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By Tom Kertscher
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MEQON, Wisc. - When police responded to an underage drinking party back on Feb. 1, an officer was greeted at the W. River Ridge Court home by an 18-year-old man who had "the strong odor of burnt marijuana emanating from his person," according to a police report.
It was clear that people there had been smoking marijuana, but officers couldn't find any weed, and none of the party-goers would say where it was.
Then, Vero the dog showed up. In minutes, the Police Department's canine found - in an unfinished part of the basement - a cardboard box that contained a smaller box. Inside were two bags of marijuana and a marijuana pipe.
It wasn't Lassie saving a kid's life, but because of a 3-year-old German shepherd, some drugs were taken off the street.
"He's just incredible," said Police Chief Steve Graff. "He's got a great nose."
Vero, the department's first canine, became a sworn officer in May 2007. His primary job is sniffing out drugs - he's found drugs or drug paraphernalia seven out of seven times on searches of Homestead High School - but he has also captured fleeing suspects and served as a deterrent to people who might think of running or perhaps even getting physical with an officer.
Vero's handler, 10-year Mequon officer John Hoell, recalled the time that he and Vero backed up another officer on a traffic stop. The four people in the car didn't realize that Hoell and Vero had approached from behind.
Suddenly, one of the back-seat doors opened and one of the passengers started to get out - until he noticed Vero. "That guy slides back in the car, closes the door and up go his hands," Hoell said.
Despite the successes, the program's funding remains unsettled.
The canine program was created as the result of efforts led by Mequon resident Dave Delahunt. Delahunt said he began looking into creating a program for Mequon after he went through the city's citizen police academy and saw a canine demonstration by the Police Department in Germantown, whose chief happens to be Peter Hoell, John's older brother.
Graff said Delahunt and three other people signed for a $40,000 line of credit from a local bank and promised the Common Council that all the funds necessary to start and operate the canine program would be covered by private donations.
The council gave the go-ahead to create the program and various fund-raisers have been held, raising a total of $75,000. But Graff said $14,000 is still owed on the line of credit. In addition, according to Delahunt, the program needs about $6,000 to $10,000 per year for operating costs and another $10,000 per year to set aside for eventually replacing the Chevrolet Tahoe that John Hoell uses as well as other equipment.
The equipment includes a window fan in the SUV that automatically goes on for Vero when the temperature reaches a certain point and a button on Hoell's belt that remotely opens the door in case Hoell is in trouble and needs Vero immediately.
"We find ourselves victims of our own success, to a degree," Delahunt said of the fund-raising. Residents see the specially equipped canine vehicle or hear about Vero's exploits and assume that the program is fully funded, he said.
Delahunt said several civic groups have made donations and that he and others are trying to develop more plans for raising money.
Graff recalled how Vero found a disorderly conduct suspect hiding in a building and a domestic violence suspect hiding in a field. In both instances, he said, officers searching on their own would not have found the men, he said.
Graff also recalled how Vero helped the Ozaukee County drug unit find 3 pounds of marijuana. The unit had found one pound after searching a home, but later got a tip that there was more in the home. It wasn't found until Vero participated in the second search that the additional drugs were found behind a wall behind a refrigerator.
"The main thing we're trying to do (with Vero) is keep the drugs out of the community," Graff said.
Hoell said he knows that without Vero, Mequon officers would not find drugs in certain cases. He cited a traffic stop in which Vero kept pointing to the ashtray area of the car. Hoell pulled out the ashtray and found hidden behind it 19 rocks of crack cocaine.
"If I would have hand-searched that car, I would have never found it," he said.

Within the next several weeks, Cedarburg Police Chief Tom Frank says he plans to return to the Cedarburg Common Council to seek permission to create a canine program that, like Mequon's, would be fully funded by private donations, which now total more than $75,000.
Aldermen have raised questions about such a unit in the past, but Frank says that once details are worked out with the police officers' union on how the program would work, he hopes the council would OK the idea.

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