Law enforcement uses K9 scent kits to make sure missing loved ones return home safely

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mandy Conner’s 13-year-old daughter Kaitlyn, or “KK” as her family affectionately calls her, is autistic.

She uses an iPad to communicate because she’s nonverbal, and like many children who are autistic, she is drawn to water.

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“She loves water. So, she’s constantly wanting to go swim in the pool, play in the water hose, watch videos about water,” Conner said.

It’s not very often that KK wanders off, but when she does, the family is gripped with fear and panic.

“There have been instances where I’m like, ‘KK, where’d you go?’ And my heart just drops a little bit. But I’ve been very fortunate that she’ll respond to her name and she comes back immediately,” Conner said.

Other local families haven’t been so fortunate.

Back in May Action News Jax told you about the death of 4-year-old Gavin, who was found in a retention pond on Jacksonville’s Northside.

A month before that, it was a 5-year-old Muhammad, who was discovered on the Southside.

Both children were missing for hours. One tool could prevent tragedies like these.

“When I get those phone calls on Friday and Saturday night at 10:00 p.m., the officers are still breathing hard, ‘Hey, we just found someone!’ It’s priceless,” Paul Coley, CEO of Scent Evidence K9, said.

Scent Evidence K9 creates kits where samples are collected from people who are likely to wander off.

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“It’s a 5-by-9 (inch) sterile gauze pad, a very special jar that’s lab-tested, an evidence grade jar with a special lid on it. You just wipe that underneath the arm 10 times or a glandular area, place that in the jar, seal it up, fill out the information,” Coley said.

Right now, the kits are used by 15 Florida law enforcement agencies including St. Johns, Baker, Putnam, and most recently, Nassau County.

“It’s just an amazing feeling that you brought somebody’s loved one back to them, so it’s pretty nice. It’s a good feeling,” Beth Smith, a Nassau County Sheriff’s Office deputy with the K9 unit, said.

Smith knows how difficult it can be to find missing people.

Even with her bloodhound, Rouge, it still took days to find a missing man back in April.

“I got called out on Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. and at that time, he had been missing for about over 30 hours,” Smith said.

The man was off his medication. He was found dehydrated and disoriented, but otherwise alive.

Smith said the K9 scent kits could have cut that time down. “We would probably have found him earlier instead of three days later.”

Another big advantage of the kits is removing the possibility of contamination.

“Our human scent interacts with other human scent, so anything in a home is going to be contaminated with multiple scents on it. And then if you bring in a first responder, then they could potentially contaminate it or other family members who are going to assist with the search. So having that one scent for that dog to be presented greatly improves the effectiveness and efficiency of the dog,” Coley said.

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The Nassau County Sheriff’s Office has 500 scent kits on hand, and each scent kit can hold a person’s scent for up to 10 years.

The faster reaction time for K9s means peace of mind for parents like Mandy Conner.

“I know that it’s a big fear, it’s always going to weigh on our hearts and we want to keep our kids safe. Hopefully we never have to use this,” Conner said.

Within the last two years, the scent kits have helped find at least 94 people in Florida.

St. Johns County has already found 15 people within the last year using the scent kits.

Visit scentevidencek9.com for more information.