Canine noses point to forgotten, unmarked graves in Wilmington

Randy Searls walks behind his dog, Jorga, in front of the Mount Ararat AME Church in Wilmington on Friday. Jorga is one of several cadaver dogs being used to find unmarked graves on the church grounds as a highway widening project is scheduled to begin soon.
Randy Searls walks behind his dog, Jorga, in front of the Mount Ararat AME Church in Wilmington on Friday. Jorga is one of several cadaver dogs being used to find unmarked graves on the church grounds as a highway widening project is scheduled to begin soon. cliddy@newsobserver.com

From the window of her white Mazda at the edge of the oak-shaded church cemetery, a frail woman spoke what sounded like her last anguished wish in life:

“Can your dogs find my baby’s grave?”

Willie B. Evans, with a haunted look in her eye and medical equipment hooked to her belly, pleaded with the handlers of some of the nation’s top cadaver dogs.

These canines and their volunteer owners sometimes lead police to the victims of natural disasters and recent homicides. They help archaeologists pinpoint wartime cemeteries and Indian burial mounds that have been hidden for centuries.

They had come to Wilmington from Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee to help search for unmarked graves that must be exhumed from the sandy soil for reburial before the state can widen Market Street where it passes in front of the Mount Ararat AME Church cemetery.

Ground-penetrating radar was used a few weeks ago for the official search. The dogs came later in an unofficial capacity, just for the chance to test their noses. The ultimate validation for both examinations will come later, when careful digging by a local funeral home reveals what or who is actually buried where.

Evans was a teen mom when her son Robert Junior, just 11 days old, died in 1955. A metal marker was supposed to identify the baby’s grave until his family could buy a permanent headstone. But when Evans recovered from a long illness, she learned that her baby’s marker had disappeared.

Dog handler Suzi Goodhope, a former nurse practitioner and hospital administrator from Tallahassee, Fla., told Evans she would find Robert Junior if she could.

“If I can give her back her baby,” Goodhope said later, “I would do back flips.”

Each has a style

So Goodhope brought out her 6-year-old Belgian Malinois, Shiraz, a sweet-tempered dog renowned for her prowess. Once, in a Mississippi training exercise, Shiraz hopped onto a rooftop where a cadaver had been stashed. In thick Florida woods she led scientists to a human toe bone, buried 3 feet deep, that later would be radiocarbon-dated to the year 670 A.D.

Evans had pointed to a corner of the Mount Ararat cemetery that had headstones for her husband, her daughter and other members of their family. Goodhope spoke cheerfully to Shiraz and vigorously ruffled her fur. She set the dog to work with a command that invokes a famously unfound cadaver:

“Ready? Hoffa!”

These dogs have their own styles.

Dixee, a 7-year-old German shepherd-Malinois mix who came here from southern Louisiana, lopes and bounds across the terrain with her tail high, nose down and mouth wide open.

If she finds a cluster of hidden graves, Dixee might run the perimeter before stopping to sit on her haunches on a particularly potent spot. Then she makes eye contact with her handler, Lisa Higgins, and demands her reward: a few minutes’ play with a green squeeze ball that squeals in her jaws.

Higgins organized Louisiana’s first search-and-rescue dogs team in the 1980s. She recognized that dogs could be useful in finding cadavers in 1991, when one of her canines deftly located a child who had been swept away in a flood, buried under 4 feet of water and 3 feet of sand. Nowadays, Higgins commands respect from law enforcement leaders who didn’t know her when she started out as a horse-mounted police reservist.

Shiraz cut a more delicate figure than Dixee, high-stepping through the cemetery as she sought the scent of the long-lost dead. The dog walked right past some of the biggest, shiniest headstones. (Perhaps, Goodhope theorized, no detectable odors had yet escaped the recently sealed caskets of well-embalmed corpses.)

But Shiraz sat herself down, twice, beside a pair of Evans stones dated 1917 and 1970. Goodhope gave her a “thanks but no thanks” shrug, and the dog kept moving.

