Dec. 09--ST. STEPHEN -- The two newest members of the Stearns County Sheriff's Office had clear instructions when they boarded a plane last month bound for their new jobs in Minnesota.
Take some time off.
After spending several months in training at a facility in Florida, Aspen and Olivia were supposed to spend a few weeks acclimating themselves to their new surroundings and new partners before doing real work.
But it turned out that 15-month-old Aspen and 2-year-old Olivia weren't going to get such a quiet start to their careers. The new bloodhounds in town would go to work days after their arrival in Central Minnesota when a 3-year-old Brockway Township girl disappeared while playing on the family dairy farm.
The bloodhounds and their handlers were dropped into one of the most challenging search scenarios: They had to find a girl whose scent was all over the large dairy farm where she lived, and they had to do it on a windy day with little chance for the dogs and their handlers to really get to know each other before facing their first crisis.
"When a small child goes missing, I will guarantee you that between family members and emergency personnel the power of prayer was put to the test," Sheriff John Sanner said.
So were the abilities of a couple of Florida bloodhounds and their young handlers.
Robert Theisen and Eric Schultz were among a handful of deputies who applied to be the next bloodhound handlers when the sheriff's office recently retired Cooper and Bella. Bloodhounds have a working life of 8-10 years before they lose some of their desire to track and are retired.
A deputy who volunteers to be a bloodhound handler makes a commitment so dog and deputy can remain a pair during the dog's career. Theisen and Schultz met Aspen and Olivia in early November when the deputies were at 832 K-9's Deputy Dogs training center in Florida for a week of training.
The four flew back together Nov. 9 and planned to spend a few weeks getting acquainted before training in their new environs. That was before Lyle Schefers called 911 mid-morning on Nov. 18 with every parent's nightmare .
His 3-year-old daughter had been playing on the family farm and suddenly was nowhere to be found. Lyle and his wife, Becky, and some friends had looked everywhere for little Elizabeth, a spunky blond girl who had just celebrated her birthday two days earlier.
The thoughts going though their heads were horrible. Did someone abduct her? Did she fall into the manure pit? Did someone run over her while she played in the chopped hay pile and not even notice she was there?
"I can't even imagine what was going through her mind while she was missing," Lyle said. "Not knowing where she was at and whether anyone was going to find her."
Duke Snodgrass was "arm-chairing and watching TV" with his wife that Sunday when he got a call from a familiar voice. It was one of those Stearns deputies who had just spent a week at his bloodhound breeding and training operation in Inverness, Fla.
They had an urgent problem and wanted to know if they could use the dogs they had just brought back to St. Cloud. Snodgrass knew the dogs were up to it, but he also knew that Theisen and Schultz were so new to being handlers and so new to these dogs that it was a bad idea to deploy the hounds.
"Them boys was coming unglued. They were told not to deploy," Snodgrass said. "But if it's a child, you have no option but to go."
It can take months or years for a handler to recognize and understand all of the signs that a dog is giving. And even though Snodgrass takes his pups through all sorts of locations to get them prepared for just about any environment, this search was going to be difficult.
Elizabeth was missing on her family's farm, which had numerous buildings where the kids had played and more than 1,000 animals. And the wind was whipping scents around.
"It had to be horribly challenging for them," Snodgrass said. "That's one of the hardest things we practice on doing. That odor was literally everywhere and those dogs have to track through and find the hottest track to go on. These dogs have been trained to do that."
And he had seen how hard Theisen and Schultz had worked when they were training in Florida.
"They studied so hard, night and day down here," Snodgrass said. "They're good studies. They're good boys. They know what they want and they have the desire."
The chopped hay that sits in a pile at one end of the barn makes for a safe and soft landing spot for the Schefers kids when they jump from the round bales stacked high in the barn.
It was the last place Becky Schefers saw her three oldest children the morning of Nov. 18, when she drove by to go mix feed for the dairy cows.
A few minutes later, she drove by again and didn't see the kids, assuming they had moved on to play in another spot on the farm.
"I just assumed they were all together," she'd say later.
