff has infused with his proprietary recipe of pig blood, human hair, fingernails, toenails, a little urine. Molly—Duff’s version of a CPR training dummy—is stuffed into an old military duffel bag. I’m riding shotgun while a hound drools in my ear. The smell in the Jeep—an old white Liberty—is so thick that I taste the glandular funk of bloodhounds and dog piss and slobber. I’m also smelling—tasting—cadaver. “Some describe it as an earthy smell, like moldy grass clippings,” says Duff. “I think it smells like passion fruit.” I don’t care to ever eat again.
We park in the lot of an industrial complex, and five minutes later Duff’s tethered to his newest charge, Mindy Amber, a ten-month-old red bloodhound puppy. We duck the fence and head to the weedy shore of Hidden Lake in the Denver suburb of Westminster, north of downtown. Rush hour traffic on US 287 and Interstate 270 is winding up so that Duff nearly has to shout over it. “The guy in that house over there called the cops on us last time.” He points across the water to the far shore neighborhood where people don’t want corpses on their waterfront. “Says we’d give the neighborhood a bad reputation.”
You don’t really walk a bloodhound any more than you walk a rhinoceros. A bloodhound on a search is liable to break free and follow a scent into traffic or over a cliff. Their droopy ears and wrinkled muzzles are by design. They form a sort of cone that scoops and cultivates invisible scent molecules into the dog’s turbo-powered olfactory system.
“Gizmo!” Duff says. That’s Mindy’s cue for cadaver mode—her assignment is to find a body. Or three, which is how many actual bodies Duff believes are in the lake. “Go check it out, check it!” But first the lanky pup finds something else—a dried dead carp on the bank. “Leave it! Leave it, come on,” Duff says.
She splashes in again, and soon the sixty-pound hound is up to her elbows and stifles in the lake, sticking her muzzle in, duck-style, biting at the mud and silt and rocks at her submerged paws. “She’s tasting cadaver,” says Duff. The case—which had been reported in Denver media as a botched drug deal turned violent—is nearly twenty years old, and authorities aren’t sure where the bodies are, let alone in the lake. We stare at the middle of the lake like we’re waiting for the Loch Ness Monster to emerge. Duff’s convinced cadavers can give off scent molecules for a century, even longer—even underwater. “Scent works like gasoline in water, it rainbows outward,” he says. R.C., a veteran now at four years old, waits in the Jeep—he’s already hit on this case and it’s the pup’s turn to win. Duff beams as if his granddaughter just scored a goal in peewee soccer. “She’s not thirsty, she’s not getting a drink. She tastes cadaver. One of these days a body is gonna come floating up.”
Dog people can and do argue which breeds make the best SAR scent dogs, but what’s certain is that technology hasn’t come close to the abilities of a bloodhound. A dog fitting the description of a bloodhound is first noted by the third-century Roman scholar Aelian. Five centuries later, Belgian monks refined the breed. Every monastery in Europe had a kennel, and the hounds came to be called blooded hounds because of their aristocratic blood. They were an early status symbol, employed in hunting deer and boar. Since the Middle Ages they’ve been used to track people. In pre–Civil War America they were used to find runaway slaves. Their role in Cool Hand Luke is as iconic as Paul Newman’s.
Mindy Amber is named in honor of a 2010 possible homicide case down in Woodland Park that Duff and R.C. have been working for the last year. Mindy Lee is the victim and Amber is her daughter. We’re spending the afternoon giving the hounds a little shakedown exercise before we take them down to Woodland Park on Friday to meet up with Mindy Lee’s mother, Vicki White, and Bobby Brown, the bail bondsman and retired homicide detective made semi-famous on the reality show “Dog the Bounty Hunter”.
