Prison inmate raises ATF arson dog now investigating Utah fires

ST. GEORGE — From growing up behind prison bars to becoming an ATF agent serving the State of Utah, a special member of the Office of the State Fire Marshal team – who celebrated his fourth birthday this week – has come a long way in his short life.

Utah Deputy Fire Marshal Troy Mills, handler, with ATF K-9 Agent Oscar, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 14, 2017 | Photo from video courtesy of Utah DPS, St. George News

Before coming to Utah, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives K-9 Agent Oscar began his training with the “Puppies Behind Bars” organization where Oscar was raised by a federal prison inmate in Ohio.

Puppies enter the program at the prison when they are just 8 weeks old and live with their inmate puppy-raisers for approximately 12-24 months. Inmates involved in the program groom the puppies for a life of service.

“Their program is specifically designed to raise the dogs with the intent that they’ll become service dogs of some type,” Oscar’s

said. “So, once he was raised, ATF came in and evaluated him and determined that he would be a good candidate for their program.”

Oscar then went on to complete an intense 12-week training program at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives National Canine Center in Front Royal, Virginia, to become an accelerant detection dog.

“ATF figures that they’ve invested about $50,000 into the dog by the time they send them home with us,” Mills said, noting that Oscar is one of 53 ATF accelerant detection dogs in the country.

ATF K-9 Agent Oscar celebrates his fourth birthday, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 14, 2017 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Department of Public Safety, St. George News

“He’s incredible in a fire scene,” Mills said. “He can pinpoint the location of accelerants – if somebody uses gasoline or diesel fuel, kerosene, charcoal fluid, anything like that to ignite a fire, he can pinpoint the location of where they poured it.”

Mills and Oscar investigate approximately 30-40 Utah fires per year together to determine a fire’s cause and origin, Mills said.

Oscar is trained to recognize several products that have been divided within six different categories of accelerant. When Oscar recognizes an odor, he alerts his handler by pointing to it with his nose and then sitting.

ATF K-9 Agent Oscar celebrates his fourth birthday, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 14, 2017 | Photo courtesy of the Utah Department of Public Safety, St. George News

“Basically, he’s my partner. We go everywhere together,” Mills said. “… My office is in Richfield but I literally cover the entire state. Because there’s so few of these dogs, if they have a fire, I could be sent anywhere within the state.”

At the scene of a fire, Oscar helps to immediately determine whether there’s been an accelerant used, Mills said. Otherwise, investigators would collect samples from the scene, send them off to a crime lab and wait several months for the results.

“One thing that’s incredible to me is how good his nose is,” Mills said of Oscar. “Studies have proven that these dogs can detect odors in the neighborhood of 500 parts per trillion. So, he is very, very good at detecting the odor.”

Mills said he can take a golf tee, put a drop of gasoline on it and hide it in the lawn, and Oscar will find it.

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Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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