SCITUATE, R.I. (WPRI) — When Birdie identifies the odor, she sits down, signaling to her handler that she’s found what they’re looking for.
The R.I. state police’s new K-9 is able to zero in on hard drives, cell phones and other electronic storage devices, helping detectives solve crimes involving child pornography.
Birdie, a 1-and-a-half-year-old yellow lab, has been trained to smell trace amounts of a chemical compound called TPPO — triphenylphosphine oxide — which is found on all electronic devices that store memory. When detectives on the state police Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force obtain a search warrant for the home of a suspected child predator, Birdie enters and searches for devices police may have missed.
“She’s a regular dog until it’s time to go to work, and then she knows what her mission is,” said Detective Brent Wilks, Birdie’s handler. “We can find things as small as a micro SD card that’s the size of your thumbnail.”
Birdie joined the state police on Sept. 1, and is currently the only K-9 in the state with this skillset. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of work for her to do: Wilks told Target 12 the task force receives more than 1,200 tips about child exploitation each year.
“We execute on numerous search warrants, between two and three every week,” Wilks said.
A Target 12 review of local child pornography cases from U.S. District Court in Rhode Island showed 38 defendants have been convicted in federal cases since 2019.
U.S. Sentencing Commission data showed Rhode Island has a higher rate of child pornography cases than in most other states.
“I certainly think it’s a testament to the aggressive and effective law enforcement response that we have here in the Ocean State,” Rhode Island U.S. attorney Zachary Cunha said when asked about the higher rate of cases in the state in an interview with Target 12 earlier this year.
He called the work the task force does “superb.”
“They’re hard cases, but they’re important cases to do,” he added.
Wilks said Birdie is already involved in several ongoing cases and the task force is benefitting from her months of training.
“The standards are pretty high—she’s allowed zero falses and only one miss when she takes her final exams for certification,” Wilks said. “She had zero misses and zero falses–she graduated 100 percent.”
Birdie lives with Wilks, who said the K-9’s training revolves around food to keep her sharp and motivated.
“Birdie never eats out of a bowl,” Wilks said. “I feed her directly out of my hand, only when we’re training, so I have to train her every day, at least twice a day.”
Police K-9s with Birdie’s unique skillset were thrust into the national spotlight in 2015, when the FBI raided the home of Subway pitchman Jared Fogle, who was eventually sentenced to 15 years in prison after pleading guilty to child pornography charges. A dog named Bear was vital that day, finding a hidden thumb drive that investigators missed in the search of his home, according to news reports.
Retired Louisville police officer Dennis Clark helped train and certify Bear, who he said was one of only a handful of dogs nationwide with this skillset in 2015.
“I’ve probably trained and sold to police departments and the military around two or 300 dogs,” Clark said. “At that time, it was just mostly drug dogs or bomb dogs for Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Now retired, Clark said he would look for a specific set of qualities before training K-9s like Bear or Birdie.
“The electronics emit very, very little odor,” he said. “It takes a dog with a really good nose.”
Clark said drug detecting dogs will sell for $5,000 to $10,000, and bomb sniffing K-9s will go for $7,000 to $10,000.
Birdie was purchased for $11,000 with asset forfeiture funds, according to the R.I. state police.
While drugs and bombs have stronger odors and tend to come in larger quantities, Clark said dogs like Birdie need to be able to find technology that is hard to spot.
“Most testing says they have to be within 12 to 14 inches of it to alert on it,” he said.