ELLSWORTH, Maine — It’s a rocky transition for Sgt. Shawn Willey, the Ellsworth Police Department’s canine handler.
After seven years of active duty, Willey’s partner, Vegas — the department’s award-winning 9-year-old German shepherd — has retired. Now, instead of sniffing out crooks and drugs, the German shepherd will while away his days at Willey’s home in Ellsworth.
Vegas’ retirement comes on the heels of persistent back trouble, the result of wear and tear on a hardworking dog, Willey said. But the sergeant said Vegas is still sharp and would return to duty at a moment’s notice if he could.
“He was with me any time I was working,” Willey said Monday.“It’s tough seeing him at home when he wants to work.”
Vegas was born in Hungary and imported to the United States by Castle’s K9, a law enforcement dog training company in Pennsylvania. In 2005, Willey moved there for a month to work with and train Vegas. The two have been partners ever since.
Since coming to Ellsworth, Vegas responded to 488 calls, including 117 criminal trackings, 13 missing people, 23 building searches and 284 drug searches. In 2007, Vegas was recognized by the U.S. Police Canine Association for sniffing out 24.9 grams of heroin and 2 ounces of marijuana in a secret compartment of a 1997 Nissan Maxima. The drugs, as well as $770 cash and the car, were seized by police.
All told, Vegas’ work led to the seizure of $60,000 in cash as well as many vehicles and guns and large quantities of heroin, cocaine and marijuana.
Willey recalled another search at a home when police came up mostly empty-handed. On the way out, Vegas got a whiff of a golf club.
“He just started biting it and wouldn’t leave it alone,” Willey said. “So we popped the head off the club and found 60 grams of cocaine. He saved our butts on that one.”
With Vegas off the force, the department recently bought a new dog, this one a Belgian malinois rather than a German shepherd, who will be Willey’s new partner.
The department funds the K9 program with cash seized in drug busts, Willey said, and businesses such as Walmart and Crystal Clear Family Pet Store contribute dog food and other everyday supplies.
Breaking in a new K9 is a process, Willey said. Especially when he’s already used to Vegas’ personality and abilities.
“No two dogs are the same,” he said. “We’ll be getting acquainted and figuring out all the quirks.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.