Lyle was inside with their youngest; the Schefers children range in age from 1 to 4. He heard two of the three older siblings come inside and then he heard Becky's voice.
She asked Lyle a question that immediately caused him concern.
"She asked 'Is Elizabeth in the house?' And just like that, it was 'Oh my God, she is not here. She is not here. I don't know where she is,' " he said.
The three older siblings had been together in the hay barn, and Elizabeth wanted to go where Becky was mixing the feed for the cows. When Elizabeth left her siblings to find her mom, the siblings left the hay barn. When Elizabeth went back to the hay barn, they were gone.
Elizabeth climbed on top of a hay bale and fell off into a small space behind it. She crashed hard to the ground and was trapped. And although the initial search crew of family and friends had looked in that barn for her, they couldn't find her.
The Schefers and a couple of farmhands searched frantically for Elizabeth for about 30 minutes before Lyle decided it was time to call the sheriff. Hobbled by a broken ankle and confined to crutches, he wasn't able to get around the farm very well to help with the search.
He soon learned that the sheriff was sending specialized help. When Lyle learned that dogs were coming, he quickly gathered up current photos of Elizabeth and retrieved the pajamas she had been wearing earlier in the day.
Theisen and Schultz arrived with Olivia and Aspen, and the response of those dogs when the deputies gave them Elizabeth's pajamas to smell was something Lyle Schefers said he won't soon forget.
"I couldn't believe when he took that baggie and opened it up and put the dog's nose in there and then pulled the dog away, that dog took off like a shot," Lyle said. "Nearly took his arm off."
Bloodhounds smell things quite differently than humans. When a human smells a pot of chicken soup, for example, we smell the odor of the finished product. Bloodhounds can smell the chicken, the carrots, the celery, the sage and the rest of the ingredients individually, Snodgrass said.
And they are trained to single out one of those odors and focus on finding the object that smells like that unique odor.
Olivia, along with handler Theisen, was the first to track Elizabeth's scent. She ran all over the farm, following the scents that Elizabeth had left in the days before. It took an hour to clear most of the farm buildings. But the dogs told them that Elizabeth hadn't left the farm.
They did it by "cutting a perimeter." The dogs can tell if the scent leaves a defined area because there is an exit point for the scent, Snodgrass said. Once they determined she hadn't left the farm, they focused on the hay barn, where Olivia had reacted the most.
Eventually Olivia got tired and the decision was made to give her a rest and bring out Aspen. Schultz brought her to the spot where Olivia had shown the greatest reaction to Elizabeth's scent -- that hay barn where the kids had been playing.
"Once we got back there to the barn and she started going up in the hay, you couldn't stop her," Schultz said. "I actually lost her leash at one point trying to get up there with her. She jumped right up on the hay."
After putting Olivia away, Theisen came back to the hay barn to help, along with a Minnesota State Patrol trooper. They climbed up on the bales and heard a cry.
"I looked down and saw her feet and heard her crying for Mom," Theisen said. "There she was."
Theisen, father of an 18-month-old daughter, told himself that he couldn't think about his own daughter when he was looking for Elizabeth no matter how close to home it hit.
"It was kind of emotional when we found her," he said. "It was a relief knowing that she was safe."
The news that Elizabeth had been found caused Becky to sprint from the house to the barn. Lyle hobbled over and saw a sight that eased all of his fears.
"I'll never forget watching Becky sitting on top of that round bale holding Elizabeth and her leg was moving," he said. "When everyone ran, my assumption was that she was out or something bad had happened. But when I got there and Mom was holding her and her leg was moving, I knew she was alive. And after that I didn't care any more."
Snodgrass had been on the phone with deputies throughout the day and was following the search from his Florida home, wondering how his dogs were going to do in a new state, a new climate and with new handlers.
"We're so proud of them boys. What a pleasurable way to end a Sunday afternoon," he said. "It was such a joyous time."
So many of these stories don't end with happy outcomes, he said.
The Gold Cross ambulance crew had suggested Elizab
Copyright 2012 - St. Cloud Times, Minn.