Then Shiraz circled a clear spot near a live oak and a long-leaf pine, and sat again to announce another find. This was just about where Willie Evans thought her son’s little coffin might lie.

Later in the afternoon, the search was repeated by dogs with two other handlers who, unlike Goodhope, had not been told where to look.

Ziva, a 5-year-old black Lab from Memphis, Tenn., plopped down on the same spot and barked. Jorga, a precocious 18-month-old Dutch shepherd from Wilmington – also skilled in tracking bad guys and finding crime-scene evidence – gave the most forceful endorsement. She raked her paw across the spot and looked up eagerly at her proud handler, Randy Searls.

“That’s a strong indication,” Searls said. “She sits when she finds odor. And when she scratches, it’s like, ‘Right here, Daddy!’ ”

‘A marvelous game’ for the dog

Cadaver dogs are trained on human teeth, bits of bone or placenta. When they receive their special search commands, they’re supposed to forget about living people, dead animals and other distractions. They want to find the faint but mysteriously distinctive trace of human death, because they want to be rewarded for it.

The discovery of a corpse can be sad news for an exhausted search team and a heartbroken family, but not for these dogs.

“For them, the smell of human death is completely removed from the feelings that we impose on it,” said Cat Warren, an N.C. State University professor who wrote about cadaver dogs in her 2013 book “ What the Dog Knows.” “For a properly trained cadaver dog, it’s really a marvelous game.”

Warren began training the first of two German shepherds 10 years ago. She wrote about the work of Goodhope, Higgins and Ziva’s handler, Paul Martin, and helped arrange their trip to Wilmington.

When Mount Ararat AME Church was built in 1887, it was part of a rural African-American community outside Wilmington. Surveyors recently counted about 90 gravestones in the cemetery, but most of them are cracked, eroded and illegible.

“These graves are our family,” said Carrie L. Nixon, 87, who has a view of the cemetery from her house next door. Her parents are buried here.

There are a few graves here from the past decade, including a 2014 death memorialized in red granite.

And then there are the neglected, side-by-side graves of a husband and wife, both born in 1936, who died separately in October and November 2013. Apparently they left no one behind to clean away the trash and rake the sand that is heaped on their graves. No one has erected stones to replace the plastic placards that bear their fading names and photographs.

There’s no way to know how many graves have vanished altogether here because they were never marked with stones.

“There are a lot of reasons why this happens,” said Renee Gledhill-Earley of the State Historic Preservation Office. “The most prevalent one is that at the time of death, the family simply could not afford to put up a marker.”

Complementary tools

Radar indicated 25 possible graves beneath the planned construction zone on Market Street – some of them just a few feet from traffic on what now is a busy, five-lane thoroughfare.

The dogs sat out a couple of days of oppressive heat that, their handlers said, had dried up any delicate odors that might be wafting from the ground. The roar of passing cars and trucks made a couple of the dogs uneasy as they searched along the road shoulder, and the traffic itself buffeted the nearby air and scattered the scents.

But they enjoyed ideal conditions on a cool, quiet Sunday morning. The dogs agreed on 16 possible grave sites in the roadside construction zone. Gledhill-Earley and the dog handlers predicted that the dogs’ findings will include both hits and misses – and the ground-penetrating radar results will, too.

“The dogs aren’t magic, but GPR isn’t magic, either,” Warren said.

Martin, an anthropology graduate student at the University of Mississippi, says previous comparison studies have shown that dogs and radar complement each other in searches for unmarked graves.

“When we partner the two together, you can increase the potential of recognizing that as a human burial, and not just a trash pit or a dog that’s been buried out there,” Martin said.

Baby Robert Junior’s little coffin did not show up on the initial radar report. But Gledhill-Earley called Willie Evans to tell her that three cadaver dogs identified that spot as a grave site.

“It was the best day of my life,” said Evans, 73. “I’ve been looking for him. I went out there and put a flower on it. I want to get a headstone as soon as possible.

“I called all five of my living children and said, ‘I found your brother.’ ”