I’m a little carsick, and I have a strong stomach. R.C. slathers my left ear with drool. The hounds belong, really, in the bed of a pickup truck with a dog box or a camper shell. Something you can hose down at the car wash once a week. But then Duff is a bit of a dog himself, and he fairly bathes in the smell of bloodhound and bloodhound fart and the bad perfume of chemical air fresheners covered in dust and dog hair. R.C. and Mindy Amber hate motorcycles, and when they thunder up behind us, Mindy Amber barks sharply and pisses the cargo area like a little circus elephant. These are not pets.
“Shepherds might be fine dogs, but they aren’t tracking dogs—they’re guard dogs,” says Duff. “It’s what law enforcement used before they had tasers. They let loose a couple German Shepherds.” The tenor of his voice changes when he mentions Shepherds. “You can put lipstick on a pig, but that don’t make it kissable.”
This morning, Duff schooled me on cadavers and gave a thorough show-and-tell lesson of his homemade training tools. I was surprised. For a dead human scent, I was expecting a variation on road-killed deer. “Human is human,” he says. “Animal is animal.” Instead, cadavers emit death esters, a disorientingly sweet smell. But to me it’s less passion fruit and more like fish sauce mixed with Lucky You perfume.
We go through a show-and-tell of sniffing and touching and guessing. He unwraps a two-foot-tall skeleton of a child. This can’t be real, though I don’t know that it isn’t—it sure appears real. It’s been packed in some sort of goo. Duff smiles. “It’s a Halloween decoration.” The dogs don’t necessarily need the visual authenticity, but hey, why not. Some of Duff’s samples are forty years old—he made them when he moved to Colorado in the early eighties, soon after his brother was found dead.
He gives a trickster’s grin. “When I die the police are gonna be taking a look here.” Besides the pig blood, there’s the human hair and nail clippings. He shows me a chunk of human femur bone that a friend at a medical research lab gave him. Duff gets his pig blood—the closest thing to human blood makeup—at the Asian grocery store down the street. Hair is easy to come by at the local Great Clips, and fingernails are free at the manicure joint on the corner. He uses tampons, too. Where do you get those? I ask. “Just people I know,” he says. “They know what I use ’em for.” He shows me a Vicks VapoRub jar with cadaver jelly in it. One tool he shows me is white PVC plumbing pipe sealed with a cap. The pipe has turned red from the cadaver sauce leaching to the outside. “Nothing is airtight,” says Duff.
“They’re not gonna find a piece of bone,” he says. “They’re gonna find the environment.” By “environment” he means whatever material the body has begun to decompose into: soil, carpet, plywood, cement, a vinyl purse socked full of plaster of paris–infused faux-cadaver. He also has a generic-seeming flashlight that he can plant inconspicuously inside a building—it’s full of Duff’s cadaver sauce, too.
I get a little queasy from smelling cadaver. Duff is just getting warmed up. “Here, smell this one,” he says, holding up another something untoward. It’s clear he can go on all day, and it occurs to me just how sheltered I’d been that I’d never smelled a dead human before. And then to find out dead human smells like passion fruit, or at least a urinal cake. I think about the lime the townspeople spread around Miss Emily’s house in Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” and now I’m thinking, why bother.
It’s not like Duff would be out golfing or fly-fishing if I hadn’t come to town. His reality is human tissue, whether it’s in surgery or in the field. It’s what he’s done since 1978 when he went searching for his brother David in the San Gabriel Mountains near Azusa, California. Duff is one of nine brothers and three sisters. When David went missing Duff took the family dog—a Heinz 57 mix—and hiked the mountains searching for his brother, with no results. Some kids stumbled upon David’s body six weeks after he’d disappeared. “He was covered in maggots,” Duff says. “The coroner put him in a canoe. I don’t know why, but the coroner wouldn’t even allow him in the mortuary.” Duff doesn’t wince, but I do. “He was moving—the maggots. The only thing not eaten away was a bone graft on his ring finger.” A year later Duff got the right tool for the job, his first bloodhound, Suzie Q. “It takes a hound,” he says.
Excerpted from The Cold Vanish with permission from the author and Grand Central Publishing.
Jon Billman is a contributor to Mountain. The Cold Vanish is available at fine booksellers now.